The geographically diverse and remote region of Northern Cambodia shares borders with Thailand to the north and Laos to the northeast.
Today, improved highways allow visitors to reach previously unexplored regions. From the spectacular UNESCO protected temple of Prasat Preah Vihear to the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin in Kratie, a visit to the north will delight any traveller.
Northern Cambodia’s History
The earliest known evidence of human settlement in the region dates back to 4300 BC when hunter-gatherers inhabited caves in the northwest. Between the 6th and 7th centuries, Chenla rulers built several temples in the region.
Northern Cambodia was overrun by invading Thai forces on numerous occasions during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Thai armies used the region as a gateway to the rest of the country in their quest to pillage the Khmer Empire. In the late 18th century, parts of the northwest were annexed by the Thais and finally returned to Cambodia in 1946.
In the 20th century, Khmer Rouge forces passed through the region as they retreated north from Phnom Penh, ahead of the Vietnamese Army. Battambang, the country’s second largest city, is fast emerging as a popular tourist destination.
Known for producing the nation’s finest rice and oranges, the city also has crumbling French Colonial villas, shophouses, and a riverfront promenade.
The nearby ruins of Wat Banan and Banteay Chmmar make for excellent day trips. The remote northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, where tourism is still in its infancy, receive few visitors.
However, both have many ethnic minority villages, herds of wild elephants, waterfalls, and beautiful grassy landscapes. Yaek Lom Lake, a beautiful crater lake with inviting verdigris water, is a perfect picnic spot.
The northeast has a few excellent ecolodges and eco-trekking organizations, while farther south the town of Kratie is renowned for its sunsets and the Irrawaddy dolphin. The temple ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk and Koh Ker are well worth a visit. The region is also known for its stone handicrafts, and silk items such as kramas (scarves) and shirts.
Exploring Northern Cambodia
Although the provincial roads of Northern Cambodia remain dusty and unpaved for the most part, the region’s untouched beauty more than makes up for this drawback. The city of Battambang, renowned for its unique, one-track bamboo train, can be reached by improved highways or a picturesque boat ride from Siem Reap.
The temple ruins of Prasat Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, and Sambor Prei Kuk make for interesting diversions, while the province of Kompong Thom, with its emerald paddy fields, is home to the unusual Phnom Santuk and the Santuk Silk Farm.
A visit to the far-flung provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, which offer rolling hills, volcanic lakes, and lush green forests, is also a rewarding experience.
Cambodia’s second largest city and a provincial capital, Battambang lies a short distance southwest of the Tonlé Sap Lake. Sitting by the Stung Sangker and surrounded by beautiful, verdant countryside, the city has been under Thai influence for much of its history and was returned to Cambodia only in 1907.
The impact of the French Colonial administration on the city is evident from the number of Colonial villas and shophouses still surviving today, hidden down side streets and by the riverside. In the centre of town stands Psar Nath, a sprawling mustard-hued Art Deco market that was built in 1936 and is well worth a visit. The most charming area of the city is by the river, south of this bustling market.
The Battambang Provincial Museum located here houses an eclectic Angkorian and pre-Angkorian collection of statuary, pottery, and traditional musical instruments. Battambang is only now finding an identity as a tourist destination, with a number of excellent cafés and Colonial style hotels starting to open up. The natural beauty of the rural countryside surrounding the city must not be missed.
Battambang’s Bamboo Trains
Or noris in Khmer, are indigenous to Battambang province and seem to have developed in response to a lack of local public transport. A cheap and effective way for locals to travel, they were created from flatbed minesweepers that were used in the Civil War of the 1980s.
Noris are assembled on the track, which is often warped, and have no brakes. It is worth travelling by these trains for the experience.
Running on a single track, the bamboo trains are ideal for transporting produce and livestock. When trains heading in opposite directions meet, the one with the lighter load is removed to let the other pass.
A bamboo platform is mounted on a steel frame with wheels a few inches from the track, making up the train’s structure. Power is supplied from a motorcycle engine and belt drive housed at the rear axle.
Please read our article on Battambang’s other attractions here!