We set forth from Battambang city on a rented scooter, bound for the outer area’s tourist attractions; Phnom Sampeau and Wat Banan.
Shall we follow a sign at this crossroad that reads, ‘Banan’, or should we put our faith in the dynamic duo of Google Maps and the GPS on a recently purchased not-so-smart-phone, which have teamed up to say we should ignore this turn and continue driving?
Ignoring the signposted (and ultimately correct) turning, we continued straight until the GPS completely shat itself and stopped responding. Before death, it was leading us towards the sort of road that mercilessly attacks the buttocks, but we decided to turn – chickens scampering – back to the signposted road before ever getting that far. Perhaps the GPS took its own life for our benefit when it realised that it could not possibly help us on these rough, Cambodian roads. Perhaps we have a caring, buttock-saving guardian angel above, dipping its glowing fingers into the Tiger Balm of software failure.
The correct road led us straight to Wat Banan, an Angkor-style wat built as a Hindu temple in the tenth century then rebuilt as a Buddhist temple 200 years later. The wat consisted of five stupas at the summit of Phnom Banan (Banan Hill), a grand staircase climbing to the peak, and far too many trinket stands, pieces of rubbish, and areas of graffiti.
After only three days in Cambodia our Khmer language skills were slim to none. Therefore we could only learn the name of ‘Leng’ and nothing else about him. Leng silently appeared behind us as we ascended the stairs, making his presence known with a small gust of wind. Turning, we noticed him there – possibly six or seven – decked in fluorescent green sunglasses and waving a small fan, presumably to cool us as we climbed. By crumb, he was a cute little devil. The steps were steep and many, and soon poor Leng was struggling to keep pace. To his immense credit, he still managed to wave his little fan in our general direction every 30 seconds as he staggered up behind us. I pause here to confess that it was actually Caroline who was the subject of his attention. I received only second-hand wind.
Leng made it all the way to the top; god knows how many times he had already walked the stairs that day. We peered around the ancient structure, watched people taking selfies, admired the motley brickwork (“It’s like lego,” remarked Caroline), noted the names of tourists scratched into the thousand-year-old walls, and took some photos while trying to keep the trinket stands out of shot. Caroline gently took the fan from Leng and returned the favour. Then she bought him a lollipop (yes, there was a stand selling junk food underneath an ancient ruin, what of it?). His fan returned, Leng cooled Caroline all the way back down the stairs and at the bottom we gave him cash.
Caroline suggested we go and see the nearby Wat Baydamram, home to hundreds of chattering fruit bats. Finding the right turn – which was onto a dirt road and across a bridge over a river – meant we had to stop and ask directions a couple of times. At one of these stops were five girls and one guy sitting behind a counter laden with dessert. Different chewy jelly things (with various names) tempted us, and were served with crushed ice and topped with sweet syrup, condensed milk and rose syrup. As we ate, the dessert people summoned a passing lady and purchased sweet pumpkin, coconut and glutinous rice parcels wrapped in banana leaf. Or course, we bought some of those too. Having a sweet tooth is a terrible curse in South East Asia.
We reached our destination and saw the fruit bats squabbling and fanning themselves in the heat. They mostly occupied a gigantic Bodhi tree on the grounds of Wat Baydamram, where they were apparently protected, or watched over, by the resident monks. After a while the sun slipped behind some clouds and the bats ceased their shrieking and tussling, becoming peaceful. Only when the pattering of rain began did they again start to squeak and flap and become agitated. We watched them while eating noodles that had been cooked by a man outside his house. A man who wasn’t cooking anything before we showed up. Clearly he pitied our longing looks at his stack of noodles, eggs and greens, so he fired up the gas, wiped down a couple of chairs and cleared space at his table.
Bat watching became dog watching as we witnessed the blossoming friendship between two mis-matched strays. That turned to people watching as we saw some local kids push each other round in a cart, occasionally plucking up the courage to say, “Hello!” or, “What is your name?” in English, before laughing and yelling at each other in Khmer.
Our buttock-saving guardian angel decided to take a nap and we ended up on a bumpy dirt road heading in the direction of Wat Phnom Sampeau – home of the infamous killing caves of the Khmer Rouge. There was an option to drive up the hill, but we decided to park the bike and take a stroll to the peak instead. The steps leading to the summit took all manner of forks and turns. We chose paths at random and these passed by various statues, buildings and macaques.
Approaching a small building, we were accosted by a tiny nun. She was the size of a 10-year-old and of an advanced age that I could only guess at. On a woven mat she sat, just inside the entrance of her little dark building, armed with a pink bottle of perfume and a clear bottle filled with a milky liquid. She let forth a string of Khmer and all we could do was listen, say we didn’t understand, and apologise. She made us remove our shoes and enter her lair, where odd statues depicting buddhist mythology lined the walls. Before we knew it she was spraying the perfume all over heads. Again, she began a long, steady steam of Khmer. We looked at her helplessly until eventually she forcefully planted a cash jar in front of us. Confused and feeling trapped, we put a small amount of money in the jar. The nun began blessing us and as she did so she sprayed the milky liquid at our faces. Post blessing we thought it prudent to leave and slowly backed away as she started speaking again, only this time she occasionally paused to spit on the ground.
At the top of the hill we were accosted again. “Hello, where are you from?” said a cheeky but instantly likeable young boy by the name of Nga. He asked us several introductory questions, and like it or not, he would be our guide for the rest of the afternoon.
“Your English is very good,” Caroline said.
“Yes, I study English and I can also speak French little,” he smiled.
I thought that a tad strange at first, until I remembered that Cambodia was a protectorate of France for almost 100 years (which explained the baguettes, too).
“How old are you?”
“Do you live with your family?”
“No, I am orphan.”
We learned that Nga made his money on the hill and spent it on English lessons. One might assume from there that he was getting English lessons in order to be a better guide (in the short-term), which would in turn make him more money so he could spend it on English lessons to become a better guide – and so the cycle would continue. All in all, however, he was actually a pretty lousy guide.
“What is that?” asked Caroline, pointing to a stupa constructed in the 1960s.
“It’s nothing,” Nga replied, and walked on trying to hurry us.
“Do you know who that is?” Asked Caroline, pointing to a depiction of Ruesi, provider of wisdom – testing Nga’s knowledge.
“It’s Ruesi. You should know that if you’re going to be a guide.”
“Let’s go to the cave,” he said impatiently.
And so we did. The killing cave was beautiful in a way, with stone steps leading down to the limestone cavern. Once on the floor we were shown a high wall with an opening at the top, surrounded by greenery. Here is where Nga said his first guide-like thing, albeit robotically.
“This is where Pol Pot killed thousands of people between 1975 and 1979 by throwing them into the cave.”
He said it without emotion. Words he has probably said a hundred times. And to a fourteen-year-old, this atrocity (that happened only 50 years ago) would seem like ancient history. Something in the ‘before time.’
There were two displays of bones in the cave but I didn’t really feel the significance of the site until we climbed back up, out and around to where the entrance of the hole was. Peering down from the top made it seem all the more real. More real than the knowledge of the event; more real than seeing the cave from below; more real than a pile of human bones behind a glass case. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of intellectuals, artists, scientists, musicians, doctors – bludgeoned to death and thrown into this very hole.
We paid Nga, descended the hill and made the 45 minute drive back to town in the pouring rain. It was quite a day.