Back of Beyond - upstream roads. Phnom Sampeou. Battambang.

              Back of Beyond - upstream roads

         It was mid morning as we headed off down the south river road on the west bank out of Battambang. I hadn’t felt like hiring a motorbike as I wanted to feel free to look around along the journey, so I was the pillion passenger on a guide’s moto. We were traveling along the country roads and side lanes that would take us to Phnom Sampeou and beyond. First stop was just a few kilometres out of town at Wat Kor Village. There are a couple of  ‘ancient houses’, so called because they are ninety and a hundred years old. There are very few of these old house left round the area, and the owners are delighted to have guests stay overnight.


Unlike the modern Khmer house that is built on concrete pillars, these old dwellings have large round solid wooden pillars, and a variety of hard woods that make up the floors and verandahs. One of the houses is owned by Ms Bun Roeurng tel 012 363174 $10 a night. It was built in 1920 and is set in a large garden adorned with trees, the house is twenty eight by eleven metres and is elevated by no less than thirty six wooden pillars. The roof is tiled with antique Naga scale shaped tiles, with no inside ceiling, and the walls are woven bamboo with a thick plaster covering. The spacious guest room is at the front of the property, with plenty of period wooden furniture to suit the locale. During the Khmer Rouge regime the property was used for threshing rice and the home as a communal kitchen. Another nearby house built in 1907 also has a large room for rent $17 per night - tel Miss Borey 012 1965156.
During the dry season, the river is attaining its lowest level, and the rich soil of the riverbanks are utilized by the locals for crop cultivation. All along the river you can see terraced plots of vegetables such as morning glory, sweet corn, cabbage, eggplant and cucumber. Irrigation is supplied by pumping water from the river, this continues until the river starts to rise, which can happen quite rapidly during the rainy season once the clouds start to break over the distant Pailin hills, and the waters collect in the meandering Sangkar. As we continue we stopped off at a fruit farm. The main harvesting is December to April, including mango, jackfruit, lychee and oranges, a freshly opened jackfruit is a treat. 


Further along the river road we came across what my guide described as a hanging bridge. There are two of these suspension style bridges a few kilometres apart, they’re about a metre and a half wide and quite fun as they undulate and sway a little as you cross. Now eight kilometres out of town still on the west side of the river, we stopped off at the Green Orange Café, named after the famous sweet green peel oranges of Battambang province. The café is near the side of the road, and the profits goes towards running FEDA, a local NGO run school which is to the rear of the property. Green Orange Kayaks was established in 2009 using very stable sit-on-top style kayaks. They run an eleven kilometre trip going with the flow back to Battambang. The flyer reads – Go on a beautiful river voyage from the small village of Ksach Poy past riverside terraces, traditional bamboo nuts and several temples. Get the chance to experience Cambodia away from dusty roads, and observe traditional fishing and farming techniques. This half day excursion costs $12, with profits going to FEDA.
Being thirsty we stopped at a roadside stand for refreshing coconut. A few metres from where we were sitting a cruel adolescent had placed a dog in an upturned basket, not any larger than the dog, and then placed a heavy potted plant on top of the basket. This caused the distressed animal to howl and whimper as the teenager looked on, and the roadside vendors seemed unaffected by this annoyance. This reminded me of the tortured gecko in the Penh many years ago. A young lad had a long piece of string with a gecko tied to the end by its tail, he was swinging it high above his head, and then low, almost to the ground, much like a cowboy would play with a lasso. The hopeless gecko seemed petrified, with its legs and feet firmly outstretched, doomed to whatever its keeper had in store, maybe the boy thought the gecko enjoyed being swung around, as he did go as far as not letting it hit the ground. Anyway, at least the dog wasn’t in the air on the end of a rope by its tail, and having had enough of trying to talk over the noise, we went on to the winery.
Chan Thai Chhoeung Winery is about fourteen kilometres up stream from Battambang. The owners, who are a local Khmer family, first planted vines imported from California in 1999, and produced there first sweet red in 2004. Nowadays they don’t produce a sweet red, favouring a dry red, a slightly sweeter rose, and also a brandy. There are over four thousand vines on the plantation, and Cambodia’s first pure grape wine, bottled as Phnom Banan grape wine is widely available throughout the country. There is a gazebo at the entrance with a wine tasting area, so don’t be afraid to pop in.  Rotana, my guide, now turned of onto the country back lanes, we were heading for Phnom Sampeou. Sampeou means junk boat, and the hill is steeped in Cambodian traditional tales and history. 

There is a stairway which climbs sharply up the side of the hill, but it’s easier to walk up the road to the left of the stairs. At the top of the road is a shrine dedicated to victims of several killing caves, during the Khmer Rouge regime victims were thrown down the shafts, sometimes having their throats cut first. Some say there were separate shafts for men, women and children, gruesome stuff. In one cave can be seen arm and leg bones, and in another skulls, now placed in cages as previously unbalanced tourists were taking them as souvenirs. Robust footwear is required for exploring the caves and negotiating the rocky paths, the largest has a reclining Buddha, and theatrical plays were staged there before the 70s. Expect to pay a $2 tourist fee if you venture atop the Phnom, worth it as the 360 views are spectacular. 

Phnom Sampov / Sampeou
Phnom Sampeou is known to all Khmers as one of the most common sites in folk legend, this is the tale of Neang Rumsay Sok. Reachkol, son of rich merchants, is taken to a hermit who matches him to be married to Neang Rumsay Sok, to whom he gives a magic jeweled pin to tie up her hair. But Reachkol falls in love with Neang Meka and marries her instead of Rumsay Sok, and has a son by her. After three years of marriage, Reachkol runs away from his wife and rejoins Rumsay Sok. Meka sends her faithful crocodile Atonn to catch the departing boat of Reachkol and Rumsay Sok. Seeing the ferocious crocodile, Reachkol throws down a cage of chickens to appease Atonn, then a cage of ducks. But Atonn is not appeased and continues to menace the boat. The climax of the story is reached when Rumsay Sok lets down her hair, dropping the magic pin into the water. All around that spot the land dries up, and the boat comes to rest on one high rocky spot. The crocodile comes to rest on another dry rock and dies. Reachkol and Rumsay Sok live happily ever after. 


At dusk there is a spectacular sight as a cloud of bats take to the sky on their nightly hunt for insects from the Phnom Sampeou area. On our way back to town we stopped at the Kamping Pouy reservoir, this was constructed during the KR regime, thousands died building the enormous length of dam. Today it’s a popular picnic area, and home to many species of birds. Article by Kevin Bolton. 
folk legend tale courtesy Around Battambang by Ray Zepp.