Strike north from Phnom Penh along NR5, west of the Tonle Sap, and you’ll be following the route along which the Khmer Rouge retreated from Phnom Penh in 1979, ahead of the liberating Vietnamese forces. This is also the route that the invading Thai armies used in the opposite direction, as they repeatedly headed south to sack and pillage. Much of the northwest still shows clear Thai influence – not surprising, given that the area has been under Thai control for much of its modern history, and was only finally returned to Cambodia in 1946. These days the road is a busy corridor linking the capital to the Thai border and a trade route along which rice is transported from the sparsely populated but fertile plains to the more populous south.
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The first two towns of any size along NR5 out of Phnom Penh are Kompong Chhnang and Pursat. A busy river fishing port, Kompong Chhnang takes its name from the terracotta pots (chhnang) that are produced throughout the district, while the major cottage industry in workaday Pursat is marble carving. Both towns are interesting mainly for the chance to visit the remarkable floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake.
North of Pursat is laidback Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, with a lazy riverside ambience and some of the country’s finest colonial architecture. The surrounding province once had more temples than Siem Reap, although none was on the scale of Angkor Wat and most have long disappeared. The couple that remain are worth a visit, however, especially the hilltop site of Wat Banan, while the nearby mountain and temple complex of Phnom Sampeu offers a fascinating, if chilling, reminder of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
In the far northwest, the unprepossessing border town of Poipet is the busiest crossing point into Thailand on the direct route between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Bangkok – and with an unfortunate but well-deserved reputation for scams and skullduggery. Most travellers arriving from Thailand plough straight on from here to Siem Reap, although it’s well worth breaking your journey en route at the crossroads town of Sisophon (Banteay Meanchey) to explore the massive, jungle-smothered Angkorian temple of Banteay Chhmar.
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.
While you’re in Battambang you may see two distinctive statues relating to a bizarre legend surrounding the town’s name, which literally translates as “lost stick”. According to the tale, a man named Dambang Krognuing turned black after eating rice stirred with a black stick; he then deposed the king and assumed the throne. The erstwhile king’s son subsequently defeated Dambang Krognuing with the aid of a magical flying horse, despite a vain attempt by the interloper to hurl his black stick at the prince’s steed. A massive statue of Dambang Krognuing decorates the traffic circle on the way out of town towards the airport, while a statue of the prince on his flying horse sits at the north end of Street 3.
The bamboo railway
While there are currently no scheduled train services in Cambodia – for the time being at least – enterprising locals in Battambang have made good the deficiency with the ingenious bamboo railway (norry), running along a stretch of otherwise disused track just outside town and used to transport people, livestock and goods, as well as increasing numbers of tourists. The planned resumption of regular train services along the line has thrown the future of the bamboo railway into doubt, although it continues to flourish in the meantime – and indeed it’s possible that even if regular trains ever resume, bamboo trains will continue to run during the gaps between scheduled services.
Currently, a dozen or so “trains” run up and down the line, each just a couple of metres long, consisting of a simple four-wheeled metal undercarriage with a detachable wooden platform placed on top. Trains were formerly propelled using long poles in the manner of an Oxbridge punt but are now powered by small motorbike or tractor engines, reaching speeds of around 40km/hr. If two trains meet en route, the one with the fewest passengers cedes right of way and is dismantled on the spot (the work of just a minute or two) and cleared from the line, allowing the other to pass.
The start of the line is about 7km from Battambang ($4 return by moto, $6 by tuk-tuk). The line itself runs for some 6km, with a fare of $5 per person (or $10–15 to hire an entire “train”). Trips up and down the line last around 20–30min, with trains departing as soon as sufficient passengers have climbed on board.
Subterranean Homesick Booze
Beer may still be the Cambodian tipple of choice, but Francophone Battambang is doing its best to diversify the range of alcoholic drinks on offer. Around 10km south of town, the Phnom Banon Vineyard is the country’s first winery, producing a range of reds including Shiraz and Vietnamese Black Queen varieties. The results, by common consent, leave quite a lot to be desired, although with an annual production (and, presumably, consumption) of more than six thousand bottles they must be doing something right. More palatable are the various palm wines and spirits on offer around town (try Pomme d’Amour or Madison Corner), including assorted brews produced by the Confirel group (confirel.com). These include the feisty Jaya Palm Spirit (40 percent), tasting a bit like brandy, and Kirel Palm Wines (8–11 percent), available in ginger, pineapple and “original” flavours – the last resembling a slightly raw but very drinkable Spanish fino.
