Temple Hill and the Magic Cave. Wat Banan. Battambang. Cambodia.

Temple Hill and the Magic Cave

Reaching the top at Wat Banan

        Battambang is surrounded by lush countryside and numerous places of interest to visit, all within close proximity, and Wat Banan was the choice for a recent Sunday afternoon excursion. I use a bicycle to get around Battambang, which even for Cambodia’s second largest city, has a light traffic situation, and is as flat as a pancake, leaving the river bridges as the only humps to go over. But the trip to Wat Banan was a lot more than I wanted to tackle with peddle power, this meant either a motodop at $5 round trip / tuk tuk $10 round trip, or hiring a motorbike.
Today Tours is a bike rental shop located on street 1 ½ , yes…. street 1 ½, which logically runs parallel to streets 1 and 2, but other than that makes no sense at all. Then of course there’s street 2 ½ that runs between streets 2 and 3, this is certainly a city that can’t say it doesn’t do things by half’s. Anyway, Today Tours is at the Bridge end of the street, and has 125’s for $5, and 250’s for $12 – 092 999934, passport is required as deposit. Another rental option could be Gecko Moto, which is below the Gecko Cafe on the corner of street 3 in the centre of town, 125’s - $7 and $8.  
Wat Banan
Wat Banan is 22 kilometres from Battambang, making it an easy day trip. Leave Battambang on the southwest side of the river on route 155. Along the way there are opportunities to stop off at one or more of the Wat’s, or take a drink break at a village on route. A recommended pit stop would be Wat Chhoe Teal, named so after a tree, The tree has local economic importance, as the resin is used to repair leaking boats around the country. Despite being illegal to cut down, those in high places have turned a blind eye, and this has left many locals without the livelihood they relied upon. This Wat is located about half way, and set back a little on the river side of the road. Go through the maroon archway that leads to the river, here you’ll find a number of drink stands and seating next to a large tree, providing shade on the Sangkar riverbank.
Henri Mouhot, the French explorer who rediscovered Angkor Wat in the 1850s, traveled to Battambang along this river, here he describes the point where the Sangkar and the smaller tributary O Dambong split:  Having arrived at a place where the river divides in two, we enter a narrow stream that comes from the southwest, and which, twisting like a snake, flows with the tranquility of a torrent. This watercourse, on which Battambang is built, is at times only twelve metres wide; branches of trees plunge into our boat, and enormous monkeys hanging on the branches stop their games to watch us pass. From time to time a crocodile, rudely awakened by the splash of the oars or the singing of the rowers, throws him self from the bank where he was sleeping on the wet soil, and disappears under the water.

  The trip to Wat Banan takes a leisurely forty minutes, to the right you will see the lotus plant shaped spires of the Wat rising above the trees around the phnom ( hill ). The entrance is a few metres past the iron bridge on the left, this crosses the Sangkar to the east side, and could be an alternative route back to Battambang, either on the winding scenic river road or the main road set back a few hundred metres away. In the entrance courtyard area at the bottom of the phnom there are three or four restaurants, and a tourist ticket booth ( $2 ) before the steps ascend, grab some refreshments before you climb. The sharp incline of about three hundred stones to the top takes no prisoners, and is unforgiving. Most seemed to be taking a couple of rest breaks during the ordeal, and the locals were exclaiming the word ‘hot’ many times, meaning tired.  Wat Banan is made up of four temple towers, with a further one in the centre. The original temple dates back to 1050, and the reign of king Udayadityavarman I as a Hindu temple, later it was rebuilt using the same stones, as a Buddhist temple, around 1219, during the reign of king Jayarvarman VII. Banan is built from sandstone and laterite, laterite being the fashionable material used so much nowadays for bars and hotel receptions in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it’s a light brown sediment rock with lots of small holes within it. The towers are impressive and basically intact, if not a little shaky looking, but many of the carvings are headless, having been plundered.
In the 1800s we know from Henri Mouhot that there were numerous Buddha statues inside the temples, and a huge guardian statue at the entrance. Now, due to looting there are only half a dozen in the centre spire, where devout Buddhists come to receive a blessing from the resident monk, who literally hangs out in a hammock during the day, listening to the radio while waiting for the next devotees, and why not. A replica of the guardian statue was positioned at the base of the phnom in 2000. It is not uncommon to find an adventurous family having hauled up their pots of curry and rice, and bags full of food and drinks, boasting a picnic and enjoying the views atop this national monument, as was the case for a couple of groups the day I was there, so don’t feel left out, take some sandwiches. At the bottom of the phnom is a colourful water lily covered baray, a few picnic gazebos line one side of this man made lake, which may have been where the laterite was excavated as large pieces can be seen exposed around the edge of the banks.

Former anti aircraft gun at Wat Banan
Little known, and therefore often unvisited, is the magic cave round the side of the phnom. The old name for the cave was Cave of Sacred Water, it is said that drinking the water that drips from a stalactite will bring knowledge of the past, present, and future. The present name means Walls of Gold, but alas, there is no gold, so what does this cave have apart from two dubious names. Well, there is a magical air within the cave, as a beam of light enters from a opening in the ceiling, and its cool surroundings make it a wonderful retreat from the heat of the day.
On the way back to Battambang on the west side of the river, there is a winery on the right, called Chan Thai Chhoeung, about nine kilometres from Wat Banan. They welcome visitors, and have wine tasting table near the entrance to the vineyard. The red wine is quite sweet, but a bottle would make a unique souvenir, although it would be more suitable for making a pitcher of sangria, especially with the abundance of local fresh fruit that’s available, cheers. Article by Kevin Bolton. September 2013