Cambodia Travel: Kampong Chhnang, The Khmer Rouge Tunnel Prison

Posted on by Mac Hathaway


On a recent trip to Kampong Chhnang with my friend, Srey Mom, I was very keen on finding a historical site that I”d heard of long before. The area northwest of the city is covered in the traces of the Khmer Rouge, including derelict buildings and the abandoned airport, but there was something more sinister as well. During the Khmer Rouge era, the black pyjama clad thugs forced their countrymen to dig a tunnel into the side of a hill and construct rude brick prison cells where they would be confined.

Nowadays, many of the locals don”t know how to find the site, and it took some time asking for directions and zigzagging over the area before we could find anyone to point us to the hill. Finding a path on the side of the hill, we rode as far as we could and then parked the bike and started to hike. But when the path shot off in more than one direction, we became confused and turned back to reconfirm our directions. That’s when we met two girls riding past on their bicycles.

They had just finished school for the day and were still wearing their white shirts, with the school’s name stitched over ther shirts. Asking them about the site, they pointed right back up the hill and told us to just keep hiking upwards.

So we drove back, and started the climb up the rocky path up the slope. Stopping to look back over the hilly landscape, we saw the schoolgirls, and a few of their plainclothed, following. We found the mouth of the tunnel, smothered in vines and creepers, carved out of a bare rockface. There we waited for the kids to catch up, and then we walked down into the mouth.

Anticipating the darkness, I’d bought a lighter, and Srey Mom had a mobile phone with a flashlight, but neither of us had thought of the weather. It was still the monsoon season, and the tunnel angled downward, and now it was filled knee-deep with milky green water.

At first, Srey Mom was hesitant. Others would have been spooked by the history of the place. But she just said, after talking to the schoolgirls, that the people build bedrooms inside. She was curious, more than scared, and she had a flash of resourcefulness. Squatting down, she picked up an old rubber tube from inside a bicycle tire. It had been lying on the path, near the mouth of the cave.

She asked for my lighter, burned a hole through the tube, and then shoved some sticks through the inside. These would keep the tube from flopping around and add some substance to the fire. I still wasn’t sure what she had in mind when she kicked off her sandals, rolled up her jeans, and started wading into the tunnel. She’d been talking with the schoolgirls, and they too kicked off their sandals, hiked up their skirts, and followed her. After a moment, I tried to follow, but I couldn’t keep up barefoot on the jagged stones.

So I turned back, and after watching them disappear, and hearing Srey Mom call me, I put my shoes back on and sloshed into the darkness by feeling my way along the wall. The level rose after about thirty meters, and so we were on dry ground again. They waited for me there to catch up, and then the schoolgirls held the torch and led the way. Bits of glowing rubber fell to the ground, and black smoke curled into our faces, and bats flitted in front of my nose. The tunnel was about two meters wide and three meters high. It went back for about three hundred meters, and soon the smell of burning rubber and the stale air began to make me nauseous. At the end were the huge ‘bedrooms.’ They were bare and empty now. Back in the sunlight and fresh air, I gave each of the girls a little money for showing us the way. There was another tunnel nearby, the kids said, but it had collapsed long ago. There are probably others, somewhere, that they had never even heard of.

Mac Hathaway

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