Eating in Battambang
Battambang is famed for its abundant natural produce, including rice, pomelos and oranges – sweet, juicy and green-skinned even when ripe. Have a look around Psar Nat to see what’s new and fresh. There are also inexpensive food stalls around Psar Nat, while in late afternoons a busy night market sets up on the street south of Wat Piphithearam – lift the lids on the pots and see what’s on offer. More stalls set up at about 4pm on the riverfront near the post office.
Shopping in Battambang
As usual, the best source of basic provisions is at one of the minimarts attached to the town’s various petrol stations – those at the Tela (just south of the centre) and Total (north of the centre next to the Stung Sangke Hotel) stations are both well stocked – or try BB Mart, a few doors west of Madison Corner.
Battambang makes a good base for a number of interesting ancient temples nearby, including at Wat Banan and Wat Ek Phnom, plus sobering mementoes of the Khmer Rouge era at the hilltop pagoda complex of Phnom Sampeu and Kamping Poy reservoir.
The craggy limestone mountain of Phnom Sampeu (Boat Mountain), topped with a colourful cluster of temples and shrines, makes an interesting excursion, though it’s best known for its tragic associations with the Khmer Rouge, who turned the buildings here into a prison, many of whose inmates were executed.
On arrival, you’ll be dropped at the foot of the steps leading steeply up the hill – a hard climb featuring well over five hundred steps. Alternatively walk (or catch a moto) up the road on your left – much less strenuous. Whichever route you take, don’t stray from clearly defined paths as most of the hills hereabouts are thought to be mined.
Wat Banan, the best preserved of the temples around Battambang, makes a rewarding half-day trip combined with Phnom Sampeu (if you don’t mind the horribly bumpy 45min ride between the two, following a backcountry dirt track through the paddy fields); you could also include Prasat Yeah Ten in the same trip. The temple was consecrated as a Buddhist shrine, although scholars are uncertain who built it or exactly when it was completed, which could have been any time between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.
From the car park at the base of the hill, it’s a steep climb up some 360 steps to the temple, with five sturdy towers poking up out of the trees (which, alas, largely obscure the views). Numerous carvings survive – those on the central tower are the best – including a number of apsaras (most of them now headless), various figures bent in prayer a and couple of finely carved, if rather eroded, lintels.
Kompong Chhnang and around
The old colonial town of KOMPONG CHHNANG, 83km north of Phnom Penh on NR5, is a quiet place to stop over for a day. As its name – meaning “Pottery Port” – suggests, the area is a major centre for the production of traditional terracotta pots (chhnang), which are despatched countrywide via ox cart (a slow but smooth method of transport which reduces the risk of damage to the fragile cargo). Several pottery-making villages can be visited nearby.
Kompong Chhnang dates back to colonial times, and has a rather more solid and permanent air than many of Cambodia’s other provincial capitals. NR5 runs right through the centre, forming a wide boulevard bounded at one end by the imposing Independence Monument (looking rather like a big red cake-stand) and the more modest Vietnamese Friendship Monument (resembling an overambitious bird table) at the other. Southeast of here stretches the sedate old French quarter, with rambling villas set amid spacious walled gardens, some of them still retaining old colonial touches – even the large Kompong Chhnang Prison, bang in the middle of the district, has a rustic air.
The opposite side of town, northwest from the centre and past the bustling Psar Leu market en route to the fishing port and Tonle Sap lake, is contrastingly lively and ramshackle. The 1.5km-long road to the lake is actually built on a causeway across the water, and although modern buildings block most views of the lake you can still see a few stilted houses with water lapping around their bases. At the end of the road the waterfront offers fine views over the lake to the pair of floating villages offshore, while the hectic fishing harbour is a photogenic chaos of boats, fishermen and hawkers.
