Sak shines, again
A Pocket of the Past in Battambang - by Naomi Lindt, The New York Times, 15 December 2011.
Under an electric blue sky, with the morning sun already beating down, Som Sangva Sak stood on a narrow, two-lane bridge over the Sangker River and surveyed his hometown, Battambang, in northwestern Cambodia. “When we talk about heritage conservation in Cambodia, people only think about Angkor Wat. But we also have something special here, something we need to preserve,” said Mr. Sak, 41, gesturing toward the river’s banks, which are lined with a stunning variety of historic structures: French colonial shop houses with arched windows and ornate iron balconies; grand, century-old villas with burgundy-tiled roofs; imposing pagodas with intricate bas-reliefs. Chattering schoolchildren in navy blue-and-white uniforms cycled across the bridge, while fishermen in rickety wooden boats occasionally floated by. “These buildings recall the evolution of Khmer civilization — they connect the past to the present,” he continued. “They symbolize our culture and need to be kept for younger generations.”
For the last seven years, Mr. Sak, an adviser to Battambang’s urban planning team and a part-time tour guide, has acted as a liaison between the German government and the local municipality to build awareness of Battambang’s architectural treasures. (Germany has offered the city assistance and expertise in creating new infrastructure, while protecting its old architecture.) Mr. Sak’s task is particularly relevant in today’s climate, as mass development, largely driven by Chinese investment and wealthy officials, transforms Cambodia’s towns, roads and landscapes.
In Battambang, the local government has taken matters into its own hands, with measures like an educational campaign that focuses on cultural heritage. Meanwhile, private financing is responsible for most building restoration, with the goals of attracting tourism and preserving this gem of a town. With a population of 140,000, Battambang is the country’s second-largest city, though few tourists make it here. Those who do are rewarded with one of the country’s greatest collections of historic structures, from decaying Angkorean temples surrounded by lotus ponds to modernist cinemas built during the country’s 1960s construction boom. They also gain access to one of the country’s richest artistic communities: Battambang has produced generations of artists, a legacy that residents are busy building on. “People are starting to feel proud of their city again,” said Mr. Sak.
I first visited Battambang in 2006 and fell in love with its crumbling charm and lush, picturesque countryside. Its dark, potholed streets and seedy guesthouses, though, weren’t so lovable. But when I heard that a preservation movement was under way, which included new boutique hotels, art galleries and restaurants, many housed in historic buildings, I decided to go back. The floods that hit Cambodia in the early fall delayed my plans. Though Battambang was mostly spared, several streets in the city were underwater, as were sections of the 180-mile route from Phnom Penh, the capital. (Conditions have since improved.) When I finally arrived in November, I spent my first night swathed in Old World charm at La Villa, a seven-room boutique hotel in a stunning two-story home built by a wealthy local tradesman in the 1930s and restored in 2005. Antique armoires, four-poster beds, richly patterned floor tiles and vintage ceiling lamps fill the space. Each night, the hotel’s restaurant serves tender steaks and fish curries to a mature European crowd seated at candlelit tables shaded by hundred-year-old trees.
The next morning I headed to the other side of the river and explored the Heritage Protection Area, a compact district defined by the municipal government in 2009. It’s populated by about 800 historical buildings, the largest collection in the country. I ducked into a squat, roughly 150-year-old Chinese temple with curved gables; the roof was partly collapsed but it was still active. Since most worshipers come in the afternoon, though, I had it to myself, snapping photos of the tattered red Chinese lanterns and colorful paintings on the walls. Nearby is Psar Nath, the city’s main market, housed in a faded yellow Art Deco edifice with a tiered roof and clock tower built in 1936. Shoppers closely inspect goods from glittering wedding apparel to recently killed chickens.
Peaceful as the town might be today, Battambang’s architectural vestiges bear testament to a tumultuous past. Over the last two centuries it has been ruled by Thailand and France. It enjoyed a brief period of freedom during the heady, post-independence days of the 1950s and ’60s before the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Battambang province was one of the regime’s last strongholds — peace wouldn’t arrive until 1997, when the city began to pick up the pieces. Nevertheless, Battambang has produced some of the country’s most famous artists: the 1960s chanteuse Ros Sereysothea, whose popularity persists decades after her death; the late painter Vann Nath; and Chhom Nimol, the frontwoman of the Los Angeles-based indie rock band Dengue Fever.
“Even during Angkorean times, there was a strong, talented group here who wanted to create their own kingdom,” said Theanly Chov, 26, a painter who manages the nine-month-old Sammaki, one of the new galleries that exhibits young local artists. “The combination of cultures — Cambodian, Chinese, Thai, French — makes the city open-minded to art.” Last year, the local government restored a majestic mansion built for the last Thai governor in 1905. On the city’s narrow streets, private owners are sprucing up 1920s and ’30s shop houses and corner buildings and turning some of them into bars and cafes. And a few of the early 20th-century traditional wooden houses on stilts in and around the city are now open for tours.
