David G | Mar 21, 2020 | 0
Battambang Day Trip: Phnom Sampeau, the Killing Caves, and the Bat Caves
While Battambang is the third-largest city in Cambodia, it is a very sleepy and tranquil city compared to what you may experience in Vietnam. The surroundings of the city are immensely beautiful, as just a short ride out from the city, you will marvel at amazing sights of green rice paddies stretching out on the horizon. More often than not, these rice paddies are towered upon by limestone hills, each one of them has its own story of how it came to be. Today, we will focus on the Phom Sampeau, which is the perfect example of how Cambodia is sometimes a land of contradictions. You will explore the recent bloody history of this area in the Killing Caves, while being amazed at how nature has regained its grasp over here, on this short day trip from Battambang,
So, without further ado, let’s learn something about the Phnom Sampeau, and why should you visit this amazing site while you’re in Battambang!
More About Phnom Sampeau
Phnom Sampeau is a limestone hill that has numerous caves to explore. You can instantly recognize it for the golden temple on top of it, that you can see from the distance.
We would love to delve into the folklore of this amazing landmark. First, from the terminology perspective, we can split the name of this hill into two pieces:
- Phnom means hill
- Sampeau means ship
Now, there is one short and cryptic legend that connects to the creation of this hill, and how it got its name. This is the legend of Princess Neang Rumsay Sok. The legend goes that the titular princess was rejected by her love, Prince Reach Kol. He rejected her because he went on to fight a huge crocodile, Athun; who was terrorizing the land. The Prince was swallowed by the crocodile, and when all hope seemed to be lost, the Princess dropped her hair down in the water. Her hair dried the water down, which petrified the crocodile. Athun has essentially become a limestone hill, Phnom Sampeau.
Well, the legend surrounding this place is certainly interesting, and the site itself continues this tradition!
How To Get to Phnom Sampeau
Getting to Phnom Sampeau is easy enough, especially if you have mobile data on your phone. It’s just a 15-kilometer ride southwest of Battambang, and the road to there is hard to miss. Just connect to Road 57, and you will see the hill with a golden pagoda in the distance. May that be your main piece of orientation.
Here is the map slice to show you how to get there from Battambang!
As you can see, the route from Battambang to Phnom Sampeau is pretty straightforward; if you stick to the main road! Of course, being passionate adventurers, we didn’t go there by this route. When we were doing a day trip from Battambang to Phnom Sampeau and its Killing Caves; we first wanted to see Phnom Banan, a ruined temple to the south of Phnom Sampeau. It is also located on the limestone hill, but getting from there to Phnom Sampeau isn’t so straightforward.
In the end, we ended up splitting up in two groups and riding on the muddy dirt road tracks to avoid paying for the entrance fee. Albeit it took us a while to get to the hill, it sure is an amazing experience riding with 115cc scooters on a muddy path. Not to mention the view on the Phnom Sampov hill, with the golden pagoda on the top, which is simply breathtaking. Sometimes, straying off from the planned path rewards you immensely!
Once you get to the bottom of the hill, you will encounter a small village that seems like it was transformed by the tourism potential of this area; both for nature and history tourism alike. Lots of people come to gather here before dusk to see the bats burst out from the Bat Cave, but more on that later.
One thing to keep in mind is that if you prefer to go through the bumpy road up Phnom Sampeau, you will need to go to the nearby “tourism office” and pay 2 USD for the passage by the guardhouse at the bottom of the hill. Also, behind this office, there are 700 steep steps that you can take instead to the top of the hill. We took the road route, as we were pretty low on time, thanks to our previous endeavor!
Note: if you don’t have a motorbike, go with tuk-tuk from Battambang to Phnom Sampeau, and you can ask for a motorbike driver to ride you to the top and back for 1 USD, as tuk-tuks are not allowed on the road to the top. Not that you would actually make it up the steep road to the top.
The first station of this day trip from Battambang are the Killing Caves, so prepare for a pretty unsettling, yet very important history lesson!
The Killing Caves of Battambang
Just 250 meters up the road, you will locate this infamous Khmer Rouge execution site. Here, the Khmer Rouge regime committed horrifying acts of violence on the Cambodian people. Local estimates tell us that some 10,000 people lost their lives at this spot during the regime. We don’t want to delve deep on the Khmer Rouge regime and its impact on Cambodia here, but here is a post about Khmer Rouge if you want to learn more.
Note: if you are horrified by depictions of cruelty and violence, then we suggest that you move to the next section. In the next few paragraphs, we will show the exterior and the interior of the Killing Caves of Battambang; where you can also see the skulls of the victims. We show this content with the utmost respect for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Just as you enter the site, you will see a few Buddhist shrines and the amazing viewpoints on the land below the hill. Near the Killing Caves, you will see statues that show atrocities done on people on this site. One cannot imagine that all of this happened a bit more than 40 years ago!
