Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Caves, Mountains, and Monkeys: An Afternoon in Battambang

Monkeys at Phnom Sampeau

 We spent our last few sightseeing hours in Battambang on, in, and around a mountain: Phnom Sampeau, located around 11 miles from Battambang. It was late afternoon when we arrived, and the darkening skies were obscured by gray clouds and periodic rain. But we’re in Cambodia, and it’s the rainy season, so we counted ourselves lucky to have only periodic, light rain rather than the torrential downpours for which the season is famous. And the wet pavement definitely contributed to the excitement that was heading our way …

Our Adventure Jeep

Our tuk tuks could not take us up the mountain. At its base, amongst a bevy of food stalls, we transferred to motos for most and a Jeep for those who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) brave the motos. There was one Jeep, with five empty seats, and it quickly filled with five small children and their mothers—yes, Alexa and I were among them, though it wasn’t long before I started wondering if we’d have been safer on a moto, with Alexa nestled on her father’s back in her carrier, like another girl her age made the journey. We were the last into the Jeep, so we slid onto one of the benches lining the back, taking our places on the seat beside the open rear, just in front of the Cambodian man who hopped onto the lowered tailgate. As we started up the mountain, I quickly realized that the way would be steep and bumpy, and my arms tightened around Alexa until she could barely breathe.  My overprotective instincts were vindicated when the little boy across from us bounced out of his mother’s arms and remained in the Jeep only due to her quick reaction, coupled with the quick reaction of the man behind us, who grabbed the boy before he bounced out of the Jeep and then changed his position so that he was crouching on the tailgate, holding to the top corners of the Jeep, providing as much of a back wall as he could. Just after this catastrophe was averted, one of the motos pulled up behind us. Before it passed, I saw the female passenger pumping her arms in exhilaration, then snapping a picture of us, unaware of what had just nearly happened—yes, the motos definitely would have been the way to go.

The Killing Cave*

We pulled up to a small wat and gratefully exited the vehicle. We spent a little time taking in the view from the wat before heading to the real reason we’d stopped there: the killing cave. Under the Khmer Rouge, mass murder occurred throughout the country, and the peaceful mountainside was no exception. Countless people were pushed down shafts into caves near the wat, with the fall itself, starvation, and dehydration as the murder weapons. Now, a path and a steep set of stairs lead visitors down into one of the caves, which now houses Buddhist prayer flags, a memorial stupa filled with victims’ bones, and a reclining Buddha. A side path leads to the shaft from which victims were thrown to their deaths.

Buddhist prayer flags outside the killing cave
After an appropriately solemn visit to the killing cave, we piled back into the Jeep for the trip to the top of the mountain. This part of the journey was more treacherous than the first. We almost made it. Halfway up the final hill, the Jeep came to a stop. I looked behind us at the precipitous hill, with a sharp turn at the bottom. The driver worked the clutch, with no success. We passengers offered to get out and walk the rest of the way. The driver ignored us and worked some more. The Jeep slid backward, halting several feet lower than it started. As a throng of men descended the hill to assist, women and children piled out of the Jeep and quickly vacated the area just behind it. A man grabbed Alexa, making it easier for me to exit (I’d snagged a seat near the front this time, so I was last out), and headed up the hill with her, toward a man who was handing out umbrellas. I rushed to catch up, but there were more men heading down than up, and it was difficult to move against the tide. When I eventually caught up with her, I expected her to be upset—she doesn’t like strangers—but she seemed unaware of anything but the fact that she was no longer in the Jeep, which was enough to make her happy. We rejoined Jeff at the top of the mountain to take in the views of and from the temple and the Golden Stupa.

The Golden Stupa**

The temple perches on the very top of the mountain and has a couple of elevated platforms that provide amazing views of the surrounding farmland. The nearby stupa houses the remains of a former governor of Battambang Province, but I didn’t go explore it. A few steps on the slippery-when-wet tiled courtyard were enough to convince me that the less I walked around, the better. Instead I appreciated the beauty of the area from near the entrance. Jeff and a few others took the plunge to visit the nearby Beautiful Cave, although most declined after being told that the stairs were steep, long, and treacherous in the wet weather. I stood around chatting with a few other women while we waited. Then we hopped back into the Jeep for a less adventuresome trip down the mountain to an area where macaques gather in hopes of snagging bananas from tourists.

One of the many monkeys that posed for us
The monkey viewing definitely was my favorite part of Phnom Sampeau. Dozens of macaques congregated in the trees (and ropes strung in them) near vendors selling bunches of bananas. When a tourist purchased a bunch, he or she immediately became the monkeys’ new best friend, at least until all the bananas had been distributed. The macaques fearlessly wandered through the crowd of tourists, most of whom were wise enough to give the monkeys a little more space than the monkeys seemed to want. Alexa was in heaven, pointing and announcing “Uh Oh!” to anyone who would listen. (“Uh Oh” is her name for Curious George and has become her favored word for “monkey.”) We allowed her to toss a couple of bananas to monkeys from a distance, but Jeff wisely refrained from letting her walk around or get as close to the “uh ohs” as she would have preferred. We decided it was time to go when a new macaque joined the group, and the local vendors became visibly tense and started warning people to “Stay away from that one! He’s mean.”

Bats exiting the bat cave

After an uneventful ride back down the mountain, we switched motos and the Jeep for our trusty tuk tuks. We had one more stop to make—a roadside location from which we could see a cave that is home to tens of thousands of bats. If you arrive just before sunset, as we did, you get to see the long, uninterrupted flow of bats out of the cave to begin their nighttime adventures. We didn’t stick around for all of it, but it was more impressive than it sounds. Alexa enjoyed it. After a brief explanation, she took to repeating “Those bats wake up! Those bats hungry! Those bats go eat!” while pointing at the sky. The tuk tuk drivers also demonstrated how a loud noise will disrupt the bats’ flying patterns, much to the amusement of the children.

Bats--lots of bats

After several minutes of viewing the stream of bats, it was time to head back to the resort. The next morning was devoted to relaxing and making last minute purchases from the resort’s gift shop before our late morning departure for Phnom Penh. All in all, it was a very nice weekend. Battambang is not one of Cambodia’s tourist hot spots, for good reason, as it has very few must-see sights, but it’s a great place for a relaxing weekend away from the city, with just enough to do to keep you occupied when you want to get out and about.

Another monkey ... just because he's cute

*The picture of the killing cave shows only that part that is visible from the top of the stairs. The shaft down which people were thrown is off to the left, and the Buddha and memorial stupa are off to the right.

**I was unable to get a picture of the stupa without any embassy-affiliated personnel in the picture, so I went with the best picture I had and obscured the face of the person posing on the steps.

Battambang series:

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