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Battambang, Cambodia, Day Trips: The Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov

cb 6 months ago

I had spontaneously decided to do the Phnom Sampov tour with Butterfly Tours the night before.

The guy who organized the tours for the First Hotel turned me off from booking with him when he announced toward the receptionist that “he would kill her tonight. If you know what I mean.” I can take a dirty joke, but his comment seemed unprofessional, even more so minutes after I had seen him proudly pose with his wife (not the receptionist) and children in the tour brochure in his tuk-tuk.

So I took to the internets to find alternatives. I quickly stumbled across the Sunset and Bat Caves Tour by Butterfly Tours. Founded and run by university students from Battambang, they specialize in bike tours around Siem Reap, Kampot, and Battambang. They had one tour that was not only completely without bicycles (I don’t like cycling too much) but also to one of the sights around Battambang that had most interested me.

Phnom Sampov is a hill, about 15 km southwest of the city that is both of historical relevance and home to a natural spectacle: the Khmer Rouge used caves in the stone as Killing Caves, and every night hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the mountain. At $25 for an afternoon Butterfly Tours weren’t exactly cheap ($10 more than the First Hotel’s tuk-tuk driver charged) but I like to support a social tourism enterprise when I see one.

Much to my surprise, I got a reply and confirmation of my tour within 2 hours of filling in the online form.

Getting from Battambang to Phnom Sampov

I had spontaneously decided to do the Phnom Sampov tour. Phnom Sampov is a hill, about 15 km southwest of Battambang, Cambodia, that is both of historical relevance and home to a natural spectacle: the Khmer Rouge used caves in the stone as Killing Caves, and every night hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the mountain So I took to the internets and quickly stumbled across the Sunset and Bat Caves Tour by Butterfly Tours. At $25 for an afternoon Butterfly Tours weren't exactly cheap but I like to support a social tourism enterprise when I see one. #cambodia #battambang #guidedtourAt 2 pm the next day, my guide Vanna picks me up from the First Hotel. He seems quite shy and it takes him two minutes to come up to me and introduce himself. I expect to be joining a group tour with more people so I ignore him standing by the door.

Anyway, we finally find each other and off we go with tuk-tuk driver Vannan — once we have had what feel like a 5-minute discussion that went like this:

“Hi, I’m Vannan, your driver today.”

“Vanna? I thought you were Vanna?” Looks at the guide.

“Yes, Vanna. This is Vannan.”

“Vanna? Vanna? But it’s the same!”

“No, Vannan.”

“And I am Vanna.”

“Vanna? Vanna?”



You get the picture.

I eventually figure it out, and we pass the Vishnu statue on the main road to take us out of town, pottering along at 30km/h.

The houses become fewer and fewer, more and more interspersed with fields and more and more of the traditional Khmer style with lots of wood and high stilts lifting the houses off the ground, away from poisonous crawlers and the rain that can flood the land even far away from the rivers and Tonle Sap Lake.

Vanna asks about my family and in turn, I ask about his upbringing. He’s a lucky guy: Grown up as the third of six children of simple rice farmers he was not only able to finish high school, his parents even saved up some money to send him as the only one of the six to university. The neighbors are skeptical why he wants to study agriculture if he really wants to be a farmer. But Vanna has noticed the changes in the environment and how this affects the farmers. If there is no rain, there is no rice, and if there is no rice, the farmer doesn’t earn any money that year. Vanna wants to become a smart farmer that can adapt his methods and his crop to the circumstance. He speaks about how he doesn’t quite know how he got through high school because he would spend the day in school and the nights on the fields, pumping water. But he managed, and now he can even support himself through university.

Passing by farmers on the side of the road selling grilled rat Vanna exclaims: “We eat everything in Cambodia!”

After three weeks here I absolutely believe that.

My guide cautions that while you can eat everything you also have to know how. He lists bats as an example: If you don’t know that you need to remove certain intestines, you’ll end with a bitter meal that not even Cambodians — who eat everything — would enjoy.

We arrive at Phnom Sampov, one of only a few elevations in the large Battambang plain.

We leave Vannan and the tuk-tuk at the foot of the hill next to a row of stalls selling food, drinks, and souvenirs, and hike up.

The Monastery & the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov

Our first stop is a Buddhist monastery. The buildings are not remarkable, the entrance is guarded by a ship, and the way to the main temple building is guarded by crude sculptures depicting the Chinese signs of the zodiac – the rat, the dragon, the dog,…

People are praying in the temple hall. Vanna takes his time and quietly explains some of the images along the walls and the ceiling depicting the life of Buddha.