The floating villages
The floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake make for a rewarding half-day excursion from Kompong Chhnang. The town is the principal fishing port for Phnom Penh, and throughout the year supplies of fresh fish are packed with ice and loaded daily onto a fleet of trucks to drip their way towards the city. The fishing families, primarily ethnic Vietnamese, live on the lake on Phoum Kandal, almost within touching distance of the shore, and Chong Kos, further out over the waters to the northwest – both far less touristy than the floating villages around the north end of the lake near Siem Reap (see Phnom Krom). Locals offer village tours in tiny wooden boats, rowed standing up – quoted prices can be on the high side, but, with a little persistence, can usually be bargained down.
The villages themselves are a fascinating sight, with each house floating upon its own miniature pontoon fashioned out of lashed-together bamboo trunks and other wooden flotsam. Dwellings are arranged around a neat grid of miniature “streets” busy with small fishing vessels, rowing boats and other craft, while tiny children paddle themselves, seated in large cooking pots, between the buildings. Some of the houses are little better than floating sheds; others are surprisingly luxurious, with comfortably furnished interiors complete with TVs and generators, their roofs sprouting satellite dishes and their pontoons festooned in miniature gardens of potted plants.
The ethnic Vietnamese
The first Vietnamese settlers in Cambodia were rice farmers, many of whose ancestors migrated across disputed borders as long ago as the late seventeenth century; over generations they moved north along the Mekong and today mostly farm in the southeast provinces. The educated, predominantly Christian Vietnamese population of Phnom Penh has its origins in the civil servants brought over during Vietnamese rule and the French protectorate. Indeed, records of the time suggest Phnom Penh was more Vietnamese than Khmer. These days the majority of Cambodia’s commercial fishing is accounted for by impoverished ethnic Vietnamese fishing families; predominantly Buddhist, they live in floating villages on the Tonle Sap and Mekong River, moving around with the annual inundation. Government estimates put the number of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia at around 100,000, but given the difficulty of monitoring the large number who live in floating villages, the true figure is thought to be much higher.
Historically, Cambodians have long entertained feelings of hostility towards the Vietnamese, who are all too often referred to using the derogatory Khmer term, Yuan. The roots of this resentment go back to the Vietnamese annexation of the Mekong delta in the seventeenth century. Tensions were exacerbated during the brief period of Vietnamese rule over the whole country, during which time they tried to impose their language, names and mores on the Khmer. The situation was aggravated during the French protectorate, when Vietnamese clerks were installed in Cambodia’s administration, and not helped when the French redrew the Cambodia–Vietnam border in favour of the Vietnamese after World War II.
You’re unlikely to witness any overt racism today, despite the recent surge in anti-Vietnamese feeling stirred up by Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party (see The 2013 elections and after), who accuse the Vietnamese of taking Cambodian jobs and lands. Even so, it’s as well to note that no Cambodian would be seen dead in the pointed hats worn by Vietnamese rice farmers, and that the country’s current leader, Hun Sen, is often accused by his opponents of being a “Vietnamese puppet”.
The legend of Puthisen and Kong Rei
Local legend has it that the hill on the far side of the Tonle Sap lake is actually the body of the lovestruck giantess Kong Rei, her hair flowing across the ground to the southeast, her feet to the northwest. The story (based on an apochryphal Jataka tale and found in various forms across Southeast Asia) tells of twelve sisters abandoned by their father in a forest and taken into the service of the giantess Santema and her family. Tiring of their life slaving for the giants, the sisters eventually escaped and made their way to a neighbouring kingdom, where they were married en masse to King Preah Bath Rothasith. And lived happily ever after.
Or at least might have done, had Santema not decided to pursue them. Santema began by disguising herself and charming the king into taking her as his thirteenth wife, then caused him to pluck out the eyes of the twelve sisters (save one, Neang Pov, who was permitted to retain a single eye). At Santema’s command, the hapless sisters were then confined to a cave and forced to eat their own newborn children. Only one child survived, Puthisen, who lived in the cave with his one-eyed mother and eleven blind aunts, forced to survive by consuming the flesh of his dead cousins, and dreaming – not surprisingly – of revenge.
