Just 12 kilometres southwest of Battambang, a strange protrusion is the site for a pretty hilltop pagoda complex from which gorgeous views across Battambang’s green fields and distant hills can be enjoyed as a reward for making the hard slog up the steep hill, and for confronting one of the more dire elements of the Khmer Rouge era.
Limestone Phnom Sampeou looks almost like someone pushed it up through the ground with their thumb, so abrupt and steep are its sides. This last feature is part of what made it so attractive to the KR butchers; pushing people over the edge is efficient if nothing else. The hill also features caves that made for some useful dumping grounds, and which are now the setting for a macabre shrine filled with some of the bones recovered from the site. This is just near a hole in the ceiling of a cave which, the guides say, was reserved especially for children.
The pagoda and its grounds are home to a group of monks and also to some rather cheeky monkeys you’d do well to steer clear of; they can get aggressive.
The steps up are precipitous and there are lots of them, roughly 700. Follow the winding path rather than the stairs, which can be butt-destroying. Alternatively, guides with motos could also zip you up (we promise we won’t think you’re a cheat). The route is just as heart-pounding, if distinctly less aerobic than doing it under your own steam. Children, some of whom speak very good English, hang around the base of the temple and will walk up with you and act as your guides if you ask.
Phnom Sampeou may well still have some unexploded ordnance and/or mines lying around, so keep to the tracks! In addition to the caves and pagodas, you’ll also find more morbid military mementoes on the top level two anti-aircraft guns — one from (most likely East) Germany and one from Russia — which belonged to government forces fighting the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s. These are just in front of the local vendors from whom you can pick up some refreshments.
More refreshments, and snacks, and caves are back at the bottom. If you’re there late afternoon, we recommend hanging around until about 18:00 when millions of bats evacuate the caves at the bottom of the hill, creating a dark, fluid ribbon through the sky.
If you’re there earlier, a dirt road heads east to Phnom Banan along a canal so you could make a good round trip, heading out to Sampeou on the main Pailin road then cutting across to Banan then returning to town along the river road.