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Thursday, April 7, 2005

Battambang is Cambodia's second city by a wide margin. A provincial town of 80,000 Khmers, divided by the Sangker River, it is much smaller than the capital Phnom Penh, with over one million residents. It is in the heart of Cambodia's rice bowl and thanks to fertile alluvial soil, grows enough to supply the entire country. It has a non-touristy, provincial atmosphere and the people are warm and friendly. Local economy is based firmly in rice, wood, food crops, textiles and sapphires. In all directions you will find small villages, rice paddies and farmland.

Battambang means "lost staff", referring to an event in Khmer history when the king, Kron Nhong, threw his wooden staff from Angkor and it landed in present-day Battambang. This is commemorated in Battambang by an enormous golden statue.

Despite being a dot on Cambodia's map, Battambang has a colourful past. It has been handed between France, Siam and Cambodia over the past 150 years. During its French colonial period, Battambang was the gateway to Thailand and architecture remains from then — some crumbling, some preserved, but all interesting. After Cambodia's independence in the 1950s, Battambang became a major regional hub.

It is compact and easily negotiated by foot, the perfect base from which to explore temples and other scenic villages. If you don't feel like walking, motos are cheap and an easy way to get around. There are hundreds of them, zipping in and out of traffic, horns blowing, giving you the ride of your life. They can be hired for an entire day, driver included, for next to nothing.

The boat service between Battambang and Siem Reap gives the most scenic river trip in the country. Much of its charm is provided by the network of old French shop houses along the riverbank.

Psar Nat is the centre of town and all commercial activity and most hotels are nearby. There are a number of wats around town, including Wat Phiphitaram, where a number of the monks are glad to practice their English with interested visitors.

Each temple has its own history. It's better to go with a guide who knows their way around.

Wat Phnom Sampeou is reached by a flight of 700 steps, winding up the rocky outcrop. It was a battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces and has a series of cave grottoes, lined with Buddhist shrines and statues. If the 700 steps haven't taken your breath away, the view over the surrounding countryside is bound to.

Two Khmer Rouge killing caves bring you back to earth. As recently as 30 years ago, these were where innocent Cambodians were murdered and their bodies tossed into deep holes. Buddhist monks and nuns prayed here and it is now a memorial to those who lost their lives.

The modern wat has colourful wall paintings depicting the life of Buddha, a host of statues and half a dozen friendly monks. Nearby, a large stupa is guarded by a disused artillery field-gun, allegedly surrounded by landmines.

Back in town, a visit to the food markets will either stimulate or erase your appetite. Locals eat everything — intestines, feet and heads of things such as frogs, snakes, rats and cockroaches.

However, an excellent little hole-in-the-wall restaurant called Smokin' Pot provides wonderful Thai food. Run by Vannak, who grew up in the refugee camps on the Thai border, and his family, this is a fantastic place to learn to prepare Thai food in the traditional way.

Vannak takes his pupils to the market to purchase the ingredients. Back at the restaurant, you cook it all up for lunch — three popular dishes are fish Amok, beef Lok Lak and Khmer sour soup.


Cambodia's north west


Intrepid Travel has 15-day Hearts of Cambodia tours, departing Phnom Penh. They include twin-share accommodation, some meals, activities and a guide for $1070 per person, plus a local payment of $US200.

Flight Centre has return economy airfares with Thai Airways to Phnom Penh on sale until March 31, 2006, for travel dates April 25-June 16, 2005, July 14-September 8, 2005, October 10-November 16, 2005, and January 30-March 31, 2006, subject to availability. Return economy airfares start at:
  • From Melbourne $1099 + tax $168
  • From Brisbane $1099 + tax $170
  • From Sydney $1099 + tax $182
  • From Perth $1129 + tax $164

    To book a flight, call Flight Centre on 131 600.

    Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

    More information

    Smokin' Pot Restaurant
    No 298, Group 8, 20 Ousephea Village
    Svaypor Commune
    Battambang District, Battambang Province
    Ph: 855 12 657 125

    Intrepid Travel
    Ph: 1300 360 887, NZ: 0800 174 043

    Thai Airways: Ph: 1300 651 960
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