Recent improvements to city centre accommodations have begun to turn Battambang into a good base for exploring the surrounding area. A stroll around the city unveils the ordinary intrigue of everyday life, as well as some of the best-preserved examples of French Colonial architecture anywhere in Cambodia. Angkor-era temples, hillside pagodas and, more solemnly, notorious areas relating to the rule of the Khmer Rouge. This can all be experienced on a day out from Battambang, but without the crowds associated with similar sites close to Siem Reap.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Clambering up 358 smooth stone steps flanked by forested slopes is no mean feat, but as you gaze out at the surrounding views from Prasat Banan mountain temple - just 23kms south of Battambang - those hiking-induced aches will fade into insignificance. Even closer to the city, Wat Ek Phnom is another Angkor-era temple, overlooking the Sangkee River. The weather-worn, ransacked stone structure is surrounded by gigantic sacred fig trees, and exploration amongst the temple ruins reveals giant Buddha statues, as well as significantly softened sandstone symbolism relating to Hindu myths and legends.
The people of Battambang, as with everywhere in Cambodia, were deeply affected by the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. One way to find out more is to explore within the limestone hillsides of Phnom Sampeau, on the city's outskirts, which were once the site of mass genocide. Pausing for reflection at Phnom Sam Pov Pagoda is a fitting way to respect the local people who've lost their loved ones. This site is now known as the Ghost Cave or the Killing Cave, and the lack of tourists makes it a more spiritual and reverential experience than you might expect, adding depth to what you can learn from the memorials and museums around Phnom Penh.
Battambang's grid of French-Colonial streets, running adjacent to the river, is very easy to navigate on foot. A stroll along the waterfront unveils faded French-style properties and boutique shops, as well as many opportunities to seek shade in the tree-lined riverside park. A couple of roads in from the river, you'll discover a glowing neon night market opposite the museum, where families come to socialise and snack on local Khmer street food. Explore down an unassuming side street and you might even stumble across a wine bar serving French cheese, making the ambiance suddenly feel a little ‘Cannes in Cambodia’.