Killing Caves

Death Caves of Battambang - Death Caves of Phnom Sampeou

Useful Information

Location: Phnom Sampeau (Sampeau Hill), 18 km southwest of Battambang.
Open: All year daily.
Fee: Adults USD 1.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Guided tours:  
Address: Killing Caves.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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2007 genocidal memorial built in Teng Klun cave.


Killing Caves, Cambodia. Public Domain.

Killing Caves or Death Caves are notorious places of the 20th century Cambodian history. During the mad reign of the Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1979, the regime killed approximately one to three million people. The term killing fields and killing caves became infamous. The connection to caves is rather simple and not at all new: caves were used to get rid of any kind of garbage for millennia. All over the world they were used to throw dead animals in. So the Khmer simply killed their victims at the rim of a daylight shaft or pothole and threw the dead body into the cave.

The caves at Phnom Sampeau (Sampeau Hill) were originally used as Buddhist temples, which are called wat. Statues of Buddha were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, because they fought against religion like other communist regimes. To use the former temples for the corpses of their victims was obviously an additional insult.

The hill is developed with trails leading up to the top where a pagoda was built. The trails also lead to the caves. It is possible to visit the whole site on your own, but there are always some boys at the entrance, who are eager to guide visitors for a small tip.

After the Khmer Rouge became the government of Cambodia, they started to transport people to concentration camps, similar to the Nazi Regime and the many other similar government. At first the captives were imprisoned, then interrogated, then tortured, and finally they were killed. They started with soldiers and officials loyal to the Lol Lon regime, continued with rich Chinese merchants, teachers, doctors and other professional people. The goal was to restore a 14th century agricultural society by killing all educated people. Finally even Khmer Rouge officials were accused of disloyalty and brought here and killed. There are stories about people who were hung up alive with hooks in the nose, and the liver and lungs removed and eaten. It seems they believed it would make them stronger soldiers. Actually they were cannibalistic in various ways.

The first cave is now partly blocked by rocks. A small temple building at the entrance was used as a prison, people were tortured and killed here. Today it is refurbished as a temple again and the building is used as a dormitory for novice monks. At the cave entrance is a cage of bones, skulls and clothes. This is what the Buddhist monks removed from the cave when they cleaned the place.

People were told they were going to work, then blindfolded and their hands tied behind their back, then walked to the edge of the hilltop and pushed over the edge of the pothole. The people who did not die from the fall, probably badly injured with broken bones, slowly died of starvation and dehydration, while more victims were thrown on top of them. The pile of decaying dead bodies was growing and more people survived the fall, just to die a slow death. So when the throats of the victims were slit with the jagged edges of sugar palm leaves, before they were thrown in, they were lucky, this was a quicker death than dehydration.

There are two more caves close by, the left one was used to kill children. The second cave has a trail with steps leading in. There is a shattered Buddha, which was destroyed by Pol Pot, like so many others. But today there is a new reclining Buddha. And the small pile of bones and clothes surrounded old burnt incense sticks protruding from the ground, where people have said prayers for the dead and lost.

All those caves were littered with bones. After the monks returned, they cleaned the caves and put the remains of the people in storage. They counted some 10,000 dead.

The Phnom Sampeou karst towers are riddled with caves. Quite famous is the Battambang Bat Cave, which contains a massive bat colony. Daily at dusk (typically 17:30-18) the bats leave the cave in an enormous cloud, which seems to go on forever. Also they fly rather low and have no problem to fly close to the watching tourists. Visitors are sometimes quite annoyed by their smell, and fear that they could crush into visitors. However, they have a wonderful echolocation and this is actually not an issue, although it appears so.