To the south lay the remote Cardamom range, to the north Tiger Peak, and farther still the distant Thai border. Tigers reportedly still roam this border, but you’re much more likely to catch malaria than a swipe from a cat’s paw there.
Below our feet are massive caverns that practically hollow out the mountain’s core. Each night at the same time, a swarm of 2 million bats shoot out into the sky – in a twisting, unbroken stream lasting 20 minutes, appearing as one sinuous organism – to feed on the evening insects.
Closer to the where we stand here, the so-called Killing Caves bear witness to a dark Khmer Rouge era. Buddhist monks perform daily blessings at the bottom of the 70 foot deep cave for the ancestors of the local people, thousands of whom died there – most by being casually tossed into the pit along with their children and babies.
Nearby the caves stand Russian-made artillery guns used to shoot at deserters 1000 feet below who were attempting to flee across the Thai border. Later we met an ex-soldier in Phnom Penh whose sister survived that run just 40 years ago.
On a lighter note, the kid in the tree is our self-appointed guide and protector. He lived at the temple you see in the video, and is calling to his friends across the canyon. He insisted on accompanying us, then became increasingly exasperated with our slow pace and frequent photo stops. Wherever you are, kid…sorry for our clueless farang ways!
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).
We walk up a short hill through thick green vegetation. The flowers surrounding us smell so delicious, I want to drink them in a tea or press them onto my skin.
From up on top of this 1000 foot limestone mountaintop, the highest peak for miles around, you can see why Battambang has been nicknamed “the Rice Bowl of Cambodia”– rice fields run as far as the eye can see below.
My tiny young Cambodian guide leads us to a set of stone stairs that will take us down into a dank cave. He pauses, then points to his left. I crane my neck to see where he is gesturing. Then I see a second, smaller opening in the same cave system.
“You can go there,” he says.
I walk over and look down into the dark hole. I would need to get on my belly to squeeze through this…