THIS February saw the screening of Angelina Jolie’s soon-to-be-released film project First They Killed My Father in front of Cambodian royalty at Angkor Wat. The movie is based on the life of a Khmer Rouge survivor.
Much of the filming took place in tiny riverside Battambang, a scenic boat ride away, in the country’s west and it’s easy to see why this bijou French colonial town was chosen as a location.
The main street is full of French(ish) restaurants and lively bars in crumbling 1930s settings. The chilled vibe means you don’t have to be part of the Hollywood brigade to hang out here feeling a soupcon chic for more than just a “petite” while.
The Battambang nightlife will feel positively sedate if you are just arriving from boisterous Siem Reap. Head to Pomme, in imaginatively named Pub Street, for a chilled Chardonnay, pumpkin croquettes and board games.
If you’re feeling a bit fancy, then nearby Jaan Bai, which also supports the Cambodian Children’s Trust, is the go-to for peppercorn crab and excellent eggplant dumplings.
If you’re feeling very fancy then treat yourself to a night at La Villa where, rumor has it, Jolie and her entourage encamp. It is exquisitely restored to its Art Deco splendor complete with claw foot baths and jaunty gramophone. The resident pooch is a crowd-pleaser.
If you’re not feeling at all fancy then head down the street to Madison Corner for really cheap beer or a rough red, then slurp a spicy Khmer soup at White Rose. It’s not posh, but it has a fetchingly French balcony.
The highlight of any trip to Battambang is the bamboo railway. Akin to a large, flat skateboard powered by a motorcycle engine, this rickety platform clicks over uneven rail lines at some speed whilst between two and twelve passengers huddle aboard on cushions. Hold on tight.
If you have time, then hire a motorbike to whiz through the surrounding countryside. At the end of a hard day in the saddle, stop just on the edge of town for a beer and a pizza at the delightful Aussie-run Riverside Balcony Bar. If that pace is a bit too much, you can hire bicycles and kayaks in town for more leisurely outings.
It wouldn’t be Cambodia without the odd temple ruin or two. Wat Ek Phnom dates from the 11th century and is worth a look. Perched on a hill and slightly more macabre is Phnom Sampeau where prisoners were battered to death and thrown into a cave during the terrors of the Khmer Rouge.
Their bones, now a shrine, are a sobering sight and a reminder you’re never too far from this country’s less French, but more bloody history.
Hopefully, Angelina Jolie’s impending Netflix flick will do a little more to shine light on the struggles and terror that have faced this warm, “magnifique” people.