Cambodia’s second largest city, laidback BATTAMBANG seems to have the best of various worlds: big enough to have all the energy and bustle you’d expect of a city of around 200,000 people, but still small enough to feel like a proper slice of Cambodia, and lacking both the hyperactive traffic and crowds of Phnom Penh and the tourist crowds and wall-to-wall touts of Siem Reap. Headline attractions may be slightly lacking, but there’s still plenty to fill a few days in and around town, plus an increasingly large selection of restaurants and bars fuelled by the growing number of expats who now call the city home.
The main draw in Battambang (the last syllable is usually pronounced bong rather than bang) is the city’s time-warped collection of colonial architecture, with some interesting day-trips around town – including fun countryside rides on the quirky bamboo railway.
The history of Battambang, which was founded in the eleventh century, is quite separate from the rest of Cambodia – for much of its existence the town fell under Thai rather than Khmer jurisdiction. In 1795, a Cambodian named Baen became lord governor of Battambang province (which at the time incorporated territory as far away as Siem Reap), paying tribute to the king in Bangkok, which effectively moved Battambang from Cambodian to Thai rule. 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. The French moved in, modernizing the town and constructing the colonial shophouses you see today. Battambang fared relatively well during the Khmer Rouge years, although the Khmer Rouge launched repeated attacks throughout the province after they were driven west to Pailin, and in 1994 even briefly captured Battambang itself. Ferocious battles occurred around Wat Banan and Phnom Sampeu until the amnesty of 1996.