No trip to Battambang is complete without a visit to Phnom Sampeau which is approximately 15km outside of the main city. This sacred mountain has a dark side – the Battambang killing cave was used by the Khmer Rouge to throw dead bodies down after they had been murdered. This dark side of Cambodian history is tough but important to understand. Phnom Sampeau contains 3 natural caves in total, all lined with Buddhist shrines and statues: Pkasla, Lakhaon and Aksopheak. At the top of Phnom Sampeau you will find a beautiful monastery and phenomenal views across the Cambodian countryside. End your visit with a beer while you watch the mass exodus of bats leaving the Battambang Bat Cave for their nightly hunt!
Getting up Phnom Sampeau (sometimes called Phnom Sampov)
‘Phnom’ is hill in Khmer and ‘Sampeau’ means ship. So ‘Phnom Sampeau’ or ‘Phnom Sampov’ is ship hill or mountain – because it’s shape reminds locals of a ship. At the bottom of the mountain, tourists will be asked for a $1 fee to access it. There are two main ways to get up – walking or taking a jeep.
Please note that Phnom Sampeau is not wheelchair accessible
Along the way, there are about 5 sets of temples and interesting spots, and it takes about 10-15 minutes to ascend between each of these. Depending on how fit you are, it can take at least one hour – there are 1000+ steps in total. Leave plenty of time for this visit (a half day or full day trip is ideal) and remember that if you are choosing to hike up the steps can be tough in the heat of the day.
Due to our limited time (we had also been to ride the Battambang Bamboo train on the same day) we decided to share a jeep which was just $5 each. The jeep was a good easy and time saving option – he stopped off half way to visit the temple and the Killing cave and then we continued to the top for Wat Sampeau and some lovely views before heading down in time for the bats.
Booking a Tour of Phnom Sampeau
It is quite easy to book a trip to Phnom Sampeau with your Battambang hotel or youth hostel – most have contacts of tuk-tuk drivers who include this trip in their tour (In Battambang I used Bith Pikhun who was an excellent driver and guide).
If you want to book online in advance you can book the Get Your Guide Battambang Full day tour which includes a trip up the mountain.
You can also book through Viator travel and have two options. Viator offers a full day tour of the Highlights of Battambang that includes Wat Sampeau. For a cheaper option and good if you have limited time you can go for the Afternoon tour by tuk tuk to bamboo train, countryside, killing cave and bat cave.
Half Way Up – The Battambang Killing Cave and Temples
Half way up Phnom Sampeau you will find a temple that is beautifully decorated with pictures of the Buddhas life.
Further along there are some very interesting statues
Follow the path along until you reach the Naga stairs that head down into some limestone caves. Follow the stairs down to the caves and shrines.
You will be greeted by a beautiful orange Buddha statue…
On the left hand side you will see the killing cave when hundreds (if not thousands) of people were murdered and thrown into the cave by the Khmer Rouge during between 1975-1979. They used these caves as an easy option for a mass grave and the bones of teachers, doctors, lawyers – men, women and children – were found there.
To the right you will find a large golden reclining Buddha – make sure that you remove your shoes to visit this.
To the right of the reclining Buddha is a memorial stupa containing the bones of the deceased. Remember to be silent and respectful. Many Cambodians visit the Battambang Killing Cave to pay respects to their lost relatives.
Reaching the Top – Wat Sampeau
When you reach the top of Phnom Sampeau you will find a beautiful temple and monastery complex. Walk up past the first chedi to find the rest of the monastery buildings….
Follow yet another set of naga stairs to the main temples…
And expect guardian Yakshas to be on guard!
The main temple is a wonderful gold and light blue in colour and shouldn’t be missed. You may see monks in orange robes praying in the temple nearby. Remember not to touch or disturb the monks and do not take their photographs without their permission.
The numerous golden stupas provide a wonderful view at the top of Phnom Sampeau.
The views from the top of Phnom Sampeau are what really makes the journey worth it.
Catch it at sunset for some stunning shots.
Then head straight back down to catch the bats pouring out of the bat cave! This changes depending on the time of sunset and so check with your local guide when this will be. For us it was around 5.50pm and the bats continued to fly out for around 15 minutes! It’s quite a popular spectacle with the locals – chairs will be laid out ready to observe the bats and there are little bars where you can grab a beer to sit and watch them!
Where to Stay in Battambang
Battambang is theoretically the second city of Cambodia after the capital of Phnom penh, but it really doesn’t feel as crazy and hectic as Siem Reap! Make sure that you download the PASS app as GRAB doesn’t work for tuk-tuks in Battambang.
If you are looking for somewhere cheap to stay and don’t mind a hostel, I highly recommend ‘The Place’. It’s right next to the Mekong Express office where the buses drop off. The Place has a lovely rooftop bar and restaurant and excellent cheap tours bookable on reception.
Some great hotel options in Battambang include The Royal Hotel and the Sanctuary Villa Battambang.
What to Pack for Cambodia
Take light cotton tops, long comfortable trousers and maxi dresses that cover your shoulders. Thailand is a conservative Buddhist county and you are likely to be refused entry to top sites like the Phnom Penh Royal Palace and Angkor Wat with shoulders showing and shorts or short skirts. You can pack shorts and vest tops for hanging around your hotel or the pool.Table could not be displayed.
Pack a water bottle because many guest houses are eco friendly and have a refill and reuse policy to cut down on plastic waste. The drinking water is fine and many hotels supply cold purified drinking water.
Bugs bite particularly in the evenings in Cambodia and so a bug repellant is essential. Also the sun can get hot – this Christmas and New Year temperatures were exceeding 32 degrees and so sun screen is another essential.