My Battambang with Allison Jane Smith

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Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Allison Jane Smith, a writer and communications consultant. She was an editor at WhyDev, a thought leader in the international development community, and her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ONE, TakePart World, and Matador Network, among others. Like me, she has strong opinions about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

And now, over to Allison…

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Battambang is a provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia with more laid-back charm than Cambodia’s flashier cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Settle in for a relaxed visit with great food, incredible local art, and delightful surprises in the Cambodian countryside. I enjoyed my first visit to Battambang so much it turned into living there for a year, and I know many others who have similarly found their stays in Battambang lasted much longer than originally intended!

Must eats?

Chinese Noodle (Street 2) is a perennial favorite for its hand-pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. Its popularity means it can be slow at busy times, but the food is worth the wait.

Jaan Bai (corner of Street 2 and Street 1.5) offers sophisticated small plates inspired by the best of southeast Asian cuisine, from pad Thai to eggplant and shiitake dumplings. A particular highlight is the crab served with Kampot pepper, a Cambodian speciality, and the selection of cocktails and fresh juices mean you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect beverage to complement your meal.

Soline of Choco l’Art (Street 117) serves Battambang’s most decadent desserts. Her chocolate mousse, cheesecake and pastries will satisfy any sweet tooth, and the art hanging on the walls, much of it created by Choco l’Art co-owner and local artist Ke Prak, will please anyone interested in Cambodian art.

For coffee, there’s no better place to go than Kinyei (Street 1.5), whose baristas have won multiple barista championships in Cambodia. Order a street latte for a Cambodian take on a classic latte, or try an iced Cambodian coffee for a truly Cambodian experience. If it’s not too busy, strike up a conversation with the staff; while shy at first, they like the opportunity to practice their English.

Must dos?

Battambang is home of Phare Ponleu Selpak (National Highway 5), a circus troupe that travels internationally. Take the opportunity to see the circus in Battambang, in an intimate atmosphere unlike any other. Phare’s shows feature local artists, musicians and acrobats for a unique artistic experience people of all ages will enjoy.

Don’t miss the bamboo train, a seven-kilometre trip through the countryside on a wooden frame lined with slats of bamboo. When I go with friends, we time our trip for sunset and ask our conductor to stop at the bridge about halfway through the ride, for beautiful views of the sun setting over rice paddies.

Twelve kilometers southwest of the city on National Highway 57 is Phnom Sampov, which has a whole lot to explore – bring comfortable shoes! There’s a complex of temples, a deep cave, and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov, now a memorial for the people clubbed to death by the Khmer Rouge. Visit at dusk, when millions of bats pour out of the north side of the cliff, an impressive show that turns the sky black and lasts for a good half hour.

Soksabike offers half- and full-day cycling tours of the countryside, with stops along the way at family-run businesses to learn how they make rice paper, rice wine, and bamboo sticky rice. Stock up on the dried bananas offered on the tour, as they are sold in Thailand rather than at local markets. Book tours at Kinyei (Street 1.5).

Must shops?

Battambang is too small to have much shopping, but the few shops it has are unlike any others you’ll come across in Cambodia.

Bric-a-Brac (119 Street 2) is a one-of-a-kind boutique, serving as a workshop, showroom and gift shop for design textiles, antiques, and souvenirs. Ask shop co-owner Morrison for your turn on the handmade loom, to see what it’s like to weave on a loom that has created tassels and braids for royalty and heads of state.

The Lost Stick (76 Street 2.5) describes itself as an “emporium of strange items and underground comics” and is full of old photographs, novelty toys, and other kitsch. Always worth a browse.

Must art?

Battambang has a long and proud tradition of artistic excellence in Cambodia, and even today most of the country’s best artists come from Battambang. There’s no better place to learn about Cambodian art and meet Cambodian artists.

Across from The Lost Stick is Lotus Bar and Gallery (53 Street 2.5) in a beautifully renovated shophouse. On street-level is a bar, while upstairs is a gallery which specializes in showing the best of local arts. Lotus also hosts film screenings, live music and poetry events, so it’s worth asking at the bar what’s planned for while you’re visiting.

Sammaki (87 Street 2.5) is an artist-run community space offering workshops, exhibitions and other arts-related events.

Must go?

Except for the bamboo train, Phnom Sampov and the circus, everything is located in the city center and is easily walkable. Take a tuk tuk to get to everything farther away.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Allison Jane Smith; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)