We climb a little further along a small path and reach the first cave. Vanna explains that the Khmer Rouge took over the monastery and brought men, women, and children here to kill them. The first cave was for the men. They wouldn’t be shot; they’d simply be kicked into a 10m deep hole where they’d die from the fall if they were lucky. There is a similar cave for the children. Vanna tells me how some of the Khmer Rouge fighters would keep barely born babies as a talisman. There is a cage half-full of bones where the mothers of those children would be put to die after their stomachs had been cut open. Vanna tells me that while nobody in his direct family was killed – I guess, in a way back then they were lucky to be poor farmers – everybody knew somebody who was and somebody who had slaughtered. Yet, after it was over they still had to somehow live with each other with that knowledge.

A larger open cave at the bottom of the Killing Caves houses a Reclining Buddha. In front of Buddha sits an elderly man. He quietly tells a story. Vanna tells me that the man was there on Phnom Sampov when the killing happened and it was his way of finding salvation to live down there by the Buddha and remind visitors of the horrors.

We climb back up to the road. On the way, we pass a bizarre display of concrete sculptures performing gruesome acts on their victims. Vanna says: “We tell children that the Khmer Rouge is Hell when they don’t behave.”

Top of the Mountain

We climb to the very top of Phnom Sampov. We have a durian ice cream, walk past quite obese monkeys begging for food from the visitors, and in the shade of a pagoda with a golden roof, Vanna tells me the story of how this mountain came to be. It involves a man and a woman in love, an ocean and a crocodile they reared like a child. It seems absurd that the innocence of a love story and the heinous acts in the Killing Caves would exist in the same space.

The Bat Cave

At around five it’s time to head back down for the night’s main event. We descend via stairs and arrive at the beginning of the rows of stalls. One of the vendors has kept us a table and two chairs with a prime view. Vanna gets me a refreshing sugar cane juice.

Before us, an endless stream of small bats emerges from the mountain. It’s hard to say, but the stream is maybe 2 meters wide. Once outside, bats break off into groups, some in murmuration like starlings, before they take off on their nightly journey towards Tonle Sap lake. It must have already been going on for a few minutes before we arrived and we sit and watch in awe for another half hour or so, and just doesn’t slow down.

Finally, I get tired, and tear myself away and suggest we head back into town. Vanna agrees, and we walk to where our tuk-tuk should be. Alas, Vannan isn’t there. My guide calls and calls again without an answer. Eventually, he asks me to wait and goes off to scan the road. Maybe we both got the meeting point wrong?

It takes 10 minutes and some jeers from the other tuk-tuk drivers, but eventually there is good news: Vanna explains that our driver has been sleeping in a pagoda nearby after having had a beer or two. I’m not very excited about the idea that we should be driving in the semi-dark with a semi-drunk driver. But it’s only 15 km along a straight route with a vehicle that barely scratches 50 km/h. So I don’t make a fuss.

We get back to the First Hotel, safe and sound, around 6:30 pm. And we even have time to stop and admire the sunset along the way.

I had spontaneously decided to do the Phnom Sampov tour. Phnom Sampov is a hill, about 15 km southwest of Battambang, Cambodia, that is both of historical relevance and home to a natural spectacle: the Khmer Rouge used caves in the stone as Killing Caves, and every night hundreds of thousands of bats emerge from the mountain So I took to the internets and quickly stumbled across the Sunset and Bat Caves Tour by Butterfly Tours. At $25 for an afternoon Butterfly Tours weren't exactly cheap but I like to support a social tourism enterprise when I see one. #cambodia #battambang #guidedtour


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  1. Miranda Knudtson 2017-08-28

    They make a very good point that you need to know how to cook the animal! haha. Even cooked right, I’m not too sure I would eat rats or bats…

  2. Katherine 2017-08-29

    What a bittersweet post. Those poor people killed by the Khmer Rouge. The mothers left to die like that – how horrible.
    But I suppose nature has a way of reclaiming places like that as well.

  3. Those caves sounds so gruesome! Why did they kill people and who was doing the killing? I want to know more!

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-08-29

      Hi Sarah,
      Thank you for your comment!
      The Khmer Rouge had this idea of a Communist state that would solely live off the food it grew. So anyone who was considered “intellectual” (this accusation could be founded on anything: because someone had studied, because they wore glasses, because they could read,…) was killed. I don’t know how much traveling you have done in Southeast Asia but I was astonished to find how mixed the countries are, especially in the cities. Under the Khmer Rouge, anyone who wasn’t considered pure Cambodian (because they had Chinese, Vietnamese,… ancestors) was killed. And anyone who was seen as standing against the regime was killed. People were also forced to work in the fields and at the end wouldn’t receive any of the food they had labored for. Within half a decade 25% of the Cambodian population had died (an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people).
      This BBC article gives a good overview about the Khmer Rouge: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399

      All the best,

  4. kittytocity 2017-08-29

    Good call looking for a different tour company after the first guy acted like a schmuck. The bat cave looks really cool! I wonder how many bats you saw fly out of it!

