Here Be Dragons: Navigating BattambangJanuary 10, 2013
An old term used to denote areas of the sea that hadn’t been navigated, ‘here be dragons’ is an apt metaphor for exploring the sleepy backwater that is also Cambodia’s second largest city.
Quaint. Charming. Old colonial architecture. Those are fitting descriptors for Battambang, a lovely if quiet escape from the nightlife and frenzied activity of Phnom Penh. Even the French people are nice.
The Sangke river is low and green, and you can see young men washing their horses, children playing at the shallow edges, and little fishing boats and small plots of vegetables along the banks.
The city has long been home to high-end, fancy resorts, while the hoi polloi was relegated to local hotels with cracked plaster walls and leaky faucets – serviceable, tidy and cheap, but nothing to write home about.
However the last few months have seen an increase in cafes and guesthouses catering to the less fortunate: backpackers, flashpackers, expats, and locals. A few of these places have been around a while, while some are just cutting the ribbon now. Here’s a roundup of the highlights:
Next to the guidebook-approved, locally-shunned White Rose restaurant, is the brand spanking new Café Flirt. Ignore the hideous sign out front and settle in for a beer, cocktail, or some tasty food. A generous happy hour and drink promotions will hopefully lure the masses. Their opening party on New Year’s Eve promised free beer all night – we’ll see how the other 364 days of the year go for this newcomer.
This funky bar / restaurant has been open around three years, but it’s a lively, popular spot. The unique artwork on the walls, indoor and outdoor seating and menu of Khmer and Western food, Blue Pumpkin ice cream and full bar makes you want to stay a while. The highlight is their excellent crepes with tons of options: veggies, fruit, cheese, meats, ice cream, nutella, etc. At $1 for the crepe and .50 to $1.50 for fillings it’s a steal. Open late night and offering weekly parties.
“Battambang’s best pizza”, according to them. Nicely decorated with seats along the long bar (which is fully stocked), excellent pizzas using fresh and imported ingredients and the friendly owner make for a great atmosphere. They are temporarily closed, but will open again soon. Locals swear by the place.
Sometimes Cambodia is just too cute. Outside this charming French/Khmer restaurant is a huge sign proudly displaying in bold letters: “Department of Drugs and Food certified: ‘C’ grade quality in hygiene!” Steak tartare anyone? Did they think the ratings go from A-Z, whereby C is a good score? Who knows. I did not venture further, but the menu looked great: Flambe Shrimp, Frog Pistou, Tenderloin with mushrooms, Duck with lemon and rosemary jam, all between $9 and $12.50. Cute wooden tables and paper mache flowers make a lovely décor. Anyone brave enough to try please report back.
Khmer for ‘ginger’, this training café has loads of atmosphere and sits on a quiet corner. Local artwork on the walls is for sale, and they offer coffee, breads, homemade yogurt and toasties. It’s not new but a nice break from the backpacker cafés with rattan furniture, .50 drafts and banana pancakes that cluster around the bus stations and market. It’s breezy, homey and the prices are decent.
Those familiar with Ganesha in Kampot will find the same lovely spot here. Except there’s no nature setting. Or trees, or thatch huts, and it’s situated on a city street. The original owners of the Kampot site have moved north and opened a similarly-vibed family resort offering beautiful rooms and a restaurant/café on the ground floor. Rooms on the upper floors offer great views of the city, with huge windows for about $30 (dorm rooms also available). The café is decorated in silks and bright colors and has a full bar and menu of Khmer and Western food.
Further back from the river, this lovely spot makes excellent coffees, cakes, and chocolate treats. Owned by a Frenchman from the Phare Ponleu Circus, it features works for sale by students from the PP art school. Japanese-style seating makes it easy to lounge for hours, and they stay open late.
Here Be Dragons
In keeping with the uncharted territory theme, Dragons opened in October 2012 and they’ve been attracting an eclectic crowd. Located on the East bank of the river, they offer “late-night bar, good music, cheap beer” to the weary traveler. Expats and locals have also made it a regular stop, for a mellow breakfast or lunch at the bar or to keep the party going when other places have closed.
Still a work-in-progress since all the rooms aren’t finished, it has loads of charm and a relaxed atmosphere. Little touches like butterflies carved into the iron work on the windows and doors, beautiful home-sewn sheets, pillow cases and curtains, and the outdoor lounge area and garden make the funky space work.
The owners, a friendly couple from the UK came to Battambang hoping to fill a niche they saw lacking: the low- to mid-range backpacker and budget traveler chill-spot in a welcoming environment at reasonable prices: drafts $1, rooms $8-10 ($2 dorm beds) and food at $2-5. They also organize parties, BBQs, and will soon complete the roof deck which will offer beautiful sunset views over the river.
A lovely resort with a lively bar set around the pool, it’s an upscale place but their happy hour is quite reasonable. Cocktails are inventive and well made, and the amicable (i.e. won’t spit when you walk in) French owner and staff are welcoming making for a pleasant evening.
The neighboring Phka village has a similar layout as Bambu on a smaller scale. Cocktails will take a good 20 minutes to arrive but are made from scratch with fresh ingredients and juices (no Tom Collins mix here) so worth the wait. 3 for the price of 2 at happy hour ensures a wobbly ride home.
Riverside Balcony Bar
A long-timer on the scene, there’s no nicer place to spend sunset. Pull up a wooden chair to the deck to watch the river go by as the sun sinks behind you (it faces East, possibly the only draw back). Lovely staff, cold beer, strong cocktails and great food, it’s earned its place in the hearts of residents and visitors.
If you’ve never been, or went years ago and haven’t been back since, it’s worth the trip.