You can see a daylight shaft at the entrance of the caves. Khmer Rouge soldiers would round up people in front of this spot, then bludgeon them to death, and throw them into the abyss below. The caves eventually filled up with corpses, so the new victims actually didn’t die of the impact. They would starve to death after some time. Khmer Rouge actually used separate caves for adult and children executions.
Take the Naga stairs down into the cave and you will find a memorial site inside. There is a Reclining Buddha statue inside and a memorial glass with the skulls of the victims inside, as a sign of respect. Many Cambodian local people come here to pay their respects to the dead, as this is also a popular place of pilgrimage.
Note: Remove your shoes when you enter the memorial site inside the cave to show respect to the local customs and victims.
During the late afternoon, someone will usually ring the bell in one of the shrines nearby to signalize that it is time to go. After all, those who are not with us need their peace, it is said.
Well, visiting this place was really a punch in the gut. It is a place of a grim tragedy that is reclaimed back by nature. At this site of many atrocities, you are surrounded by wonderful viewpoints on the greenery below. This evokes feelings of both disgust and awe, which is a true contradiction; a thing I mentioned at the beginning of the post. After all, Cambodians believe that joy is the best way to move past tragedy. We must say that they are doing pretty well with that.
After an educative transportation to the grim history of Cambodia, let’s explore some caves in Phnom Sampeau!
Pkar Slar Cave
After you leave the Killing Caves, continue up the road and park near the summit of the hill. There are cave grounds, filled with stalls, and a group of sneaky and cute group of macaques!
Pkar Slar cave is very small, albeit it has a specific atmosphere due to the Buddhist shrine inside. When we were exploring the cave, there was a lovely scene in front of our eyes. A woman was meditating in front of the Buddha statue, and the sun rays burst through the cave opening.
Also, you will notice many “tour guides” who will guide you for a minute or two through the cave and ask you for money. We say that you help them out with a small tip.
Now it’s time to get to the top of the hill!
Near the Pkar Slar cave grounds, you can take the steps to the temple grounds located at the top of Phnom Sampeau. The number of macaques will drastically rise up, and it is fun to observe what this funny bunch is up to! These temple grounds offer a very zen atmosphere, with Buddhist monks praying and looking for offerings, locals giving offerings, and lots of amazing and mysterious architecture.
If you are interested in learning more about temples in this region, here is a lovely read on temples in Vietnam!
We also saw a lot of kids role-playing swordsmen with wooden swords. They were bro-fisting us all the time! It was good to be on their good side, and not to feel the wrath of the swordsmen!
Of course, all over the temple grounds, you can buy water and snacks (oh almost forgot, there is beer too!). The tourism in this area is slowly developing, but it is still off the radar for most foreigners for now.
One local at the water stall offered us to show a viewpoint for 30 USD. We politely declined as we knew that we are clever enough to find it on our own. There is one pathway at which you will see a small passage through the bush, that leads to a ladder. Climb up the ladder, and your resourcefulness will be rewarded with an amazing 360-degree view of the whole area around the hill. You will see the green paddies, jungle going down to them, the mountains in the distance, and numerous hamlets scattered around the area.
Behind, you can see the golden Wat Sampeau stupa that was created in 1964. Below it is an overgrown canyon that actually goes 144 meters deep, to an intricate cave system.
It should be almost dusk till now, a time for a special natural spectacle!
The Bat Caves
Of course, your visit to Phnom Sampeau won’t be complete if your don’t witness this natural spectacle with your own eyes! Return to the village located at the bottom of the hill, and wait for the dust to settle in. It is usually around 5.30 PM.
Then, you will see what we are talking about! Millions of bats will burst out of the huge cave, overflowing the sky for 30 minutes, and setting their sights for the hunt in Battambang. It is really a mesmerizing sight to witness, to say at least. The laws of nature are at its flow just in front of you.
Lots of people start gathering here a bit before this spectacle. You will notice metal tables and small plastic chairs set up for people to enjoy the sight. Of course, a beer will be handy too!
Phnom Sampeau is just a short drive from Battambang, and it offers much to discover. First of all, you can get a grim history lesson at the Killing Caves of Battambang, explore the numerous caves, enjoy the viewpoints, discover the golden temple; and to top it all off, witness a unique natural spectacle at the Bat Caves.
If you enjoy hiking and nature, visiting Phnom Sampeau while you are in Battambang is a no-brainer. Even if that is not the case, it is an adventure fit for a day trip from Battambang!