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-08-29

      Ya, when I wrote the article I tried to figure out whether thousands or millions was more appropriate. But there sure were a lot of those bats… 🙂

  5. Nina Danielle 2017-08-29

    Oh my gosh, I got a little queasy there reading about what they did with the mothers and the nearly born babies… that’s so awful. Sounds like something out of a movie! I’m not sure that you’ve convinced me to go hahaha but it’s definitely interesting!

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-08-29

      I totally understand! It’s hard to grasp that the same spots we as travelers walk so leisurely today in a beautiful country like Cambodia (that gave us the technology and beauty of Angkor!) have seen unimaginable horrors only a generation ago. But I find it important to learn about this history, too. So we can make sure it isn’t repeated.
      And I found the stunning views of the plain and the bat spectacle a sort of consolation after my gruesome history lesson.

      Happy continued travels!

  6. Chandrika 2017-08-29

    This was such an interesting read! I have always been intrigued by ancient caves..yet to visit one though! I also loved how you described your experience 🙂

  7. Cambodia is a country that I haven’t been to although I do have a friend who works and live in Phnom Penh who’s been bugging me for a visit. I’ve read a bit about the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime before but had never really thought about how the surviving family members and those who did the killings still had to somehow live with each other with that very knowledge. I wonder if they are all at peace with each other now, and with themselves too. It just sounds so crazy to me, I’m not sure if I can ever live with that.

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-09-01

      I guess if you were Cambodian you would have to live with it. Even 40 years later, you can still feel pain in the people. Most of them don’t have a choice of moving away. And even if there is an awareness for PTSD there is little access to psychological care. So people find their own coping mechanisms, like the gentleman in the Killing Cave. Many are open to speaking about it (those who can communicate in English). And painful as it must be I am grateful for that as I hope it will help us preventing atrocities like these anywhere in the future.

      Happy continued travels,

  8. Chasing Potatoes 2017-09-02

    Oh my, that was a scary story. I wonder how people cope up with those unimaginable horrors. This is such an interesting post. I learn something about Cambodian history today. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. kjaroundtheworld 2017-09-03

    I never thought about visiting Cambodia as much as I’d thought about other countries in that region. It seems like a really cool place to visit.

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-09-03

      It absolutely is a cool place to visit! If nothing else, you’ll have to go there for the Angkor ruins (Angkor Wat and hundreds more). But there is so much more…

      Happy continued travels!

  10. Daniela 2017-09-03

    My mind cannot comprehend what reasons one needs to have to justify a genocide. Where I come from in Eastern Europe, the Cambodian genocide was a hush-hush thing, as my country was also a communist one. Unbelievable what the mankind can do to each other.

  11. travellingfarmgirl 2017-09-03

    These sculptures are terrifying but very interesting. Added to my list. This is the kind of place I am really interested in. Dark stories always get me 😀

  12. moonandforest 2017-09-03

    This was such an interesting read but what an awful, sad history. The bat cave sounds so cool though – I really love bats. Definitely wouldn’t want to eat one though… haha!


  13. Eve Kay 2017-09-04

    It was such a heartbreaking and gruesome history. I have never been to the killing caves you visited but there were a few sites in Phnom Pheng (one was an old secondary school I remember) that were used as killing sites as well and you could still see blood stains on the wall after like 40 years. I got headaches after visiting those. And wild animals like bats and rats definitely should not be eaten as that was exactly how SARS started……..

    1. Carola Bieniek 2017-09-04

      Hi Eve,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment!

      Even though it can be tough to stomach, I think it is important that we look at these sites where atrocities have happened in the past so that we are more aware of today’s injustices and our part in stopping them. So I am glad that you went and visited the Killing Sites in Phnom Penh.

      As for the spread of SARS. According to my research, that virus did spread from animals and humans living very close to one another, not from people eating the infected animals in a rural setting. I can assure you that the rats and bats consumed around Battambang are caught in the wild and cooked (usually barbecued) until very well done, almost burnt. And while we as travelers from the other side of the globe might not appreciate the taste these kinds of wild animals are often the only source of protein available to the population; so I would caution against general statements such as “definitely should not be eaten.”

      Happy continued travels!

  14. Ania Travels 2017-09-04

    What an interesting place. The caves look pretty cool, though I’m not sure I would ever be able to eat a bat.


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