Introducing Phnom Sampeau
At the summit of this fabled limestone outcrop, 12km southwest of Battambang along NH57 (towards Pailin), a complex of temples affords gorgeous views. Beware of the macaques that live around the summit, dining on bananas left as offerings, as some can be bad-tempered and aggressive. Access is via a steep staircase or, past the eateries, a cement road.
As you descend from the golden stupa at the summit, which dates from 1964, turn left under the gate decorated with a bas-relief of Eiy Sei (an elderly Buddha). A deep canyon, its vertical sides cloaked in greenery, descends 144 steps through a natural arch to a ‘lost world’ of stalactites, creeping vines and bats; two Angkorian warriors stand guard.
Near the westernmost of the two antennaes at the summit, two government artillery pieces, one with markings in Russian, the other in German, are still deployed. Near the base of the western antennae, jockey for position with other tourists on the sunset lookout pavilion. Looking west you'll spy Phnom Krapeu (Crocodile Mountain), a one-time Khmer Rouge stronghold.
About halfway up the hill, a road leads under a gate and 250m up to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, now a place of pilgrimage. An enchanted staircase, flanked by greenery, leads into a cavern where a golden reclining Buddha lies peacefully next to a glass-walled memorial filled with the bones and skulls of some of the people bludgeoned to death by Khmer Rouge cadres 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.
Every evening at dusk, a thick column of bats pours out of a massive cave high up on the north side of the cliff face. The mesmerising display lasts a good 30 minutes as millions of bats turn the skies around Phnom Sampeau black. Near the bat cave, a 30m-high Buddha is being carved out of the cliff face. Due to a lack of funds, only the top of the Buddha’s head has been liberated from the natural rock outcrop.
The road up to the summit is too steep for tuk-tuks. English-speaking moto drivers can whisk you up for US$3 return, or take the stairs if you're in need of a workout.