The flower on the Sangke River: Tracing the history of creativity in Battambang

Romcheik 5 collective artist Bo Hak works with wood in his outdoor workspace behind the gallery.
Romcheik 5 collective artist Bo Hak works with wood in his outdoor workspace behind the gallery. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

For well over a century, Battambang has stood out in Cambodia as a cradle of culture, producing renowned artists, writers, poets, musicians and thinkers. Why this provincial city is a hotbed for creativity is somewhat of a mystery – but the answer may lie in a fortuitous combination of history, politics and geography.

The stable of artists and eccentrics includes golden age singer Ros Sereysothea, writer and poet Kong Bunchhoeun, master mason Tan Veut, painter and writer Vann Nath, and more recently acclaimed sculptor Sopheap Pich, among many others.

Singer Sinn Sisamouth, despite hailing from Stung Treng, made Battambang his home, and composed countless songs referencing the town and its relation to the arts. Perhaps most famously, the song Flower on the Sangke River – which describes a beautiful woman – has become a moniker for the city itself, which is situated on the waterway.

“Oh, artists, please stop drawing!/There is no girl as worthy [to be drawn] in the world/Except the flower on the Sangke River,” he croons.

A boat passes by Psar Nath market on Battambang's Sangke River.
A boat passes by Psar Nath market on Battambang's Sangke River. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

The natural beauty of the province is frequently evoked, both in its plethora of rivers, hills, and lakes, and in its people – with the purported beauty of the women often front and centre in song and poetry.

“The breaking waves in the river give the color of gold/The white clouds are floating in the late evening’s sky,” writes Kong Bunchhoeun about the floating fishing village of Bak Prea, about 30 kilometres northeast of the city, in his collection of poems Konab Sneha Meas, or “golden love poems”.

But inspiring scenery is just one explanation for the province’s cultural force, argues historian and anthropologist Dr Michel Tranet. Other factors, he believes, are economic.

“First of all, it has been a rich province, with the highest yields of rice and crops, and livestock,” he explained. Fertile soil and a strong irrigation system ensure a rich and bountiful harvest, which, he says, means the people can focus on art and are well-fed.

“The high nutrient food produced in the province gives people energy and good health, which also contributes to their thinking and creativity, which at the same time improves their beauty,” he said.

Details on Wat Damrei Sor show a Khmer-Thai mix.
Details on Wat Damrei Sor show a Khmer-Thai mix. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

While the stereotype of Battambang locals’ appearance is impossible to verify, the city’s mix of charm and different cultures is apparent.

On the riverfront, one is immediately confronted with Wat Damrey Sor – or the “White Elephant” pagoda – which is notable for its blend of Khmer and Thai aesthetics. Historically a centre of learning, monks still take Thai language classes inside.

According to Tranet, local artists and art historians, Wat Damrey Sor is just one of many of many temples in the city that contribute to its strong cultural heritage.

A short walk up the riverfront, which at night bustles with energy and mouth-watering street food, the city centre is a cluster of French-colonial buildings around Psar Nath market. For many, the mix of French, Thai and Khmer cultures permeating the province is key to its creativity.

Art historian and Battambang native Reaksmey Yean, 26, who studied traditional music at Phare Ponleu Selpak, says that following the Angkorian period, the era of Thai vassalage from the late 18th until early 20th century and French occupation until 1953 led to an “artistic crisscrossing” that shaped the region’s identity. Battambang was also significant trading crossroads for the gems and precious stones sourced in the area.

“When you have that, there’s always an energy for artists to come by,” he said.

26-year-old art historian Reaksmey Yean at the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus.
26-year-old art historian Reaksmey Yean at the Phare Ponleu Selpak campus. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Tranet gives a similar analysis, saying that the resulting exchange of cultures and ideas led to a more open-minded society. “The people also tend to accept new ideas and concepts,” he said.

But despite foreign influences, the arts may also benefit from what Yean says is a society that values independent thinking, which some say is a product of Battambang’s political culture and history.

According to Tor Vutha, a founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak, the culture of “autonomy” in the area can be traced back to the Angkorian era. Though under control of the Angkorian empire, it functioned as a self-governing city-state “in terms of running the economy and legislation”.

“The people saw themselves as independent people,” he added.

Even when the province was under Thai rule, it maintained a degree of self-rule with a hereditary “Lord” Aphaiwong, who even set up his own court ballet – which historian Olivier de Bernon said may have rivalled the prestige of the Royal Ballet in Phnom Penh.

Choun Southin, a 54-year-old painter and sculptor, at his workshop in Battambang.
Choun Southin, a 54-year-old painter and sculptor, at his workshop in Battambang. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Other foreign influences also crept in. “France influenced the way we dress, and Thailand influenced Battambang’s dialect and sculpture,” Vutha notes.

Vutha still feels the history and artistic legacy today, but not all locals notice the influences.

“Maybe 50 percent of people think about it that way,” says Monisovanya Ry, a 21-year-old graphic design student at Phare. She says many people simply see the city’s culturally rich buildings and pagodas as nothing more than the structures they are. “They don’t recognise it,” she explains.

As elsewhere, the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 decimated the city, and the civil war that dragged on until the early 1990s left a void in the province’s otherwise uninterrupted cultural output.

Choun Southin, a 54-year-old Battambang resident who keeps a shop on the outskirts of town, may be among the last of his kind. At his workshop, he casts pagoda ornamentations and sculpts buddhas in Battambang’s Khmer-Thai style. He’s also a painter – one of few to have learned from survivors of the Pol Pot regime.

“Battambang used to be very famous for its artistic aspects, but it’s all disappeared,” he said, adding that “after the Khmer Rouge it’s re-emerged really slowly”.

Many attribute that resurgence to Phare Ponleu Selpak, the organisation borne out of Thai border refugee camps in the 1980s and officially founded in 1994.

“Without Phare there’s not much,” said Alain Troulet, the founder of Battambang’s Romcheik 5 art collective.

For him, Battambang’s history of fostering artists is the “icing on the cake”, but not key to the city’s current arts community.

He said that Phare’s blank-canvas “draw-what-you-feel” approach to arts education created a unique generation of artists, including those at Romcheik 5 and others like painter Nov Cheanick.

They were “virgins” free of the influence of classical arts education and the internet, he said.

A portrait sits in the workshop of Battambang artist Choun Southin, who learned from the few painters who survived the Khmer Rouge regime.
A portrait sits in the workshop of Battambang artist Choun Southin, who learned from the few painters who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

But for Cheanick, who resides in a wooden pastoral home at the edge of town, Battambang’s ineffable qualities and its people make it ripe for the arts.

“In Battambang, most people know art, music and painting – they just know,” he says over a beer at Choco L’art Café – a hip coffee shop owned by a Phare graduate. What might be needed for even more artistic growth, he said, is more concrete support.

“If there was more focused support for the arts in Battambang, I’m sure it would grow fast,” he said.