In 2001, an Australian-Khmer couple, John and Sinouin Parker, transformed one of those homes into the Riverside Balcony Bar, which features an all-wood, open-air veranda. At sunset, a symphony of crickets mesmerizes, as the fading light bathes the surrounding river and towering palm trees. Anna Milligan, originally from Washington State, runs Café Eden in a renovated riverfront shop house. A year ago, Ms. Milligan opened the boho-chic nonprofit cafe, boutique and art space.
While snacking on French fries and peanut butter bars, visitors can gaze upon works by local artists, many of whom are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an arts school established in 1994 by a group of young Cambodians who met in a refugee camp during the 1980s. Tourists are welcome on the school grounds, a 10-minute tuk-tuk drive from the city center down a narrow road on the city’s outskirts, where teenagers play traditional Cambodian instruments and sinewy boys and girls practice juggling, tumbling and modern dance moves for the public performances the school hosts several nights a week. Phare has also become renowned for its fine arts program, which has trained many of the country’s rising young painters and sculptors, like Mao Soviet, who opened the Make Maek Gallery with his wife, Phin Sophorn, also an artist, in September. “Many local artists graduate from Phare and produce a lot of work, but then go to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap because there has been no space to show art,” said Mr. Soviet, a 31-year-old with disheveled hair. Make Maek is out to change that, organizing eight shows throughout the year for local and visiting international artists. The gallery has also spawned an artist-in-residency program.
To raise local awareness about the arts and to lure visitors to the gallery, Make Maek holds an event called “Make Light” every Saturday night, distributing sparklers to neighborhood children and curious passers-by for a half-hour street party, raucous by sleepy Battambang standards. (The city’s street lighting still leaves much to be desired). One of the guests at a recent “Make Light” event was Darren Swallow, a 46-year-old Welshman who has lived in Battambang since 2005. An active promoter of the local art scene and a founder of Sammaki, Mr. Swallow has organized several exhibitions of the city’s artists around Cambodia. “There’s still a ways to go here, but there’s such talent and energy,” he said. “It’s not hectic — you can really live for the moment in Battambang. And that moment stretches into a week for a lot of people.”
If you go: Battambang is a four- to five-hour drive from Phnom Penh by private car ($60; arrange through your hotel) or a six- to eight-hour boat ride from Siem Reap, starting at $20. (The U.S. dollar is the de facto currency in Cambodia.) The small, pedestrian- and bike-friendly town is easy to navigate. Note that local drivers generally know the name of a business, not the street address.
Where to stay: La Villa’s spacious rooms ooze history and charm (855-53-730-151; lavilla-battambang.net) and start at $60 per night. The year-old Bambu Battambang Hotel (855-53-953-900; bambuhotel.com), a 10-minute walk from La Villa and a few minutes’ drive from the town center, has a resortlike feel. The 16 rooms, from $80 a night, are spread across four raised wooden houses. At the eco-friendly Sanctuary Villa (Chrey Kong Village; 855-972-167-168; sanctuaryvilla.derlengtours.com), just outside of town, the seven silk-accented bungalows surround a saltwater pool; rates from $86 per night. A mile from the town center, the eco-hotel Au Cabaret Vert (855-53-656-2000; aucabaretvert.fr), opened a year ago, has a restaurant that serves French fare. Doubles, $66.
Where to eat: Khmer Delight (one block south of Psar Nath; 855-12-671-911; entrees from $3) is a reliable spot for cheap, well-made local food, while Pomme d’Amour (63 Street 2.5; 855-12-415-513; entrees from $5) offers creative French-Khmer fusion cuisine. Café Eden (85 Street 1; 855-53-73-1525; entrees from $2.50) serves some of the best comfort food you’ll find in Cambodia. The Riverside Balcony Bar (about a mile south of the town center along the west bank of the Sangker River; 855-53-730-313) is easily Battambang’s most atmospheric spot for dollar drafts.
What to see and do: For a self-guided walking door of Battambang’s buildings, download the two free maps released last year by the nonprofit organization Khmer Architecture Tours. Som Sangva Sak (855-12-599-890) conducts private architectural city tours and trips to outlying temples in the countryside starting at $20 for a half day. The old wooden houses of Wat Kor are three miles outside of town; visitors can tour two homes with the French-speaking owners. English speakers should bring a guide. In January, the village’s first boutique hotel opens, Maisons Wat Kor (855-98-555-377; maisonswatkor.com; doubles from $70). Its eight rooms are in three buildings modeled on their historic neighbors. Check out works by local artists at Sammaki Gallery (87 Street 2.5; 855-17-968-050) and Make Maek Gallery (66 Street 2.5; 855-17-946-108). Visitors are welcome at Phare Ponleu Selpak (Anch Anh Village; 855-53-952-424); hourlong circus performances take place five times a week, starting at 7 p.m.; tickets are $8.