Battambang, a colonial city with an eclectic style and plenty of history, is attracting an ever-growing movement of artists who are making Cambodia’s second largest city their home. This movement is most evident in the growing presence of local galleries, boutiques, cafes and bars.
About the guest author of this article
My name is Andrea, I am a photographer and currently a bicycle world traveler. I set off from Berlin with my partner in May 2022 to explore the world by bike. Exactly one year later, we are back in Cambodia and currently still in Battambang.
Something has changed.
While it was still difficult to find such artists in 2017, a large visible art scene is now opening up here in Battambang.
Some are thinking about their history and, above all, that of their parents under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. Others are concerned with our planet and a mood of the end of the world is emerging. Still others describe interpersonal relationships and even the problems of politics are addressed here and there. Some bring tradition and new media, laptops and mobiles, into an open discourse.
Some galleries have opened and then closed again, but the artists carry on.
The galleries are often more about commerce, the artists are more about making a statement.
And so a festival took place in June that focused on art education with lots of workshops, but also on street art. Among other things, artists were asked to design walls and create murals, as they had done at two previous festivals.
Meeting with an artist.
We met up with the artist Poy Chhunly, who took us on a tour of the streets of Battambang. In addition to a few historical stories about buildings, he mainly talks about the art scene in Battambang.
For example, he tells us about Sinn Sisamouth, who sang a song about Battambang that everyone in the country knows. He was the king of songwriters in Cambodia from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Chhunley himself trained at Phare and now teaches there alongside his own artistic activities. He wants to expand the art scene and bring artists together. He wants to create a WE. His wife Rose is also a teacher at Phare and an artist. She is also accompanying us on this tour.
It is the next generation of artists, most of them born in the 1980s and 1990s, who are the main players in the current cultural revival. His idea is to set up his own café where the artists can work and sell their art.
Chhunley wants to be seen as an artist and not as a poor Cambodian. He doesn’t want donations, he wants the artists to be perceived and paid as artists. It’s time for them to free themselves from history and look to the future.
We look at various street art works with him and he introduces us to the meanings. He also explains his own work. Street 2.5 is located right in the center of the old town and is home to a handful of art addresses, galleries, cafés and bars with exhibition spaces and a regular program of art events.
Tip: Romcheik 5, Artspace & Cafe is really worth a visit. Take your time, there is a lot to see over 3 floors and afterwards you can fortify yourself on the rooftop in its own cafe surrounded by greenery
Afterwards, Chhunly accompanies us to the studio of an artist who has already prepared snacks and tea for us. She talks about her thoughts, why she became an artist and how she can hold her own as an artist.
Not only do we get an insight into the creative minds of local artists, but we also learn what drives the artists who come to Battambang to express themselves through art and design. A well-rounded, culturally immersive day where we learn about Battambang’s art culture, the colonial era or lost places and their history.
Information about the tour.
The tour costs $15 / person, with a minimum of $60. For privately booked tours, you will be picked up at your accommodation. Public tours take place every Saturday at 7am, meeting point in the center of Battambang. (Tour duration 2-3h)
2 more tours can be booked. One is a Lostplaces Tour, where you get access to 1-2 old movie theaters and can visit some backyards. Of course, he also offers a classic Battambang City Walking Tour.
Further information can be found on the Chhunley website at www.battambang-art.com.
One final thought
Street art wants to be seen. That’s why it exists.
But it’s also free for the viewer. If you see an artist at work, maybe it’s worth a little something to you (a tip, a drink for the artist… the artists will be happy).
And a small downer: unfortunately, the artists are not paid for their art. They receive money for materials and, if necessary, accommodation and food as part of the festival. The usual statement of such festival organizers: “if you work here, then this is also advertising for you”.
About Andrea Künstle: I got to know her personally in 2019 when I joined her regular photo tour through Cambodia. A unique experience! In her blog Streetpepper, she regularly reports on her world tour by bike (Tip: subscribe tot he blog under the menu item “Sign Up”.) Started in Berlin in June 2022, she has been on the road with her husband Klaus for over a year.