Four days in Battambang…


Battambang Villa 5I have been in Battambang province, northwest Cambodia, for much of the last week doing some research for my half finished crime novel.

Aside from a fleeting visit to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin (the subject of a forthcoming post), I spent most of the time in or around the provincial capital, Battambang.

On one level there is not much to do in Battambang. There are not a lot of ‘attractions’ and the city goes to bed early. This is partly why it is so great. It is a beautiful low-rise town straddling the banks of the Sangkar River, featuring some of the best-preserved architecture I have seen so far in Cambodia.

Battambang Market 4Beside, Battambang and its inhabitants have also experienced a rough few decades, so the locals probably welcome the peace and quiet.

The civil war that raged throughout Cambodia in the sixties and early seventies left Battambang relatively untouched. As a result of this, the Khmer Rouge viewed the city with particular suspicion when they took over the town two days after Phnom Penh fell in April 1975.

In addition to emptying the city of its inhabitants at gunpoint, as they did with all the country’s urban centres, the population was the target of a series of particularly brutal purges.

In the eighties and early nineties it was at the centre of much of the heavy fighting between government forces and the Khmer Rouge guerrillas along the Thai border. Government soldiers used Battambang as the staging post for repeated dry season offences against the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, 40 kilometres southeast, only to retreat back to the town in the wet season.

The fighting, particularly the laying by both sides of hundreds of thousands of land mines, decimated the provinces’ agricultural production. According to the locals, many of the town’s inhabitants were also press ganged into building roads and fortifications by Vietnamese troops who were stationed in Cambodia to fight the Khmer Rouge until the late eighties.

Eighteen kilometres out of Battambang is Phnom Sampeau. A steep mountain dotted with foliage including beautiful plants knows as ‘fire flowers’ in Khmer. It is host to several pagodas and is also the location of the ‘killing caves’.

According to the locals, up to 12,000 people were thrown down the cave to the deaths. Some were reportedly bludgeoned or had their throats slit beforehand.

Gun 5Phnom Sampeau was the frontline of Battambang’s defence against the Khmer Rouge. Aging artillery pieces supplied by the former Eastern Bloc still sit in bunkers at various points on the mountain. Instead of Pailin, some wag has pointed them towards the Thai border.

Battambang has changed hands numerous times over its history. In addition to the Khmers, the Thais and French have all had a go at running it.

The French left the most obvious legacy, a large number of reasonably well maintained French colonial era buildings, including many villas and shop-houses than line both banks of the river. There are also large areas of traditional Cambodian-style wooden houses in the city’s outer suburbs.

I spent a night in Battambang in 1996: myself and about 30 other journalists were stranded there when the military helicopter that had been ferrying us around was unexpectedly called back to Phnom Penh. It was heavily militarised and at night the place was full of Cambodian soldiers kicking back at various traditional Khmer dance halls that Battambang was famous for.

Many of the troops have gone. Unfortunately, so have the nightclubs. The last one to go was the Than Sour Night Club, which I am told was mysteriously burnt down a few years ago and is now the site of a soon to built shopping mall.

Cinema 5The most famous of the city’s dance halls was long gone. Green River was the Bombay Rock of its time, infamous for the number of shootings that happened on its premises.

Battambang is also a great place to indulge my other great architectural passion, old cinemas, of which there are several.

Two quick plugs while I am at it.

While I was in Battambang I stayed at the Royal Hotel. It has large, bright rooms and a fantastic rooftop bar/restaurant, which is a great vantage point to watch the locals gathering on rooftops to indulge in what I am assured is the uniquely Battambang activity of betting on the weather. Check it out

My guide to Phnom Sampeau was a great young Khmer called Ido Nhean. He speaks great English, knows the area well and did a fantastic job ferrying me around the incredibly crap roads outside of Battambang. If you are visiting the city and need a guide, get in contact with him on his mobile number 012393356, or by e-mail


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One Response to “Four days in Battambang…”

  1. wand777 Says:

    thanks for sharing!

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