Years passed. Santema, increasingly fearful, plotted to destroy Puthisen, now grown to manhood, by sending him into the forest of the giants and having him killed. Unfortunately her plan backfired, and her own daughter, Kong Rei, fell in love with the wandering hero. The two were subsequently married, after which Kong Rei revealed the true nature of her mother, Santema. Unfortunately for Kong Rei, Puthisen’s filial devotion proved stronger than his new conjugal ties, and he proceeded to take back the stolen eyeballs of his unfortunate mother and aunts, along with various magic potions, and make good his escape, using the potions to create a river (the Tonle Sap) between himself and his pursuing wife. The grief-stricken Kong Rei subsequently cried herself to death and transformed into the mountain you see today. Puthisen, meanwhile, returned, killed Santema and restored his mother and aunts’ stolen sight, after which everyone really did live happily ever after.
In 1972 the legend was made into a classic Khmer film, Puthisen Neang Kong Rey, while a statue of the ill-fated couple can be seen near Kompong Chhnang’s Independence Monument.
Pursat and around
Named after a tree that used to grow along its riverbanks, the sleepy provincial capital of PURSAT is pretty much the quintessence of humdrum. Within Cambodia, it’s famous mainly for being the nation’s main marble carving centre, using stone quarried from the rocky outcrops of the nearby Cardamom Mountains and carved in workshops around the town and the surrounding countryside. For visitors, the main reason to come is to explore the fascinating floating village of Kompong Luong, and Pursat also provides a possible starting point for expeditions into the rewarding, but little explored, northern Cardamom Mountains. The town itself is laid out for a couple of kilometres along NR5 and bisected by the Stung Pursat, which flows northeast into the Tonle Sap. Most of the town’s modest cluster of hotels and restaurants are close to the bridge over the river, on (or just off) the main road.
Kompong Luong floating village
KOMPONG LUONG is the closest of the Tonle Sap’s floating villages to Pursat, though its precise distance from town varies, depending upon whether it’s wet or dry season. Populated by a mixed community of Cham and Vietnamese families, the surprisingly large village (actually more of a floating town) is similar in design to those at Kompong Chhnang, with buildings bobbing upon wooden pontoons and an extensive range of amenities including its own police station, temple and Catholic church.
The legend of Khleang Muong
Located in the village of Banteay Chei, a few kilometres west of Pursat off NR5, the small, well-tended tomb of Khleang Muong is an attraction for locals hereabouts. The story goes that in 1605, the Khmer were losing the war against the Thais, when Khleang Muong ordered his soldiers to dig a pit and to cast their weapons into it; he then committed suicide by throwing himself into the pit. Seven days later the Khmer army defeated the Thais with help from the ghosts of Khleang Muong and his army of soldiers. The victory is marked by an offering ceremony here in April or May each year, at the start of the planting season and just before the rains. The pavilion at the tomb contains a life-size bronze statue of Khleang Muong, now a national hero, and a matching one of his wife, who, according to legend, also killed herself. The site is easily reached by moto from Pursat, but it’s probably only worth a visit if you’re at a completely loose end.
Ringed by hills near the border with Thailand, the sprawling and haphazard frontier town of PAILIN was once the gem-mining centre of Cambodia, although it’s now a downbeat sort of place with not a lot going for it. The town is mainly interesting for its role in the later history of the Khmer Rouge; however, unless you’ve a particular obsession with the subject the main reason for coming here is to cross the border into Thailand, around 20km away. Other local attractions include the hill of Phnom Yat and a couple of waterfalls in the surrounding countryside, although the poorness of the roads and the ever-present danger of land mines doesn’t really encourage you to explore.
The gem mines
Pailin has been a gem-mining centre for nearly a hundred years – it’s said that sapphires, rubies and garnets once lay everywhere on the surface. Now much of the land is mined out, and fortune-seekers have to dig deep into the rocky ground in search of the stones, which in their raw state resemble fragments of broken glass. It’s hard toil for the prospectors and, for most, hope turns to wistfulness as they sift painstakingly through mounds of red dirt, sorting earth from rocks; piles of spoil scar the landscape, creating an almost lunar scene.
