The Cambodians believe that demons live in caves: congesting hollows, materializing into whatever forms they please, luring victims into frenzied possession and then death (or, at least, fear-induced cardiac arrest). Visitors entering a cave should never presume that the space is unoccupied, and rather beware of malevolence shadowing where they can’t see, waiting to advance and create war inside the human consciousness.
Should you decide to brave these spaces, you need something brighter than a flashlight. You need a Buddha, gold and grinning, preferably blessed by a monk of respected status. Traditionalist veins of Buddhism in South-East Asia still uphold that a statue alone can hold the spirit of an ancestor, and, of course, the spirit of the Buddha is the most powerful of all.
Even while reclining with his eyes closed, a Buddha can conduct battle against his evil aggressors. The battle always ends the same way, with Buddha driving his fist through the face of suffering. Perhaps this is why, if you decide to journey through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, you might see little Buddhas snugged into dark spaces, smiling over negative energies that have haunted the land for centuries.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge, it was Cambodia’s ruling political party from 1975 to 1979: fueled by Communist and nationalist extremism, famous for its genocide. What began as an attempt to liquidate all class systems under universal farm labor became a mass-abduction and execution of all who didn’t fit in with the Khmer Rouge’s new agrarian vision. An estimated 2,000,000 people — many of them educators, artists, and spiritual leaders — were tortured and killed for the sake of national “cleansing”.
Locals living near the Killing Caves have painted colorful signs along the road to the tourist site, many of them depicting heaps of skulls, babies thrown against trees, or blindfolded men and women suspending their necks under scythes.
Who knows if the Khmer Rouge thought of demons as they heaved corpse after corpse into the Killing Caves? But whatever “demonic” energy might have existed in those caves before, it could only have been strengthened after the depths were piled high with innocents.
Upon descending stone steps into the Killing Caves, visitors find themselves in a cool rock hall inlaid with colorful tile, accented by paper cut-outs and children’s drawings strung up for good luck. Only at the far end is there evidence of the massacre — a memorial shelter with a pile of human skulls set on display.
Beside this memorial, an old man collects donations for site maintenance. His job is to sit from morning until evening, greeting tourists whether or not they contribute to the memorial fund.
We might wonder why the Killing Caves’ most frequent occupant smiles so radiantly beside evidence of one of the worst atrocities in recent human history.
And what about the demons?
But then we look at the giant Buddha meditating soundly behind the old man, and we begin to understand. Whatever evil force once residing in that space has already been removed. Suddenly the cave is a womb, the Buddha like a chord, the sun streaming in through the hatches of the cave like new light after crowning.
At last we feel heavy with life. Empty of change, we leave our last pen at the base the skulls as a tribute to progress, and to lighten the load.