The ancient ruins of Ek Phnom Temple are quiet most days of the week. Monks peek curiously out of their bare wooden stilt houses at travelers. Dogs sleep in the sun, leaves rustle and families from surrounding villages picnic upon giant blocks of weathered and chiseled sandstone. It is an impressive, but also defiantly local, attraction.
Thought to have been built by the Angkor Empire in the early 11th century during pre-Buddhist times, the original Wat still stands, but barely. It has been semi-demolished by hundreds of years of looters – especially the Khmer Rouge, as legend has it – and also by time’s steady hand.
Eighteen trees surround the Wat, rumored to have sprouted from saplings from the original Bodhi Tree in India (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment).
The temple is now a visually chaotic jumble of gravity-defying, crazily leaning archways, stone blocks and crumbling walls.
Its disrepair seems even starker next to the massive, gleaming new white and gold temple built just 10 years ago, and constructed (for some reason) directly in front of it.
When we motorbiked out to the Wat, it was busier than usual due to a local festival. We were there to film a large traditional wedding re-enactment put on during the festival by the people of the local villages along the Sangker River.
BUT…. the re-enactment didn’t happen. And nobody could explain to us exactly why. We made the most of the day anyway, with Stax in her finest people-watching mode:
What do they say about motorbikes? You’ve gotta get back on them? Or is that horses?
Even after all our failed attempts to reach Wat Banan, Stax and I aren’t willing to let ourselves be deterred by a minor life-threatening crash or two. No way, not us. We hop directly back on the motorbike the very next day, injuries and all, to explore the mountain realm of Phnom Sampeau.
A long and steep climb by motorbike – the same one we crashed the day before – up precarious cement pathways choked with weeds and potholes brings us finally to the top of this large block of limestone that dominates the view of the countryside just west of Battambang.
Wat Phnom Sampeau, meanwhile, is among the most spectacular- and peculiar – sites we will encounter in Cambodia. From the rocky peak, the golden spires of the Wat gleam over sheer limestone cliffs and caves, while to the north, Tiger Mountain rears up out of the flat ricelands and afternoon field smoke like some ghostly green monster rising out of a lake.
I should mention, we never would have found the narrow route to this viewpoint without the impromptu guidance of a monkey-like 9 year old kid with a dirty baseball cap named Than who starts walking alongside us as we approach the Wat. At first we don’t understand where he is trying to guide us. The narrow path he walks toward appears to simply dead-end at a sheer cliff.
He flashes us a look of annoyance, pointing again – these dumb Farang and their petty fears! – and we decide what the hey? Good thing. Along the cliff’s edge is a stony path leading to a steep wooden ladder someone has nailed into a gap in the limestone. Following the scrawny kid, who’s scrambled up and down the ladder three times already to see what’s taking us so long, we squeeze our way through the gap and scramble over the sharp rocks to a stunning overlook.
The kid gets bored waiting for us to marvel at the view and clambers down back to the Wat with his buddies, but not before signaling them of his whereabouts.
Inside Wat Phnom Sampeau, the scenes from the Buddha’s life and ministry are presented in absurdly vivid, almost Marvel comic-book style.
Outside the Wat lies a steaming primary deciduous forest – one of the only primary stands we will see in logging-ravaged Cambodia – filled with mischievous monkeys, barefoot children who run about the temples as if they live there, and colorful flora. We finally head down for the day with the sun sinking below the haze. But before we can turn onto the highway back to Battambang, one more surprise awaits us. Two million bats are poised to fly out of the pitch-black caverns deep below Phnom Sampeau and out into the sky to feed in a nightly ritual. (Sorry, cell phone video so it’s not great quality).