sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Killing Caves of Cambodia - WildAsia

The Killing Caves of Cambodia

The Battambang site where hundreds of people were tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge is now a tourist attraction. Caver LIZ PRICE ventures into the "Killing Caves", a dark spot in the history of Cambodia.

[Published on Wildasia 3 Oct 2005]

The most famous 'killing caves' are situated in Battambang province in northwestern Cambodia. It shares a long border with Thailand and is now the fifth largest province in the country. The ongoing guerilla war meant thousands of landmines were scattered around the area, which devastated the agricultural industry. However, the province is slowly recovering as the demining groups free up the land.

Battambang is Cambodia's second largest city, but has an atmosphere of a sleepy rural town. The 'killing caves' are located in Phnom Sampeau (Sampeau Hill), 18 km southwest of the town, on the NH10 (renamed NH57) highway to Pailan and the Thai border. It is, however an injustice to call it a highway, as it is more of a dirt road. Phnom Sampeau is a striking limestone hill rising out of the plain and is the first limestone encountered along this road from Battambang.

To get there, I hired a moto from my hotel in Battambang. A moto is a motorcycle taxi. The cost was US$ 6 for the day and luckily the driver spoke good English. We started the journey by riding along small roads through very scenic areas of rice fields and agricultural land. Then we turned onto the highway and I was grateful for the previous day's rain, as the dust was awful. Imagine what it would be like if it was the dry season.

We stopped so I could take photos of Phnom Sampeau. It has a wat (Buddhist temple) on top and is very impressive. I could see why it is sometimes called Sailboat Mountain. We parked at the bottom of the hill and I had to pay $2 admission. Several local boys wanted me to hire them as guide, so I chose one and off we set up the hill. It's easier to walk up the long winding slope than the stairs. We walked fast and about ½ - ¾ of the way up we turned left to the "killing caves".

There is a small wat nearby. There were also donation boxes everywhere. I went into the small hall at the wat where people were held until they were killed. It was used as a prison and torture centre in the 1970's. People were tortured in front of the others, and murdered. There used to be large bamboo pipes from within to the outside to drain away the blood from the slit throats. Since those days the pagoda has been renovated, scrubbed down and refurbished with the images of Buddha, donated and paid for by the local townspeople and surrounding farmers. Novice monks now sleep in this building.

Then we went to the caves. We couldn't enter the first cave as it is now partly blocked by rocks. There is a cage of bones, skulls and clothes outside, as a ghastly reminder of what had happened only a short time ago. Pieces of electric wire used for "electrification torture" and clothes of victims are still there, the remnants of a past the locals want to, but can't forget. Pol Pot had adults killed in this cave. They were told they were going to work. Instead, they were blindfolded and had their hands tied behind their back before being walked to the edge of the hilltop and pushed over the edge of the skylight.

I was shown these skylights high in the roofs of the caves. It must have been terrifying for the victims as they could surely hear the screams of their fellow victims, hear the thumps of bodies landing and smell the awful stench of decaying bodies. Often the people survived the fall, suffering only broken bones. But unable to get out, they slowly died of starvation. As more and more people were thrown down, the pile of bodies in the cave grew higher. This meant more and more people survived the fall, and died a slow lingering death from dehydration and starvation, whilst more bodies were being dumped on them.

Sometimes throats were slit with the jagged edges of sugar palm leaves that resemble a rough saw rather than a knife, not a clean cut, more of a rip slicing through essential arteries if they were lucky. It was a quicker death than starving. These barbaric methods were used to save on bullets.

We went to another 2 caves close by. Steps lead down to these caves. Off to the left a steep slope leads to the entrance of the cave where children were killed. The steps continue straight ahead to a third cave which now has a reclining Buddha. Behind this Buddha is the very shattered remains of a Buddha destroyed by Pol Pot. He also had the Buddhist statues destroyed. A small pile of bones and clothes lay inside the cave. Around them old burnt incense sticks protrude from the ground where people have said prayers for the dead and lost.

The caves were littered with bones, but a monk removed most of them and put them in storage. Altogether, thousands of innocent people (an estimated 10,000) fell to their deaths here.

Although I didn't see it I was told there's an area where people were tied up and a hook placed up their nostrils. Then they were hung high enough whilst the Khmer Rouge removed lungs and liver through a vertical slit in the chest cavity. The Khmer Rouge ate these organs and drank the blood mixed with wine to make them stronger soldiers.

Living far away in England during the time of these atrocities, it was pretty meaningless. It is only when you go to Cambodia and visit the caves, and also the "killing fields" near Phnom Penh, that the full scale of it hits you. It is when the young guide, who wasn't even born when the massacres were taking place, starts telling you about the incidents, that it finally hits home. To see the dried blood on the cave walls where the bodies bounced off, to see the pieces of skull and bone lying on the ground, to see scattered pieces of clothes, all adds to the gruesome picture. Many of the victims could not be identified. But as most of them only had one set of clothing, it was possible to see who they were by the clothes left.

From the caves there was a good view across the plains to Phnom Krapeu, Crocodile Hill (I couldn't make out if it was limestone) and the much smaller Chicken Hill. We then continued the climb up to the wat. Near the top I saw a large disused artillery field-gun which was used for defence. This hill was a strategic battleground between Khmer Rouge and government forces for much of the past decade. The wat at the top is quite small and not very exciting. Three new temples are being built. There is a good view over the plains on the other side. I could see one hill which is deserted as it still has land mines and is being cleared.

I then went down some 140 or more steps to a cave. This was more of a wang (cockpit) than a cave, as a slope with old steps immediately led out the other side. Apparently this cave was not used as a killing cave, although I thought it would have been suitable as the depth is much greater. There are two statues of Vishnu at the bottom. A small side passage is used for praying. I went back up the steps, then began the long descent to the car park using the stairs.

I went to look at the cliff face where they are just starting to carve a 38m high Buddha. The mural will be 120m long and will take 7 years to complete. Quite a feat! I'll have to go back in 7 years to see if it is completed.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

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