Lay eyes on Battambang’s hilltop pagoda and historical sites by day; be dazzled by the natural spectacle of millions upon millions of bats streaming out of the caves at dusk.
The fabled limestone outcrop is called Phnom Sampeau which means “Ship Mountain”. Crowned by the pretty hilltop pagoda complex of Wat Sampeau, the peak offers gorgeous views of Battambang’s green fields as far as the eye can see. The mountainside is riddled with caves, filled with dozens of Buddhist shrines and statues, the most significant of which is Pkasla, where locals come to celebrate after a marriage.
The Killing Caves
About halfway up to the summit, a 250m well-made diversion road goes up to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau. Under the Khmer Rouge, the pagoda became a detention centre with the mountainside serving a sinister purpose – countless people were mercilessly pushed over the precipice onto the jagged rocks below. Others fell to their death through holes in the roof of the caves, shoved forward by Khmer Rouge commanders.
A series of steps flanked by green vegetation leads into a cavern, where a golden reclining Buddha lies next to a glass-walled memorial filled with bones and skulls – the remains of some of the people bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge and then thrown through the skylight above. Next to the base of the stairway is the old memorial, a rusty cage made of chicken wire and cyclone fencing and partly filled with human bones.
The Buddhist Hell
Close to the Killing Caves lies a statue park depicting scenes of Naraka, a kind of Buddhist Hell. These statue tableau are found at religious sites elsewhere in Cambodia and Southeast Asia; especially Thailand. Each scene depicts what a wrongdoer might expect as punishment or correction for their sins.
The God of death, Yama, reads from the book of justice and the sinners are treated appropriately; depending on what they have done during their lives. Those who slander or lie might have their tongues torn out; a mother guilty of infanticide might have to forever suckle a monster; those who have unnatural intercourse are made to climb a thorny tree that has knives to lacerate their flesh; those who mistreat or kill animals for pleasure are boiled in hot oil; and so on; for each sin there is a punishment.
There are many different Narakas; each one a separate Hell for that particular sin.
Spectacular Bat Show
Visit Phnom Sampeau in the afternoon, and stay to watch the bats fly out of their caves at the bottom of the hill at dusk. This jaw-dropping natural show begins around 6pm with the emergence of a millions-strong colony of Asian wrinkled-lipped bats. The display lasts a good 30 minutes as millions of bats head out in a looping line to their feeding grounds.The winged wonders do a fine job of reducing the number of pesky insects that feed on important crops in Battambang’s paddies and plantations.
Fortunately, these bats were not disturbed by the works to create giant buddhas (one lying, one sitting) that were carved into the rock face of Phnom Sampeou, and right next to the bat cave opening, reliefs of apsara dancers.
How to get there
- Most moto and tuktuk drivers will be familiar with Wat Sampeau. Once you’ve got a driver lined up, the journey is an easy 14 kilometres southwest from the city along National Highway 57 towards Pailin.
- If you’re making a day visit and want to give the bat show a miss, you can head to Phnom Sampeau on National Highway 57 then continue southeast to Phnom Banan and return to Battambang via Road 154, which hugs a picturesque, meandering canal.
Guide to visiting
- Snacks and refreshments are on sold at the base of the mountain – stock up on water if you plan to make the climb to the top!
- Climbing the 700 or so steps will bring you to about 135 metres high to survey spectacular sweeping vistas – but be warned, the way is steep. Alternatively, follow the winding path to the top or hop on the back of one of the motos endorsed for the purpose, who wait for fares at the bottom. They cost US$3 going up and bringing you back down.
- Both of the walking routes can take an hour or so be prepared for a steep climb, which is best made in shoes rather than flip flops, and try to avoid midday sun and afternoon storms during the wet season.
- Unexploded ordnance may still linger on Phnom Sampeau (a defensive minefield targeting the Khmer Rouge along the Thai-Cambodia border means that Battambang is one of the provinces worst affected by landmines), so do not stray from the designated paths.
- The grounds of the mountain are home to various monkeys, and a troupe descend upon offerings of fruit left at the shrines – they are best avoided as they can quickly turn aggressive.