Cambodia's culture club: Battambang is a deliciously different mix of food and art


Cambodia

Battambang is a deliciously different mix of food and art

They’re joined by a tangle of buzzing mopeds. 

Cycling in Cambodia takes guts and good lungs but ahead I spot the calming glint of the tree-lined Sangker River. 

I’m in Battambang, a highly charming city in Cambodia’s rural north west, and typical of South East Asia its traffic defies logic. 

Not that I mind too much because my cycle guide really knows his roads and soon we are whizzing along riverside lanes – brilliant green dragonflies zigzagging the air and neatly uniformed school kids calling out a chorus of “hellos”. 

Battambang, Cambodia’s second city, sits in the heart of the country’s rice bowl and at just $25 (£18) this half-day tour through its streets and surrounding rice producing villages is already proving great value. 

I’ve mastered a smattering of Cambodian words along the way: “chum reap suor” for hello and “arkoun” for thanks – though perhaps “watch out, here I come” might prove more useful. Even so, I’ve enjoyed my first glimpses of this small city and there are interesting stops to come. 

We’re only 48 miles from Siem Reap where tourists rest up before tackling the sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat – yet Battambang could not be more different. 

Cambodia

The Wat Slaket monastery

This village has its own specialised cottage industry

Louise Roddon

You won’t find booming Irish pubs here, nor tatty souvenir markets.

Instead a cluster of gilded pagodas segue to tasteful contemporary art galleries and among well preserved French colonial townhouses, low-key bars provide excellent coffee and cocktails. 

But my proper city trawl comes later. 

Right now my student guide Palla and I have parked our bikes at Donteau village. 

Like others we visit, this village has its own specialised cottage industry and here it’s rice paper, the essential component of spring rolls. 

I watch as the Tha family spoon pools of rice meal on to a hotplate, then lay the sliver-thin circles to dry in the sun over bamboo slats. 

Their 10 hour daily labour results in more than 2,000 discs which fetch the equivalent of just 25 at Battambang’s market. 

At another village I try hollowed bamboo sticks filled with coconut-sweetened sticky rice and even a glass of potent rice wine, an “old ladies’ drink” according to Palla. 

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The Sangker River

Lucky old ladies, I think as I swiftly drain my glass. Later, at Battambang’s Kinyei Café, there’s a delicious cappuccino to enjoy.

My Soksabike bicycle tour operates from this charmingly chic little coffee shop and profits are shared with local communities. 

The coffee is first rate and Mark, a New Zealander who supplies the beans, gives me a good restaurant tip for dinner. 

Battambang clearly attracts both Australians and Kiwis. 

A handful of middle-aged expats have set up galleries and B&Bs here and the town’s thriving art scene is fast reviving its pre-Pol Pot reputation as a cultural hub.

I call in at the Lotus Café and Gallery, a beautifully renovated colonial house, where artist Chankrim’s harrowing canvases of a childhood under the Khmer Rouge are on display. 

With its rather uninspiringly named Streets 1, 2 and 3, Battambang’s centre lies on the right bank of the Sangker but I’m staying across the river, at Bambu Hotel, a lovely boutique establishment of 16 rooms designed in a blend of French colonial and rustic Khmer style. 

I have a large, pleasant balcony overlooking the pool and a bedroom where teak furnishings beautifully offset an antique tiled floor. 

Cambodia

Battambang clearly attracts a wide range of people

Opposite is the Wat Slaket monastery where I stop to chat with a young saffron-robed monk called Penthen.

“Feel free to look around,” he says, so off I go, mooching among ornate gilded pagodas dotted with Buddha statues. 

The fierce sun beats down and I’m grateful for the cover of palm trees and grateful later, too, when I walk across the bridge into Battambang’s commercial heart. Unlike Siem Reap’s potholed sidewalks, this city has decent pavements and the flower festooned balconies provide welcome shade. 

Early evening, while locals pump their abs and pecs on the riverbank’s numerous exercise machines, I take the lazy option and stop for a cocktail at Bric-a-Brac, a gift shop and B&B with a happy hour bar. 

The chatty expat owners approve wholeheartedly of my dining choice at nearby Jaan Bai. 

“The twice-cooked coconut braised beef is yummy,” they tell me, and so it proves. 

With colourful tile work complementing simple wooden tables and chairs, this airy, minimalist restaurant also doubles as a social enterprise run by the Cambodian Children’s Trust. 

It trains and employs many underprivileged young people and my sweet waitress recommends I also try some tapas of eggplant and mushroom dumplings and pork belly with five spices from a menu that was devised by the renowned Australian chef David Thompson. 

This huge meal costs me just $12 (£8). 

The next morning I head 10 minutes out of town. 

In the old days Battambang transported its rice on a single-track train made of bamboo platforms. 

Today this “bamboo train” still shifts goods from one village to another but tourists love it too. 

I park myself on a cushion on one of the frames and my cheery female driver starts up the engine.

Cambodia

You won’t find booming Irish pubs here, nor tatty souvenir markets

Off we trundle, the breeze whipping my hair as we bump over bridges, past quinine trees, searing green paddy fields and grazing buffalo. 

It’s like a cross between a ghost train and a rickety roller coaster – but instead of switchbacks and plastic skeletons I spot huge spiders vibrating on their webs in the trees above. 

Thankfully they’re too high to bother me. 

And we’re going too fast. 

Even so, this rattling ride beats battling the crazy traffic any day. 

GETTING THERE 

Bamboo Travel (020 7720 9285/bambootravel.co.uk) offers an 11-day Highlights of Cambodia tour from £2,095pp (two sharing), B&B. 

Price includes two nights in Battambang, English speaking guide and return Vietnam Airlines flights from Heathrow to Hanoi. 

Cambodia tourism: tourismcambodia.com.



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