The bellies of the clouds sagged low and heavy with water, and a steady rain fell on Hannah, Jeb and I as we dragged our tired feet up the wet road to the top of Phnom Sampeau, a hill in central Cambodia. Rivulets of water ran down the mountain, trying weakly to wash us back down from the muddy road where we’d begun the climb. The little light that the sun offered at that early hour was swallowed up by the thickness of the clouds, leaving us in a dark twilight.
Informational signage was non-existent along the way, but coming upon an offshoot of the road, we decided to see where it would take us. Eventually, a temple rose out of the damp, dreary forest. At first there didn’t seem to be anyone around, but then we spotted a young monk, clad in a deep maroon robe, with a smoldering cigarette hanging off his lower lip. He was sweeping the porch of a small building, and glanced up at us through the rain.
“Killing Caves?” we asked shyly, not knowing if our presence at the temple was intrusive. He gave a curt nod and pointed to his right, then lowered his head and continued with his work. We uncertainly began to walk in the direction in which he had gestured, and came to a narrow path. Is this the way? we kept asking ourselves, looking around and trying to find some remnants of a sign indicating that we had indeed arrived at the Killing Caves.
I was looking about, surveying the drenched greenery around me, when I heard a grunting sound behind me. I turned to see another monk who had come forward to reaffirm that we were heading in the right direction. He, too, was adorned in that a maroon robe, but was older than the first monk we’d seen. At first I could barely make out his features, but as my eyes focused in the dim light, I could see that his face was disfigured: his black beady eyes were dwarfed by his bulbous nose that spread wide across his cheeks, rippling and protruding like a small mountain range down his long face. His ears were small but inflated with small balloons of flesh.
He grunted again, gesturing for us to continue down the narrow path. I turned, not wanting to stare at his deformities for fear of offending him, and followed behind Hannah and Jeb as we continued. Soon we came upon a slippery flight of metal stairs, leading down into the Killing Caves themselves. The black walls of the cave loomed eerily over us, soaking up the little light that made it through the dark clouds. We could barely see as we slowly descended into the cave and landed on a white tiled floor. The cave swallowed up all sound, except for a strong, steady drip, drip, drip of lone drops of water, falling into a metal funnel from the roof of the cave high above. Like a drumming metronome, the drips seemed to be meting out eternity for the bones that call the cave home.
The Killing Caves earn their name from their horrific past. The Khmer Rouge, who brutally ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, liberally murdered innocent people in fear that someone, somewhere, was trying to oust their regime. In less than four years, about 2 million people—roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time—died due to starvation, disease, and exhaustion at forced labor camps, and by torture and murder at the hands of the government. The Killing Caves, located just outside Battambang, Cambodia, are one of many sites where innocent people were brought to die after they had been tortured into false confessions. Thousands of men, women, and children were bludgeoned to death, and their bodies were tossed down into the cave, creating a mass grave.
Inside the cave was so dim that I wouldn’t have known what was encased in the large, glass-enclosed shrine, save for the research I’d done beforehand. Piled in the temple-like glass house were the countless bones and skulls of some of the Cambodians that had been brutally murdered above, and carelessly dumped below. Although I couldn’t see the contents of that shrine, the knowledge of what rested before my eyes was more than enough to have a tremendous impact upon my psyche. Emotion rushed through me as I tried to comprehend the terror of the atrocities committed a few short decades ago upon that very ground. I thought about the victims and their families, and the killers and their families too. What would it have been like, to be on either end of the jagged edges of the sugar palm leaves sometimes used to slit throats? My mind was trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. Unable to speak or make comment, I stood in silence, listening to the loud, metallic drip of falling water.