Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city (after the capital Phnom Penh) and is known for being an artistic hub and home to one of the wold’s most scenic rail journeys (according to the Lonely Planet) taken on the aptly named ‘Bamboo Train’.
There’s a sleepy vibe to the city which seems to have a pretty slow pace of life and plenty of places to drink a coffee and watch the world go by. Read on for our short guide to Vegan Battambang…
We reached Battambang by taking a taxi from Siem Reap (buses are also easily available but we were being lazy) for approximately 2 and a half hours along a road that was relatively safe and relatively well maintained (by Cambodian standards). The journey lacked anything of any particular interest in the ‘watching the world out of the window’ stakes apart from the one stretch of road where people were selling ‘krolan’ (sticky rice steamed in bamboo).
It’s a bit of an odd thing in Cambodia that you come across roads where people are selling lots of one particular item. The ‘krolan section’ of the Siem Reap to Battambang road is one of those places and, as always, we were left wondering why someone doesn’t branch out into drinks, or baskets, or anything other than exactly the same thing that 60 other people are trying to sell.
Stall after stall of (mainly) women selling fat, pale bamboo poles which were charred from being cooked over coals. Stacked up in order of size, they reminded us of those panpipes you see being played by traveling South American musicians. Except inside these bamboo poles was a concoction of sticky rice, black beans and fresh coconut which had been seasoned with both salt and sugar before being sealed off with a bit of banana leaf and roasted over hot coals. Everything slowly cooks and gets a mildly smokey flavour which mixes with the sweetness of the sugar and coconut and is finished off with a hint of salt.
Apparently Battambang is renowned for having particularly good krolan so if you see it, stop and buy some.
We spent our time in Battambang drifting around the town, popping into art galleries and shops and eating our way though the various delights that we found. There are a few vegan food highlights not to miss out on when you visit and these include the central market (Psar Nath) where we found tasty vegan desserts on the street outside.
Plus there is the wonderful Jaan Bai restaurant, the social enterprise of the Cambodian Children’s Trust which provides skills and employment for youth in their programs and funnels profits back into their overall project which makes their fabulous work sustainable.
The restaurant has had some pretty hefty support from the likes of award winning chef David Thompson (of Nahm in Bangkok fame) and so we were excited to try out the food. It’s not a vegan restaurant but it has several clearly labelled dishes on the menu and some really great choices for us plant-eaters.
You can read more about Jaan Bai and why it’s a restaurant that we’d definitely travel to eat in again in our restaurant review section, but in short they serve these amazing ‘bao’ and some of the best tasting chips in South East Asia.
Other places of note in Battambang have to include the well designed Lotus Bar and Gallery where the Welsh owner is wonderfully friendly, full of information about the local arts scene and has vegan food on the menu (hurrah).
There are also a couple of local buddhist vegetarian restaurants that we never got to visit because like many of these sorts of restaurants, they close at lunch time and we just ran out of opportunities to eat.
Like us, when you go to Battambang you might want to experience ‘one of the world’s most scenic rail journeys’ and head for their famous Bamboo Railway.
But, a word of warning…
The description of the journey on the Lonely Planet website is somewhat romanticised; it uses the word’s ‘local’ and ‘scenic’ and leads you to expect that you might be sat amongst bags of rice and kindly faced farmers. You might think you’ll be hitching a ride with the locals as the wind swooshes through your hair.
Trust us, none of the above applies.
It’s tourist showpiece where people pay $5 a pop to ride the train to a few stalls selling the ubiquitous elephant pants, T shirts and bracelets (touted by a group of persistent children). And the route itself isn’t really what we’d call’ scenic’, just grassy with some sweeping views of simple farmland. It’s alright but not really one of the ‘World’s Most Scenic…’
Better descriptions might have included ‘bumpy’, ‘ not for the feint hearted’, ‘potential for a slipped disk’…
Here’s our timelapse video of our bumpy 20 minute bamboo train ride, shown in 6 seconds so at least you get the idea if you’ve never had the pleasure!
Having said all this though, we actually really enjoyed our little adventure as we tore along the track at what felt like neck-breaking speeds with nothing but a cushion and something akin to a bamboo fence panel between us and certain death. The gaps in the rails were particularly exhilarating / petrifying as we lurched suddenly to the right or slammed loudly onto the next bit of track.
And no bamboo train experience is complete of course without having to stop to let other passengers pass. A quick stop to lift the bamboo fence panel off the two sets of metal wheels and disconnect the engine and our train was dismantled and off the tracks, allowing others to pass.
After a very speedy re-build (no time to check everything is in the correct place on this thrill seekers’ adventure) we were back on our way, hurtling along through the countryside.
We were able to cycle through the rice paddies, local villages and temples to get the bamboo railway from our beautiful ‘Lake Room’ at Battambang Resort. It’s a really great place to stay if you are heading to Battambang and waking up to this view every day was one of the highlights of our stay.
The owners and staff team were all super friendly and full of tips about how best to spend your time whilst in town plus there’s a lovely pool to relax next to, the rooms are very well designed and they were more than happy to prepare vegan breakfast for us each day.
All in all, Battambang is great for a vegan adventure and we can’t wait to return. Have you ever visited Battambang? Are you tempted to take a trip on the bamboo railway? Let us know your thought in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply.
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Or why don’t you come and stay with us in our very own Vegan Villa in Siem Reap, Cambodia where we can treat you to the best of vegan hospitality and share with you our favourite vegan spots in Temple Town; check out our listing on Airbnb and come and stay if you’re in the area!