Most of the claims are now abandoned, and those prospectors still at work are pretty secretive about their diggings. If you’re interested ask at Bamboo Guesthouse for information about where the current workings are, but note that there’s little to see other than a hole in the ground and a pile of earth. Typical finds today are small garnets and topazes; rubies and sapphires are now rare.
The Khmer Rouge in Pailin
After being ousted from power in 1979, the Khmer Rouge found a natural bolthole in remote Pailin, waging a disruptive guerrilla war against the government in Phnom Penh, supporting their campaigns by tapping into the area’s rich natural resources including gemstones and untouched forests – it’s said that gem-mining alone earned them a monthly revenue of $10 million. They held out until August 1996 when, in a move that marked the beginning of the end for the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary, the local commander, struck a deal with the Cambodian government, gaining immunity from prosecution for himself and taking three thousand defectors over to the government side – although the Khmer Rouge managed to maintain a foothold in the remote Dangkrek Escarpment on the border with Thailand right up until the death of Pol Pot in 1998. The war was vicious and the border area is still the most heavily mined region in the country – under no circumstances wander from clearly defined tracks.
Sisophon (Banteay Meanchey)
Midway between Siem Reap and the Thai border the workaday town of SISOPHON has something of an identity problem. The official name is Sisophon, although it’s also called Sereysophon, while locals (for reasons not entirely understood) call it Svay (mango). Just to add to the confusion, it’s usually referred to (including on virtually all signs, and by bus companies) as Banteay Meanchey, the province of which it’s capital.
Names aside, Sisophon is notable mainly for its location at the junction of the roads to Siem Reap and Battambang – with a trio of interesting sights that can be visited on the way to Siem Reap – and as the jumping-off point for a day-trip to the massive Angkorian temple ruins of Banteay Chhmar, one of the country’s least visited major monuments.
A trio of local attractions – the stone-carving village of Choob, the traditional weaving village of Phnom Sarok, and the Ang Trapaeng Thmor Crane sanctuary – can be combined into an interesting day-trip from Sisophon, or visited en route between Sisophon and Siem Reap.
Ang Trapaeng Thmor Crane Sanctuary
North of Phnom Srok lies the Ang Trapaeng Thmor reservoir, built by forced labour during the Khmer Rouge era. The reservoir and surrounding area now serves as a dry-season refuge for the globally endangered Sarus crane (kriel), one of Cambodia’s largest birds – adults can grow to up to 1.3m – and instantly recognizable thanks to their distinctive red heads. Around 350 cranes visit the reserve between around January and March and the sanctuary is also home to many other rare water birds (about two hundred species have been spotted here) including black-necked stork, greater spotted eagle and oriental plover. You might also be lucky enough to spot one of the sanctuary’s Eld’s deer, another highly threatened species.
The huge Angkorian-era temple of Banteay Chhmar is one of Cambodia’s least-visited and most intriguing destinations, still untouched by the mass tourism that has long since enveloped the temples of Angkor and which is now (following recent road improvements) beginning to reach out even to the formerly remote and inaccessible temples of Koh Ker and Preah Vihear. Covering an area of around three square kilometres, the temple was built by Jayavarman VII as a memorial to soldiers killed while defending his son in a battle against the Chams. The temple is best known for its magnificent carvings, once rivalling those at the Bayon and Angkor Wat, although many of these have been looted – most notoriously in 1998 when a group of rogue soldiers removed two massive panels and trucked them across the border for sale in Bangkok. Confiscated by the Thai police and returned to Cambodia, the panels are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. A massive programme run by the Global Heritage Fund and Heritage Watch is now slowly restoring the site, while efforts are also being made to have the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arriving from Bangkok at the dusty border town of POIPET provides the worst possible introduction to Cambodia – mainly thanks to the hassle-ridden border crossing, which has become mildly notorious thanks to the various low-grade scams practised upon new arrivals. The town itself has boomed massively in recent years thanks to the raft of casinos set up for Thai visitors (gambling is illegal in Thailand), and the glitzy duty-free casino zone next to the border is effectively a slice of foreign territory on Cambodian soil, with Thai the predominant language and baht the currency of choice. Away from the casinos the town remains a flyblown and faintly dismal sort of place, and one that most travellers choose to escape as rapidly as possible.