When the Khmer Rouge ‘soldiers’ seized Cambodia’s cities in 1975, sending anyone thought to be ‘intellectual’ to its oppressive torture camps, artists and musicians were among the first to disappear.
After little more than a decade of peace following 40 years of war, the country is awakening once more to its creative potential, recapturing some of its early 20th-century flair. No more so can this be said than of the dreamy and peaceful city of Battambang; Cambodia’s second largest city, yet relatively untouched by tourism.
Few visitors include Battambang on their itinerary, missing out on a thriving contemporary cultural scene with arts cafes, art-funding projects and galleries springing up all over the riverside town; through which the Sankae river atmospherically snakes, and with rice fields, leafy villages and glittering pagodas haloing around its edges.
With its untouched ambiance and having survived Polpot’s regime relatively undamaged, in Cambodia’s sleepy “second city” you’ll find some of the country’s best-preserved architecture; retaining its Art Deco charm with jaded yellow and blue shaded French colonialism sat alongside modernist 1950s and 1960s style buildings.
Battambang’s main street is built along the banks of the Sangke River, with the city’s night market taking centre stage and artsy little avenues acting as easy to navigate side roads; perfect to explore on a push bike, which if hired through Bambu hotel for $2 a day, means the money will go to its local school.
Cycle down streets 2 and 2.5 and you will find some of Cambodia’s coolest philanthropic art spaces, the newest being Lotus Cafe and Gallery, housed in the remnants of a colonial 3 story shop front.
Loving renovation from Darren Swallow has resulted in a stylish, exposed brick wall, retro floor tiled multi-purpose space that will host art exhibitions as well as films, music and live performances, and also features a bar.
Gracing the walls of Lotus are some of the stunningly psychedelic artworks by Swallow’s wife, Khchao Touch; in feminine colours, fluid lines and fine tipped brush strokes, Touch’s works depict dreamy meditative looking-women surrounded by hallucinogenic swirls of lime greens and golds.
Available to buy from Lotus cafe; stare into Touch’s paintings and their painstakingly applied dots of colour and you may find your own inner peace. – The gallery is split over three floors with plenty of other local artists work to admire.
Down the street is Sammaki, a community art space hosting local artists and helping to bridge the gap between art school and life as a professional artist.
Just one road away on Street 2 is Jaan Bai, a social enterprise run by the Cambodia’s Children’s Trust and arguably the best restaurant in Battambang. Melding good looks with real substance, here young chefs have been schooled in the art of creative cuisine and cocktail mixing; while local artists have the opportunity to share their stories and works.
Characterised aesthetically at first glance by dusty, unsealed roads, weathered shop houses and the off architectural gem; delve deeper and discover is vibrant cafe scene, growing education focus and an artistic community unlike any other in Cambodia.
Vibrant yet untouched, there has never been a better time to visit Battambang.
Travel Indochina runs small group tours and tailor-made itineraries that feature Battambang.