I had spontaneously decided to do the Phnom Sampov tour with Butterfly Tours the night before.
The guy who organized the tours for the First Hotel turned me off from booking with him when he announced toward the receptionist that “he would kill her tonight. If you know what I mean.” I can take a dirty joke, but his comment seemed unprofessional, even more so minutes after I had seen him proudly pose with his wife (not the receptionist) and children in the tour brochure in his tuk-tuk.
So I took to the internets to find alternatives. I quickly stumbled across the Sunset and Bat Caves Tour by Butterfly Tours. Founded and run by university students from Battambang, they specialize in bike tours around Siem Reap, Kampot, and Battambang. They had one tour that was not only completely without bicycles (I don’t like cycling too much) but also to one of the sights around Battambang that had most interested me.
Phnom Sampov is a hill, about 15 km southwest of the city that is both of historical relevance and home to a natural spectacle: the Khmer Rouge used caves in the stone as Killing Caves, and every night hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the mountain. At $25 for an afternoon Butterfly Tours weren’t exactly cheap ($10 more than the First Hotel’s tuk-tuk driver charged) but I like to support a social tourism enterprise when I see one.
Much to my surprise, I got a reply and confirmation of my tour within 2 hours of filling in the online form.
At 2 pm the next day, my guide Vanna picks me up from the First Hotel. He seems quite shy and it takes him two minutes to come up to me and introduce himself. I expect to be joining a group tour with more people so I ignore him standing by the door.
Anyway, we finally find each other and off we go with tuk-tuk driver Vannan — once we have had what feel like a 5-minute discussion that went like this:
“Hi, I’m Vannan, your driver today.”
“Vanna? I thought you were Vanna?” Looks at the guide.
“Yes, Vanna. This is Vannan.”
“Vanna? Vanna? But it’s the same!”
“And I am Vanna.”
You get the picture.
I eventually figure it out, and we pass the Vishnu statue on the main road to take us out of town, pottering along at 30km/h.
The houses become fewer and fewer, more and more interspersed with fields and more and more of the traditional Khmer style with lots of wood and high stilts lifting the houses off the ground, away from poisonous crawlers and the rain that can flood the land even far away from the rivers and Tonle Sap Lake.
Vanna asks about my family and in turn, I ask about his upbringing. He’s a lucky guy: Grown up as the third of six children of simple rice farmers he was not only able to finish high school, his parents even saved up some money to send him as the only one of the six to university. The neighbors are skeptical why he wants to study agriculture if he really wants to be a farmer. But Vanna has noticed the changes in the environment and how this affects the farmers. If there is no rain, there is no rice, and if there is no rice, the farmer doesn’t earn any money that year. Vanna wants to become a smart farmer that can adapt his methods and his crop to the circumstance. He speaks about how he doesn’t quite know how he got through high school because he would spend the day in school and the nights on the fields, pumping water. But he managed, and now he can even support himself through university.
Passing by farmers on the side of the road selling grilled rat Vanna exclaims: “We eat everything in Cambodia!”
After three weeks here I absolutely believe that.
My guide cautions that while you can eat everything you also have to know how. He lists bats as an example: If you don’t know that you need to remove certain intestines, you’ll end with a bitter meal that not even Cambodians — who eat everything — would enjoy.
We arrive at Phnom Sampov, one of only a few elevations in the large Battambang plain.
We leave Vannan and the tuk-tuk at the foot of the hill next to a row of stalls selling food, drinks, and souvenirs, and hike up.
Our first stop is a Buddhist monastery. The buildings are not remarkable, the entrance is guarded by a ship, and the way to the main temple building is guarded by crude sculptures depicting the Chinese signs of the zodiac – the rat, the dragon, the dog,…
People are praying in the temple hall. Vanna takes his time and quietly explains some of the images along the walls and the ceiling depicting the life of Buddha.
We climb a little further along a small path and reach the first cave. Vanna explains that the Khmer Rouge took over the monastery and brought men, women, and children here to kill them. The first cave was for the men. They wouldn’t be shot; they’d simply be kicked into a 10m deep hole where they’d die from the fall if they were lucky. There is a similar cave for the children. Vanna tells me how some of the Khmer Rouge fighters would keep barely born babies as a talisman. There is a cage half-full of bones where the mothers of those children would be put to die after their stomachs had been cut open. Vanna tells me that while nobody in his direct family was killed – I guess, in a way back then they were lucky to be poor farmers – everybody knew somebody who was and somebody who had slaughtered. Yet, after it was over they still had to somehow live with each other with that knowledge.
A larger open cave at the bottom of the Killing Caves houses a Reclining Buddha. In front of Buddha sits an elderly man. He quietly tells a story. Vanna tells me that the man was there on Phnom Sampov when the killing happened and it was his way of finding salvation to live down there by the Buddha and remind visitors of the horrors.
We climb back up to the road. On the way, we pass a bizarre display of concrete sculptures performing gruesome acts on their victims. Vanna says: “We tell children that the Khmer Rouge is Hell when they don’t behave.”
We climb to the very top of Phnom Sampov. We have a durian ice cream, walk past quite obese monkeys begging for food from the visitors, and in the shade of a pagoda with a golden roof, Vanna tells me the story of how this mountain came to be. It involves a man and a woman in love, an ocean and a crocodile they reared like a child. It seems absurd that the innocence of a love story and the heinous acts in the Killing Caves would exist in the same space.
At around five it’s time to head back down for the night’s main event. We descend via stairs and arrive at the beginning of the rows of stalls. One of the vendors has kept us a table and two chairs with a prime view. Vanna gets me a refreshing sugar cane juice.
Before us, an endless stream of small bats emerges from the mountain. It’s hard to say, but the stream is maybe 2 meters wide. Once outside, bats break off into groups, some in murmuration like starlings, before they take off on their nightly journey towards Tonle Sap lake. It must have already been going on for a few minutes before we arrived and we sit and watch in awe for another half hour or so, and just doesn’t slow down.
Finally, I get tired, and tear myself away and suggest we head back into town. Vanna agrees, and we walk to where our tuk-tuk should be. Alas, Vannan isn’t there. My guide calls and calls again without an answer. Eventually, he asks me to wait and goes off to scan the road. Maybe we both got the meeting point wrong?
It takes 10 minutes and some jeers from the other tuk-tuk drivers, but eventually there is good news: Vanna explains that our driver has been sleeping in a pagoda nearby after having had a beer or two. I’m not very excited about the idea that we should be driving in the semi-dark with a semi-drunk driver. But it’s only 15 km along a straight route with a vehicle that barely scratches 50 km/h. So I don’t make a fuss.
We get back to the First Hotel, safe and sound, around 6:30 pm. And we even have time to stop and admire the sunset along the way.