French-Khmer man Nan Sophannarith is sitting eating his lunch with his family outside Phnom Sampov cave one late afternoon.
The 56 year old has recently come from France back to his homeland for a holiday, and today he has travelled to the caves to witness one of nature’s great spectacles – bats taking flight en masse.
He told The Post: “I just came back to my homeland a few days ago and travelled to Battambang province with my family. Today we went to Banan district to ride a bamboo train and now we are here to watch the bats fly.”
The bat caves at Phnom Sampov are among the many caves in Banan district that are home to millions of the winged mammals. But in recent years their numbers have dropped dramatically.
Dam Chhang, former chief of Phnom Sampov Bat Cave Community, said that there is one cave at Banan Mountain, three at Phnom Sampov and two at Crocodile Mountain where bats live and raise their offspring.
Worried that the colonies of bats would vacate the caves forever, Chhang formed a community dedicated to protecting the animals, and in the process ensuring the survival of the local tourism industry and the livelihoods of those who collect and sell bat droppings (guano) as fertiliser.
Roeut Savorn, the current chief of Phnom Sampov Bat Cave Community, said that only two caves in the west and east of Phnom Sampov, and one cave in Phnom Neang Rum Say Sork, still host a large bat population.
“To protect the bat population when they fly out of both caves in Phnom Sampov to find food, our teams track them through the rice fields, where they fly close to the ground, as we are afraid that children will hit them with objects,” said Savorn, 39.
“The population of both caves’ bats has dropped about 70 per cent in the last few decades and this is due to many factors, including migrating to other caves and people installing nets when they travel to Boeung Tonle Sap. This cave has largest bat population in Cambodia because we’ve tried hard to protect them,” he said.
Savorn, a specialist in bat preservation and the collection of their droppings, said that the time they fly varies according to the season.
“This rainy season the bats will fly at about 6pm, and during the dry season they will leave the cave for food at about 5:30pm. Their flights last about two hours,” he said, adding that small colonies of bats can be seen flying into the caves in the early morning too.
In the early evening, stainless steel tables with red plastic chairs are placed along the road next to Phnom Sampov for visitors to sit and watch the bats fly out of the cave, while enjoying snacks served by the local community until late in the evening.
Holding a digital camera and a smart phone to snap pictures of the bats is Janny Tan, a tourist from Singapore visiting Battambang with her friend to see its historical buildings, art scene and bamboo train.
“The bats are a beautiful and pretty unique viewing experience,” she said.
Uch Omthiny Sara, the director of the Battambang provincial tourism department, said that the caves “average between 250 and 300 visitors per day”.
Besides the tourism benefits that the bats bring, their droppings also provide an invaluable lifeline to members of the community who collect and sell it as a natural fertiliser for crops.
“We go to the cave to collect the bat droppings every 15 days. Normally, we have between four and eight people to help. We start work in the early morning without making noise to panic the bats. The cave is complicated and requires hard work. We gather the droppings from every narrow corner space,” Savorn said.
“The guano collection is decreasing. Now we harvest between 70 and 80 bags on a dry day [the rainy season makes collecting guano more challenging]. Local farmers come to buy the droppings from us directly for 25,000 riel [$6.10] per bag.”
The bat caves are located approximately 13km from Battambang town. Visitors should travel along National Road 57 and turn left at Phnom Sampov pagoda.