Olivia Rawes tells us why the city of Battambang, Cambodia, should be an essential stop on any southeast Asian itinerary.

Battambang is often overlooked. It lacks the obvious Cambodian trump cards: no golden beaches, no capital city buzz, no Angkor Wat. But then neither does it suffer from congested traffic, coach loads of tourists, or hordes of touts. In fact, Cambodia's second largest city is one in perfect balance – it’s bustling yet friendly and interesting without being overwhelming. Underneath its sleepy persona is a bubbling undercurrent of creativity, often fuelled by the expat community. A smattering of arty boutique hotels, quirky cafés and innovative restaurants are among the urban draws, while the lush surrounding countryside is ideal for excursions. Here, we’ve whittled down the top 7 reasons to visit.

For the restaurants

Some of Cambodia's best natural produce coupled with an expat-driven demand for good restaurants make Battambang an exciting place to eat out. The vibe is low key – cheap food stalls, laidback local haunts, arty cafés tucked down quiet sidestreets – with a focus on Khmer, French and Western cuisines.

For classic French favourites, as well as creative dishes blending Khmer and French influences (think sautéed frog with Khmer pesto), try Pomme d'Amor or pop into Lotus, a chic restaurant-bar set in a renovated exposed-brick-walled shophouse. The real buzz, however, is about Jaan Bai. One of Battambang's newest ventures, this innovative restaurant skilfully combines Khmer, Vietnamese and Thai influences in tapas-sized dishes. The seven-course set menu is a steal at $15 per person, and includes dishes such as Kampot pepper crab with chilli jam and a zingy papaya and shrimp salad. The restaurant, which has received the support of Australian chef David Thompson, also doubles up as a social enterprise, training underprivileged young people and giving its profits to the Cambodian Children's Trust.

For free-wheeling

The countryside around Battambang lends itself perfectly to exploration by bicycle. Bumpy roads lead past simple shacks, monasteries that echo with the sounds of chanting and village streets taken over with colourful wedding celebrations. At times the dusty, ochre tracks are only wide enough for a single bike – tricky when you occasionally have to squeeze between a herd of cattle. At other moments paths open out into an expanse of vivid-green rice paddies threaded with lazy streams.

Take one of Soksabike’s half- or full-day tours and your journey will be also punctuated with trips to local families to learn about cottage industries – from rice wine production to weaving ­– giving a well-earned break from the saddle and a valuable insight into local Khmer life.

Biking localby Olivia Rawes

For lazy days on the water

Water is at the heart of Cambodian life. The vast Tonle Sap lake dominates the country's core, the coastline is caressed by limpid waters and the mighty Mekong river – one of the great rivers of the world – slices through the east. Getting out on the water is a great way to get an insight into the country, and the quiet stretch of the Stung Sangkae River that cuts through Battambang is perfect for exploring by kayak.

Green Orange Kayak, a local NGO that provides free English classes to locals, rents kayaks for half-day trips from Ksach Poy. From this small village just outside Battambang, you can paddle along the Stung Sangke River and back into the city. For much of the way expect to be alone on the river to enjoy the scenery: this meandering stretch of calm water is flanked by steep banks where locals plough the land, sleepy fishing villages and waving children splashing in the shallows.

For a reminder of Cambodia’s past

A hulking mountain with a horrifying past, Phnom Sampeu is a harrowing yet important day-trip from Battambang. At its top are a number of temples and caves with tragic links to the Khmer Rouge; many of the buildings here were used as prisons and interrogation centres, while not far away lie the infamous killing caves. It is believed that as many as ten thousand people were thrown to their deaths here. One cave has been turned into a simple temple, where the bones of some of the victims are kept in a metal cage under the watchful eye of a Buddha statue. Try to visit with Mr Ol (ask at Bambu Hotel), a local tuk tuk driver, who can take you to the mountain via a series of scenic backroads and small villages.

View from Phnom Sampeu, CambodiaView from Phnom Sampeu by Olivia Rawes

For Khmer cookery

If you're keen to try your hand at making authentic Khmer dishes there's no better place than Battambang. Local restaurant Smokin’ Pot ran Cambodia's first cookery course – and fourteen years on it’s still going strong. Owner and chef Vannak runs popular three hour classes every morning, kicking off with a trip to the local market and finishing with a hard-earned lunch. Under Vannak's patient and thorough instruction you'll learn how to make dishes like bamboo-leaf-infused fish amok (Cambodia's national dish, a delicately spiced curry with hints of coconut and lemongrass) and chicken loc lac (another national favourite of stir-fried marinated meat accompanied by a peppery sauce).

For a ride on the bamboo train

The lack of scheduled train services in Cambodia has given rise to the norry, a quirky railway that runs along a short section of track just outside Battambang. People, rice and livestock are shuttled back and forth upon squat wooden platforms, which are placed on top of a wheeled metal carriage powered by a small engine. Neither of the train’s destinations, O Dambong and O Sra Lav, are of much interest to visitors and you are likely to get a pestered by touts, but the experience of riding the bamboo train is worth it.

During the thirty minute journey the train at times reaches 40km/hr, crashing through jungle undergrowth, rattling over little bridges and whizzing past rice paddies. Meeting another train on the track travelling in the opposite direction is an event in itself: the train with the fewest passengers has to be dismantled and cleared to the side to allow the other train to pass – an impressively swift operation.

Bamboo Train, CambodiaThe Bamboo Train by Olivia Rawes

For stylish sleeping

Battambang has a scattering of fantastic yet affordable boutique hotels. And more seem to be popping up all the time. Undoubtedly one of the best places to stay is Bambu Hotel, a perfectly-formed boutique resort, set a few blocks back from the waterfront. Spacious rooms in pretty garden villas boast dark wood furniture offset against whitewashed walls, spa-like marble bathrooms and high ceilings (some stretching up to arched roofs with stylishly exposed tiles). If you tear yourself away from the comfort of your room, there's also an infinity pool, chic outdoor lounge area and bar, where the popular nightly happy hour attracts a fascinating mix of hotel guests, travellers and local expats. When you feel like going further afield, check out Bambu owner Pat’s notes in each room, a wealth of insider tips on the city and surrounding area. Watch out, you may not want to leave.

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