Death and Deliverance on Phnom Sampeau

Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
Victims of the Khmer Rouge

After our bamboo train adventure, our tuk-tuk shuttled us 18 kilometers southwest of Battambang to Phnom Sampeau (Phnom Sampou), a limestone hill shaped – as its name suggests in Khmer – like a ship, rising up from the flatlands of the countryside. The pastoral peacefulness of the place belies lingering secrets, both haunting and awe-inspiring.

Phnom Sampeau (Sailboat Hill)
Phnom Sampeau is a boat-shaped hill in the Battambang countryside

Even in the bucolic countryside, one cannot ignore the legacy of the country’s grisly political history. A few Buddhist temples top the hill, but sitting on a lower peak is a small prayer hall that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison and interrogation center, just like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh.

In a brutal campaign to restore a purely agricultural society, the Khmer Rouge wanted to eradicate intellectuals, dissidents, or simply anyone who rubbed them the wrong way.

Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
During the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, over 10,000 people were killed in the caves of Phnom Sampeau
Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
Artistic rendition of the executions
Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau
Sarawon, the temple caretaker
survived the Khmer Rouge

Limestone caverns near the prison were used to disposed of executed victims. From 1975 to 1979, over 10,000 people were interrogated, tortured and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Sampeau. Above the caves, victims were bludgeoned or their throats slit with the serrated edge of a sugar palm frond, then pushed through the skylight. Those who survived the fall, starved to death on piles of decomposing corpses. Some of the human remains are now housed in a Buddhist altar inside the cave, which now houses a large reclining Buddha.

Sarawon, an elderly temple caretaker, was a teenager during this time. The Khmer Rouge spared his life because of his cooking skills. Unlike the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, which has controversially become somewhat of a business venture, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau hasn’t become a tourist trap. Small donations for its upkeep are much appreciated, however, in exchange for a red string bracelet – a symbol of good fortune in Buddhism.

Along another side of the hill, caverns are refuge to so much life. They are home to hundreds of thousands of bats that leave their roosts at nightfall to hunt for insects. From the hill’s base, tourists await their hour-long circadian departure against the sunset skies after visiting the temples and killing caves. The chirping bats leave the caves in a meandering stream. Some villagers redirect their flight path above the tourists by clapping two pieces of bamboo together. The loud noises this creates compel the animals to fly right above us. Staring up at them, I could only surmise how their frantic departure embodies the haunting quality of Phnom Sampeau itself.

HOW TO GET THERE: We hired a tuk-tuk driver through Chhaya Hotel, our guesthouse in Battambang. A half-day tour to the bamboo train and Phnom Sampeau was USD 10 (up to 4 persons). Phnom Sampeau is 40 minutes away from city center of Battambang. Entrance fee is USD 2. English-speaking guides are USD 3 per person. Return trip on motorbike from the base of the hill to the killing caves is USD 6. But, if you the time and energy, just take the 40 minute walk. The views are nice along the way.

For more travel information on Battambang, see my previous post.

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