Battambang: The Heart of Cambodia’s Art Scene
A trip to Battambang offers more than the famous French architecture and bat caves. The sleepy city offers the best of Khmer art.
I don’t realize the woman before me is one of Cambodia’s most celebrated artists, but I’m captivated by her paintings.
At Jewel in the Lotus Gallery in Battambang, Khchao Touch leafs through her bold, bright, colorful works and explains their backstories. Everything has meaning.
One piece, in particular, brings her back to a meditation retreat outside Battambang, honing in on big thoughts about seemingly simple concepts like emotion.
“Why sad? Why not always be happy?” she relays to me as, just an hour after arriving to Battambang, I get the hunch this is a very, very special place.
Indeed, Cambodia’s second-largest city has a long and rich tradition of art. Many of the country’s most famous musicians and artists were born here, including 1960s star Ros Sereysothea, who is often regarded as the best female singer in Cambodian history, and Vann Nath, the renowned painter who survived S-21. And though nearly all of Cambodia’s artists were wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, Battambang is once again seeing a thriving arts community. It’s arguably the most exciting place to see contemporary art in the Kingdom right now.
Clearly, residents are proud of this aspect of Battambang’s backstory. Sereysothea’s image seems to follow me all over town: there she is on a mural near my guest house, hanging out with Sinn Sisamouth; there she is again, looking wistful with a microphone, outside a trendy restaurant; and there she is at Jewel in the Lotus, in multiple portraits by Nicolas C. Grey, the British artist who now calls Cambodia home. I find one of a cartoonish Sereysothea performing at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by jellyfish, particularly captivating. I decide to take it home.
Cambodia’s art capital
Touch’s husband owns Jewel in the Lotus, and it’s a charming, quirky home to both art and old photographs, zines and comics. Nearby, there’s Sangker Art Space and Gallery, with regular exhibitions from local artists. A short walk away gets you to Choco L’Art Cafe, an inviting gallery-cafe where you can appreciate art in the cool company of fantastic French pastries. The chocolate-hazelnut cake holds an elite reputation and is, understandably, sold out when I mosey over, but I can wholeheartedly recommend the flaky, buttery fruit tarts.
Choco L’Art is ran by painter Pra Ke, a graduate of Cambodia’s legendary circus and arts school Phare Ponleu Selpak. Many of the artists filling the walls of Battambang came from Phare, which is located just outside downtown Battambang. Though the circus in Siem Reap gets all the attention, you can see it — and tour the school — in Battambang, too.
Across the Sangkae River, through a part of town that very quickly starts to feel like the countryside, I stroll toward Romcheik 5 Art Space, which was founded by four young artists who, too, graduated from Phare. And I arrive in a state of confusion. The lights are turned off in what looks like somebody’s home, with four shirtless guys playing cards at a table outside. But, quickly, they spring into action: they’re the artists, Bor Hak, Hour Seyha, Nget Chanpenh, and Mil Chankrim, who live and work here. Within minutes, the gallery is open, with its white brick walls, premium lighting, three levels, and more than 100 pieces on display.
On this day, the main exhibit is by Hak and Seyha, featuring paintings and sculptures under a woodsy theme. Throughout this and the other collections, there’s a palpable sense of darkness, loss, abandonment and suffering, speaking to the shared past of the artists. They grew up in refugee camps in Thailand, forced into child labor before being taken in by an NGO. Now, they have their art and each other.
Emotionally challenging? Definitely. But the visit is creatively rewarding and soul nurturing — a sharp look into the present and exciting future of Cambodia’s contemporary art scene.
Of course, it’s healthy to break up a weekend of art contemplation with other activities.
For a breath of fresh country air and a lighter look into Battambang’s past, I venture to the city’s famed bamboo train, the last rail journey of its kind in Cambodia. The “train” is a wooden frame with slats of bamboo, sitting on two bogies with an engine. For $5, you get about an hour of lush greenery, palm trees and water buffalo, as well as the pure entertainment of the train system itself. With a single track for two directions, the right of way typically goes to the car carrying more passengers—and then the other must disembark, literally take the train apart, wait and put it back together. At one point, as a driver helps take another car apart, his own starts rolling toward him—with a family of five on board. It picks up speed, fast. He jumps out of the way and then chases after it, jumping onto the engine to slow it down just as it rams into another group. Fortunately, everyone is left smiling.
Back in town, along with the basic pleasures of strolling through quiet streets, admiring old colonial and Khmer architecture and stumbling into peaceful temple complexes, Battambang also offers some excellent eating and drinking.
I luck out on a reservation at Jaan Bai, a social enterprise restaurant that also has ties to David Thompson, the chef behind Bangkok’s Nahm, which was recently named the one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. That effectively means you can try Nahm’s exquisitely balanced pad Thai at Jaan Bai without the pretense or hefty price tag. With its hip setting, intriguing cocktails and lively flavors, it’s a spot I wish I could frequent in Phnom Penh.
On my last morning, I head to Kinyei Cafe, which locals argue serves the best coffee in all of Cambodia. Home to a couple of former Cambodian National Barista Championships winners, the drinks are expertly made and often unique, such as the Cambodian Cappuccino, laden with coconut, pineapple and palm sugar. Indeed, in Battambang, there’s creativity just about everywhere you look.
BY: Janelle Bitker