View of the whole cavern
Battambang's proximity to the countryside is the main draw for the tourists who do make it to the town. Unlike Siem Reap, it is possible to rent a motor bike though people do hire tuk tuks and motor taxis.
As an excuse to get out into the countryside, we headed to the site of Phnom Sampeau, infamous for its “killing caves” which were used by the Khmer Rouge. The road started out paved but quickly became dirt which was stirred up into clouds of dust as cars went by. People on motorbikes wear face masks. The countryside is flat with fields, dry lakes with lotus flowers and lily pads looking strangely abandoned by water on stems a couple feet from the mud.
Motorcycling through the countryside
We passed a couple duck farms. A group of ducks walked alongside the road in a long parade. Sometimes we'd pass a small village with wooden shop shacks lining the road. Our map wasn't too clear and at first we worried about missing the turn off to Phnom Sampeau. Then I rememebered, “Phnom means hill. Any hill is going to be pretty obvious since everything is so flat.” So far I'd seen about 2 hills in Cambodia. Sure enough, in the distance, a hill appeared through the haze with gold spikes of Wat Sampeau. The road soon became lined with restaurants and people selling stuff, a sure sign we were in the right place. At the foot of the hill, workers were in the process of carving a standing Buddha into the mountain.
We climbed the stairway up the mountain. The stairs branched off so we chose one set and ended up by a shrine. Then, taking a forest path, we ended back on the other set of stairs. At the top of the mountain was a wat and various shrines. Below the land stretched flat into the distance-- field, ponds, and patches of jungle alternating until they blended into the haze.
Shrine tower on Phnom Sampeau
View from Phnom Sampeau
From the back of the wat, I noticed a steep staircase going down a gap between tall limestone walls. We followed it down and the walls became a kind of open grotto-- a natural tunnel through the rocks. The light washed in through the greenness of the jungle and touched 2 statues on the floor of the grotto. Strange limestone formations hung from the ceiling. Two women pointed out to us that if we stood on one side one looked like a cobra and another, a person hanging upside down (or a dragon). On one side of the grotto was an indentation holding a statue of a child. There were a couple caves off to the sides. One held a Buddha statue in the back lit in the darkness by candles. It was a dark secretive cave filled with the smell of incense. Another smaller cave seemed to hold just a lot of mosquitoes. Outside butterflies fluttered like lost souls.
Stairway to the caves
Inside one of the caves
Statue in the grotto
I believe these caves are known as the “killing caves” because the Khmer Rouge executed people and left the remains in the caves.
Next, we headed down the road to Phnom Banan. Wat Banan, located on the top of the hill, is the ruin of an 11th century Angkor temple. Locals say its 5 towers were the inspiration for Angkor Wat. The towers were fairly ruined but the central one still had intact carvings. Since it was on a hill it had a great view.
Kids at entrance of Wat Banan
View from Phnom Banan
We walked back down and went to a restaurant for a drink. The woman had come up to us trying to sell drinks but unlike the drink pushers at Angkor she didn't annoy us. I suppose it is mutual. The farther we get from touristy areas the less pushy people become. This in turn makes us more friendly and polite. In touristy places it seems like everyone drives each other crazy.
Stairway up Phnom Banan
Pond at foot of Phnom Banan
We bought a pomegranate green tea drink and she served glasses with ice. The tourist policeman-- a boyish looking young man-- was swinging in a hammock. Two other men sat at a table. They started talking to us. The usual questions-- Where are you from? How long are you in Cambodia for? Etc. When Rowshan said he was from Iran, they expressed approval which surprised us because 1. Most people get Iran and Iraq mixed up and 2. Usually only Muslims are impressed by Rowshan being Iranian. These men clarified. The reason for their approval of Iran was their disapproval of what Israel was doing against the Palestinians. Rowshan asked the tourist policeman if other Iranians had come there and the policeman said, “You are the first.” One of the other men spoke English decently. He was older with a grin revealing most of his teeth were missing. He had traveled in China in the 60s. The policeman asked Rowshan if he knew how to play Cambodian chess. Rowshan responded he knew how to play regular chess but not whatever “Cambodian” chess was. The policeman and one of the other men sat down to play Cambodian chess. As far as I can tell, Cambodian chess is the same as regular chess except there might be a few pieces missing and shells had replaced most of the pawns. However the main difference is the way they play. Most of the time chess is silent and thoughtful. They played it more like backgammon-- quickly with much banter and baiting.
Girl drinking fresh coconut milk
A boisterous game of Cambodian Chess
We left them to their game and headed back to town. We stopped by a wat with trees full of bats near it. The road continued past wooden stilt houses with Brahmin bulls wandering around and grazing in front, and people resting in hammocks underneath, avoiding the heat of the day. Above, clouds dotted the sky like thought bubbles of a distracted person.
Bat flying around bat tree near wat
We found some kids who were beating the heat in a different way. In a muddy water-filled irrigation ditch, a group of kids were fishing. They had dammed off an area of the water and then bailed out the water with a basket. The kids scrambled around in the mud catching fish by hand, coating themselves with mud in the process.
The road but seemed to be getting farther from the river instead of going along it as we thought it would. At an intersection we asked directions... simply, “Battambang?” 3 different people simultaneously pointed down the 3 different roads available. Fortunately a guy who knew English appeared and was able to direct us to the river. The river is muddy but that doesn't stop people from swimming, bathing and washing everything it. Houses that are more like open terraces line it with hammocks hanging under the thatched or corrugated metal roofs.
Woman bathing in river
House next to the river
We tried to find the bamboo train stop (which wasn't where we thought it was the previous night). We turned off the main road and seemed to be going along a dirt road in a jungle with little wooden and thatch houses that reminded me of the village we visited near Pucalpa-- but this was only about 5 minutes from the center of a city. We ended up getting a bit lost and since we were tired and dusty, we headed back into town.
A dusty road