DOWN SOUTH | Why I Visited Battambang First Over Siem Reap

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Buddhist temple in Battambang, Cambodia. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering for InterAksyon.

It takes a singular image to represent a country.

Cambodia, for the uninitiated outsider, is Angkor Wat, the place where the cat-suited Angelina Jolie aka Lara Croft fought against masked men. On the screen, the place looked unreal, a product of someone’s imagination.

Hollywood can play God in the tourism and travel world in Southeast Asia. Tomb Raider changed Siem Reap; The Beach, Thailand’s Phi Phi Leh; and Eat Pray Love, Indonesia’s Bali. This travel-motif movie has been used and abused in the Philippines these past five years.

I resisted such singularity. Such resistance led me to Battambang.

I’m self-righteous, I know.

Admiring temples after temples in Battambang in Cambodia. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering for InterAksyon.

But I’m weary of how tourism impacted many places’ behavior. Every time I go to a popular place, I turn cynical and skeptical of local people acting friendly and helpful. At the back of my head, the question “Do they need anything from me?” lurked like a vicious monster. I had my fair share of being scammed. My rule of thumb is to never trust someone who approaches me first, especially if the person is selling something.

And one of traveling’s jobs, you know, is to restore one’s faith to humanity. And there I was, distrusting everyone around me.

Admiring temples after temples in Battambang in Cambodia. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering for InterAksyon.

To combat my own cynicism over mass tourism and inauthenticity (my own and the place’s), I pursue the beauty of the ordinary. When I am new to a country, or the country new to me: I visit places bypassed by most travelers. Do not get me wrong, though. I am not your snobbish traveler, but there is a being inside me eager to see and experience a country in a different way.

Traveling is a negotiation and conversation between the traveler and the place. Well, at least for me.

And this is how I negotiate and converse with the place: What do you want me to see? Who are you? Let me check the map, I’m pretty sure, you’re more than Siem Reap.

That’s how I found myself in Battambang. I headed to this place without much expectation.

And what did I do there, you may ask? I bought a new pair of slippers, used different routes back to my hotel, ate in places intended for the locals, and simply basked in the simplicity of the place.

And yes, I did some things only tourists would do. Riding the bamboo train. Together with a Slovenian couple, I availed myself of a half-day tour with Mr. Blue and his punky blue car. I waited by the road below Phnom Sampeau Golden Stupa to witness the flight of thousands of bats out for their nocturnal hunt.

“There was nothing extraordinary about it,” I said to the couple. And it was true. At least, for me who grew up in the countryside.

But except for that half-day tour around the usual touristy things, I mostly pedaled around the city on my own.

One of the many well-preserved temples in Battambang, Cambodia. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering for InterAksyon.

The city’s flatness is forgiving to my amateur knees. I stumbled upon small temples after small temples with names I don’t even know.

You know that feeling when you are in an unfamiliar place yet you don’t feel threatened or intimidated at all? That’s how I felt about Battambang. Or, in places most tourists overlook. These places that are neither A nor B. The place in between.

And as I get older, the more I seek for that space, the liminal.

Battambang Travel Guide
1. Getting there
From Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, you can simply book your bus ride on Book Me Bus. You can choose the timetable and bus company yourself. I highly recommend Mekong Express Bus. The ride is very comfortable. There is enough legroom for tall people. plus, your ticket includes a bottled water and snacks. You can also ask Book Me Bus to reschedule your ride, if there is a sudden change of plan. If you are staying in the tourist belt, you can even request for a pick up.

2. Pedal Your Way to the Temples
I rented out a bicycle and pedaled my way around the city. The terrain is very flat, pedaling around Battambang never caused problems to my aging knees. Haha!

Some of the temples I have visited were Ek Phnom Pagoda, Wat Kandal, Damrey Sor Pagoda, Kampheng Pagoda, and Phnom Banan. Most of them are near to each other.

3. Where to rent your bicycle
• Eco Bike
No. 49, Kompong Krobey, Svay Pore, Battambang, 1.5 Rd No 1
Phone Number: +855 89 290 045

• Soksabike
5, near Psar Nath
Phone Number: +855 12 542 019

4. Ride the Bamboo Train
Battambang’s Bamboo Train is only for tourists really. But I was curious about it because I never experienced it. So I did not regret it at all. You simply sat on the mat placed on the split bamboo floor. The breeze felt great in the face. It is a pleasant and interesting ride. It costs $5 if you are riding with one or more people. If you are going solo, it costs $10.

Riding the bamboo train in Battambang is one of touristy things to do when in this city in Cambodia. Photo by Jona Branzuela Bering for InterAksyon.

5. Visit the Phnom Sampeu’s Killing Caves
If you’ve been to Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, this is similar to that. It doesn’t have the audio guide, but the field has statues depicting all forms of torture and weapons used by the Khmer rouge. I personally think the Philippines should have places like this. As you may know, the Philippines also suffered from the dictatorship of the Marcoses, and we all have to be reminded of the atrocities of dictatorships.

6. Stride through the Phnom Sampeau Golden Stupa
This is somewhat outside the city. I joined a half-day tour for $6 to go to three places: Bamboo Train, Phnom Sampeu’s Killing Caves, and Phnom Sampeau Golden Stupa accordingly. Our guide dropped us off at the foot of the mountain. It is an extra cost to the gate, which is quite a pant for an old lady like me. But I managed it to the top. The view was marvelous. Expect some monkeys on the top too.

This is the last destination for an afternoon tour for a reason. At the foot of the mountain, tourists wait for the waking time of the thousands of bats.

Where to Stay in Battambang?
Considered as an off-the-beaten destination in Cambodia, Battambang’s accommodation is a lot cheaper than Siem Reap’s or Phnom Penh’s. I scored a double room for $6. Always check Agoda.com or Booking.com for deals.

If you are looking for more things to do around Cambodia, I recently wrote my Cambodia Travel Guide on my blog. Do check it out!

Jona Branzuela Bering, Palanca awardee and author of the poetry collection Alang sa Nasaag (For the Lost), blogs at Backpacking with a Book. She left her beautiful life in Cebu to pursue her goal of traveling long-term abroad.