Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, and Koh Rong. Koh Rong, Phnom Penh, and Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. It doesn’t matter which direction you go, the destinations remain the same. Cambodia’s tourist map is well-trodden with few deviations. That’s left the rest of the country relatively untouched by tourism.
You’ve probably never heard of Battambang. The city in Northwestern Cambodia is the country’s third-largest. It straddles the slow-moving Sangkae River. It’s home to more than 800 heritage buildings. It’s a commercial hub that connects Phnom Penh and Thailand. Plus it’s the capital of Battambang, the lush province that’s considered the rice bowl of the Southeast Asian country.
The Khmer empire founded Battambang in the 11th century. After growing into an important trade city, it was annexed by Siam (modern-day Thailand) at the end of the 18th century. It ceded Northwestern Cambodia to French Indochina, which modernized the city with a grid pattern, in 1907. Like much of Cambodia, Battambang was attacked by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Restoration and rebuilding only began about 20 years ago.
So Battambang is interesting. It manages to feel like both a modern city and a small town. It has well-preserved architecture. Shophouses feature arched windows and iron balconies. Grand villas still have burgundy-tiled roofs. Streets near the water are full of potholes. They feel dusty and chaotic. Rickety wooden boats line the river. While ancient temples and Buddhist shrines are hidden just outside of town. Yet Battambang also has a surprising modern art scene. Galleries, cafes, and bars are moving into crumbling buildings. Boutique hotels are, too.
Bric-à-Brac is one of those hotels. The tiny hotel—it only has three rooms—took over a historic building just a few blocks from the river. The owners, an American chef and an Aussie artist, kept the grand staircase and the distressed finishes. They added sealed concrete, antique furniture, and graffiti motifs. A breakfast tray is delivered each morning. CDs, games, and movies are in the library. Locally made crafts are sold in the shop. While French wines, Negronis, and cheese platters are served at Libations Bar at night. It, too, is the perfect blend of old and new.
Battambang may not have the capital buzz, the famous temples, or the golden beaches that draw people to the rest of the country, but the city has an undeniable charm. It might be time to strike out on your own.