Blossoming Tourism in Battambang, Cambodia

Is Battambang in Northeastern Cambodia on the verge to become the Kingdom’s newest and-in some ways- trendiest destination in the years to come?

Cambodia’s second largest city with a population of 150,000 inhabitants is rapidly emerging on the ASEAN tourism map. The city benefits from a very good location along the main road axis linking Thailand to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. A factor which already is reflected in public transport: Battambang is one of the few destinations to be linked by regular bus services to Bangkok beside regular domestic services to Phnom Penh, Poipet and Siem Reap.

Regular bus services have helped to attract visitors. According to the latest available data from the Ministry of tourism, Battambang is Cambodia fifth most visited city. The city welcomed in 2015 close to 600,000 visitors (including 95,000 international travellers) and stands behind Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Kampot.

Before the end of the decade, the city could largely reach the million domestic and international travellers. According to studies, most foreign visitors to Battambang are originated from Thailand, Vietnam as well as France. Battambang currently has 37 hotels with a total of 1,748 rooms while 86 guesthouses have 1,084 rooms.

What is now missing for Battambang are international chains which would provide world recognition to the city.

But the absence of an international airport – the current air facility has been closed for decades- is certainly a deterrent factor for international chains as it still takes three hours to reach Siem Reap International Airport, five hours drive to be in Phnom Penh and six hours to be in Bangkok.

In the last few years, Battambang emerged as an alternative destination for tourists interested in colonial architecture. The city gained especially fame with the presence of Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus, a NGO initiative which started in the early 1990s with art and music courses for traumatized abandoned children. It has since grown to an internationally acclaimed art show, with underprivileged or orphaned street kids being the circus’ artists. The campus of the circus school is based in a brand new facility and proposes twice a week performances opened for visitors.

Phare Ponleu Selpak also contributed to attract a generation of young Cambodian artists as well as an emerging gastronomy scene with young local and foreign chefs. Cheap rental spaces, a conducive atmosphere for arts are turning Battambang into the new place to visit.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Governor’s house in Battambang

And it is now the Cambodian government, which starts to look closely at Battambang’s potential.  Recently, Cambodia Minister of Tourism Thong Khon mentioned about studies conducted in cooperation with Hungary to find ways to develop the city into a new heritage tourist destination. The historical town revolves around the old Governor’s House with the provincial museum and a couple of historical temples.

Mr. Khon said the plan with Hungary to develop Battambang province involves the creation of tourist accommodation, improvements in transport, better security for travellers as well as enforcing better mechanisms to ensure that tourists are not cheated.

A particular point of the studi is to identify and protect historical structures. The plan for a heritage zone is currently awaiting approval from the Cambodian government.

Ho Vandy, secretary-general of the National Tourism Federation of Cambodia, declared to Cambodia media: “This is a dream come true for the people in the province. It will certainly make Battambang more attractive and a must-see place for tourists after they visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap,” he said, adding that Battambang City was becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination for both locals and foreigners.

However, pushing up the development of Battambang to rapidly could also become detrimental to the city’s own slow pace of life and transform it dramatically. The Phnom Penh Post reported already about a flurry of real estate activities with a dozen of projects. The newspaper reports about a US$30 million investent in a 19 hectare district with 1,500 privates houses, a mall and a movie theatre for 300 people. The project is due to be completed around 2020.