To take the pulse of Cambodia’s heartland, Tony, Sarah and I head out to Battambang, Cambodia’s second biggest city. The drive out takes four hours and traffic lightens once we clear Phnom Penh’s sprawl. It’s rainy season now, so the rice fields lining the highway are a dazzling green. As we pass through the provincial capitals of Kampong Chhnang and Pursat, I feel the urge to come explore these towns another weekend.
But our destination today is Battambang, a Northwestern province with an interesting past. Cambodian history is a tale of flip-flopping borders, and Battambang was ruled by Thailand as recently as 55 years ago. After France insisted it be returned to Cambodia, Battambang managed to hold out longer than any other city against Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
Today when Cambodians think of Battambang they usually think of rice; many say the province has the richest soil and tastiest crop. What also interests me is that Battambang contains one of Asia’s premier collections of colonial buildings, some 800 structures centered around a rambling French market with a defunct clock tower.
We pull into the 130 room Stung Sangke hotel which seems a bit oversized in this two-story town. The $25 rack rate offers good value and the rooms are comfortable, but we see few other guests there. It seems the owner overestimated Battambang’s tourist market at this stage, as the town doesn’t seem to be packing them in.
Battambang has also been bypassed by the flighty garments sectors; so here we get to examine an economy that is truly agricultural-based. And that sector seems to be generating rural prosperity, if the construction projects we observe provide any indication.
We tour a newly-built complex of rice warehouses; each looks big enough to park a jet in. We stop for a look at the half-complete University of Battambang – certainly the largest school building we’ve seen under construction in Cambodia. A shopping center being built nearby may be the country’s largest outside of Phnom Penh. Clearly some local entrepreneurs have found ways to turn rice into gold.
Every family here seems to own a motorbike or two, and the town is full of billboards for rival cellphone operators. There are few visible signs of economic distress, at least in the areas we pass through. A local expat remarks that land prices in downtown Battambang haven’t corrected much, with owners of prime lots still asking a hefty $500 per square meter. A microfinance institution branch manager tells us their business is thriving and they have no non-performing loans; they would double their loan book if they just had more funding.
Late in the afternoon I stroll along the riverfront promenade, and watch workers lay down new paving tiles. Across the Sangker River, there’s a whirl of colorful motion which turns out to be hundreds of middle age ladies participating in a public aerobics session. Sports and fitness are starting to catch on in Cambodia, a sure sign of an emerging middle class that finally has a bit of leisure time to enjoy.
An unfortunate indicator of rising prosperity is that many of Battambang’s colonial homes and shops are getting “updated”. Blue-tinted plate glass is replacing louvered wooden shutters; shiny exterior wall tiles are being applied over graceful arches and delicate French ornamentation, and aluminum framed additions are getting slapped on once elegant building fronts to add usable space. Asian cities don’t usually start to appreciate their architectural legacy until it’s nearly gone, but today it is sad to watch a city enthusiastically deface what could be its best tourism draw.
But even in the race to modernize, not all the heritage will be lost. I sneak in and explore the empty rooms of the old French Governor’s Palace, which is undergoing an extensive donor-funded restoration. I imagine the formal dinner parties and balls that must have once filled the vast downstairs reception room and dining hall, and wonder if these will ever be repeated when Battambang becomes rich again, which it surely will. The day ends perfectly as I stop for a cold beverage at La Villa, a 1930s residence lovingly restored into a spectacular 7 room guesthouse.
Battambang Paint Crew: These guys are fast!
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