The Hindu gods on both sides of the stairs were judging my lazy ass, I could tell. Garudas were laughing at me and the Naga-shaped handrail wouldn’t offer any comfort. The steep steps were taunting me and the hot, soggy weather was no help either. With a jacket wrapped up like a headscarf to protect me from the sun, I was already preparing all the different excuses I could find to explain how Hedi was already on top of the stairs when I was barely in the middle.
I had been sick for the past couple days and well, jet-lag was hard to handle too. But my sister, who was travelling with us for her first time in Asia, had arrived in Cambodia later than us and she was climbing the stairs with ease. I guess I just had to own up the fact that I was just a big couch potato, plain and simple.
At long last, I could see the end of this agonizing flight of stairs as the first temple of the Phnom Banam compound appeared, guarded by mythical statues and two Cambodian kids looking after a food stall. The statues and bas-reliefs on the temple had been stripped from their heads and many of the other temples weren’t far from crumbling, but nothing could take away their majesty. Statues wearing bright, intact pieces of clothing and colourful umbrellas placed on made-up altars concurred to show that the compound was still very revered.
The way down was much easier, taking us to a village busy with kids playing around on a canoe. Our stroll then took us to a rather muddy pond and a golden statue standing in its midst, where we decided to stop for a while.
I could feel a bunch of eyes were on us and as I turned back, a group of kids shyly waved at us and then approached us giggling to ask for a picture in the cutest way imaginable. Hedi had been pretty successful so far, especially with school girls in Phnom Penh and Battambang, and there he was the local star all over again. Who knew in many houses in Cambodia his framed picture was already hanging?
As picture time came to an end, lunch time called and we found a shack serving some simple but tasty meals as well as the staple coconuts all tourists worthy of their title needed to have at least once in South-East Asia.
We then went back to the rickshaw driver who was keeping us company with us for the day and headed towards our next stop, Phnom Sampov, also known as the Ship Mountain. I, for one, was in no hurry for another climb and managed to convince everyone to stay on the ground a little longer, which led us to the gates of the Phnom Sampov pagoda.
The building was closed but we could admire its convoluted, golden roof and the rich murals on all its sides nonetheless. There was not a soul around but a lonely, skinny cow peacefully grazing and an occasional scooter passing by.
When we got to the top of the Ship Mountain, the feeling of peace and quiet lingered, as well as a soothing spirituality fuelled by the many monks in traditional garb around us. Within the main temple, I noticed a monkey with its back bent in front of a Buddha statue, looking as absorbed in prayers as the monks. Upon closer look, it seemed like it was trying to scavenge some food from the altar but at least, it was doing so in a sneaky but considerate way.
Another monkey, twice his size, could have definitely benefitted from this example. I had noticed its rather imposing looks earlier as it was sitting on a pagoda like a king on its throne, but had paid it no attention until a loud boom startled me. All teeth out, the hefty primate was chasing aggressively the guy who had been trying to move it out of the pagoda with a stick. Frantically waving his stick, the man confronted his opponent in an epic duel where both sides stood their ground, carving the legend of the fearless Cambodian man against the bulky monkey.
But this wasn’t the last of our monkey adventures, thanks to some juicy watermelon we shouldn’t have bought in the first place. As we sat down, there were many interested candidates with all eyes on our watermelon but one of them was more daring than the others. It beat around the bush for a few minutes, giving us some time to prepare for the attack, but when we saw two furry hands appear on the edge of the table, it was already too late. The watermelon was gone and our tricky friend was the new boss in town.
It goes without saying that, when we went down the stairs leading to the so-called monkey cave, we knew better than to show off our food and hid our water bottles in our backpacks too. Stupas and golden sanctuaries were paving the way to a cave below, inhabited by a black statue of Buddha.
Sun was low in the sky when we left the Ship Mountain but the show wasn’t over yet. We sat around a table near the main road, ordered a local beer and waited for the final roundup, as a swarm of bats started coming out of the mountain by the thousands.