Just 291km by road from the capital, BATTAMBANG is the only major town on National Route 5. Once a rather somnolent place – much of its allure deriving from the rows of endangered colonial-era shophouses around the centre of town and a handful of French-style villas in the leafy streets to the south – in recent years it became popular with visitors come to ride the flat-bedded bogie bamboo train. However, this will have ceased operation by the time you read this, and the effect on Battambang remains to be seen. The town itself has enough minor attractions to fill a gentle half-day, including a couple of tranquil pagodas, Wat Phephittam and Wat Dhum Rey Sor, and a museum, overlooking the meandering Sangker River, which houses a small collection of statuary from some of the province’s temples.
Out of town, Wat Banan has well-preserved Angkor Wat-style sanctuary towers built on a low hill overlooking the river, while Phnom Sampeu features hilltop pagodas and cave shrines with a fine view over the rice fields from the summit. The two sites can be combined into an enjoyable day-trip.
The history of Battambang is quite separate from the rest of Cambodia, because for much of its existence it fell under Thai, rather than Khmer jurisdiction. Founded in the eleventh century, Battambang first came under Thai influence after the fall of Angkor in the fifteenth century. Due to the town’s location on the primary route between Thailand and Cambodia’s capitals (variously Lovek, Oudong and Phnom Penh), the Thai army was perpetually passing through in order to intervene in squabbles within the Cambodian royal family.
In 1795, a Cambodian named Baen, in return for his help in returning the pro-Thai King Ang Eng to the Cambodian throne, became lord governor of Battambang province (which at the time incorporated territory as far away as Siem Reap). Baen showed his loyalty to Thailand by paying tribute to the king in Bangkok, which effectively moved Battambang from Cambodian rule into Thai dominion.
Throughout the nineteenth century the province, although nominally under Thai jurisdiction, was largely left to its own affairs under a succession of all-powerful governors from the Baen family – a self-sufficient fiefdom, isolated from both Thailand and Cambodia. The province was returned to Cambodia in 1907, at which time Battambang town was little more than a collection of wooden houses on stilts. Despite their seeming great age, the colonial buildings seen around the town only date from around 1910, when the French moved in to modernize it.
Despite having its population evacuated, Battambang fared relatively well during the Khmer Rouge years, escaping the damage which was suffered by many other towns. After the Khmer Rouge were driven west to Pailin, they launched repeated attacks throughout the province, and in 1994 even briefly captured Battambang; ferocious battles occurred around Wat Banan and Phnom Sampeu until the amnesty deal of 1996 was struck.Read More
The best preserved of the temples around Battambang, Wat Banan can be reached from Battambang by following Street 1 south out of town for 20km until you see some distinctive Angkor Wat-like towers; the temple lies immediately at the top of a steep laterite stairway which ascends a seventy-metre-high hill. Alternatively, you can get here directly from Phnom Sampeu via a narrow dirt road which passes through some delightful countryside.
It’s known that Wat Banan was consecrated as a Buddhist temple, but scholars are uncertain who built the temple or exactly when it was completed – estimates put this between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Five corn-on-the-cob towers remain, all in a somewhat collapsed state, and several of the carvings have lost their heads to vandals, though there are a few still in reasonable condition. You will likely be accompanied on the climb by young kids who hope for a tip by telling you a bit about the temple. It’s certainly worth the steep clamber up to see the detailed lintels, beheaded apsaras and views out over endless paddies, with Phnom Sampeu clearly visible to the north.
An enduring legacy of the French protectorate is the European colonial architecture which still graces Phnom Penh and many of Cambodia’s provincial towns. Particularly evocative of the period are the colonial shophouses, open-fronted shops at ground level set back under a wide colonnaded walkway created by an overhanging upper storey – often with balconies. Also characteristic of the period are the country’s colonial villas, typically adorned with shuttered windows, balconies and turrets. Some of the best examples of shophouses can be found in Battambang, clustered along the main street leading to the market and, close by, on the riverfront. There are also good examples of colonial architecture around the river and old market area in Kampot, and around the main post office in Phnom Penh. Sadly, many of these old gems – especially the shophouses – are being renovated in a style popularized in modern China: glazed tiles are fixed to the facades (to save having to paint) and old shuttered windows are being sealed with mirror glass to keep in the air conditioning. Sadly the trend seems irreversible, as very few Cambodians see any reason to preserve their colonial past.