Phnom Sampov consists of many mountain caves attracting tourists from around the world. But their natural beauty today contrasts with their grim history as Khmer Rouge-era “killing caves”.
Among them is Pka Sla cave, Chest Pounding cave and the Bat cave, where thousands were killed under the Pol Pot regime, with the bones of victims today kept in a glass stupa for display.
Guide Soung Sitha accompanies visitors to the historic caves, starting with Laang Teng Kloun (Beautified Room Cave) where he points to a case displaying the clothes of victims: “Here we keep victims’ remains, especially clothes worn by people under the Pol Pot regime. They were well-educated people.”
Leaving Laang Teng Kloun and visiting nearby Laang Lkoun, visitors are greeted by a large golden Buddha reclining next to a stupa full of bones, while a picture depicting victims being thrown from a cliff down into the dark abyss below, as occurred in the cave during the Khmer Rouge era, sits on the wall.
Grade 5 student Sok Sonita serves as an amateur local guide for children. She takes time from her studies to tell tourists about the history of the caves.
“I can speak a little English and can tell foreigners about the killing and bludgeoning. This was the place they [Pol Pot’s comrades] hit people from above and let them fall. They were well-educated people. I earn irregular money as some days I get a very small amount or nothing, and some days I earn $10,” she said.
Phnom Sampov, 12km west of Battambang, is also the locale for a Homeric Khmer legend in which the machinations of a sentient crocodile were foiled by the stroke of a maiden’s hair.
Mok Sinnara, Battambang provincial tourism department’s former director, told The Post: “The legend goes that Sampov mountain was formed when prince Reach Kol’s sailing junk, carrying dowry in order to marry princess Romsay Sok, was immersed by her crocodile named Athun and became Sailing mountain.
“The dowry was littered around and became Chicken Cage mountain, Duck Cage mountain and the location where princess Romsay Sok stroked her hair became Romsay Sok mountain. Moreover, when the water went down, Athun’s body became Crocodile mountain.
“Here at Sampov mountain, where the Romsay Sok temple sits, there are many caves. We think that the Beautified Room Cave is where Romsay Sok dressed up and waited for the prince Reach Kol.”
But today, it is survivors of the Khmer Rouge era that visit the caves to pay their respects.
“A few months ago, survivors visited the homeland and conducted a Buddhism ceremony to offer deeds for dead people. They cried remembering the things that happened to them,” said Sitha, who is among four guides who work at Sampov mountain.
Sitha estimates that some 10,000 victims were killed around the mountain, with trucks full of bones transported to museum.
The caves are located at the peak of Phnom Sampov, in Phnom Sampov commune, Banan district along National Road 57. The entire complex is comprised of 12 caves that can be explored.