The former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin sits at the northern edge of the Cardamom Mountains, just 45 minutes' by road (on a good day) from the Thai frontier. Previously home to a number of Khmer Rouge head honchos, notably Khieu Samphan, in the past the town has traded on its notoriety with share taxi drivers offering to drive one past "Uncle Khieu's house", but aside from the humble abodes of these soon-to-be-declared war criminals, Pailin doesn't often get much attention tourism wise. It's usually just viewed through the windows of passers-by headed to or from the border, who see no reason to stop.
While there aren't many sites here per se, the area has an interesting history. Don't be surprised to hear older Pailin hands hark back to the good old days — the period from 1979 through to 1996 when the town was a Khmer Rouge stronghold. Fat through raping and pillaging the natural resources (primarily gems and lumber) that were then exported illegally to Thailand via complicit generals in the Thai military, the Khmer Rouge were able to provide considerable assistance to their supporters. This came in the form of food, security and health care — all three of which began to unravel when Ieng Sary eventually defected to the government side. The local economy, mostly supported by farming and a now-failing gem mining industry today leaves many of Pailin's residents struggling and unemployed, hence the longing back to the days when all was taken care of for them.
From a tourist's perspective, Pailin's best potential is its proximity to the northern tip of the Cardamom Mountains. A trek through the Blue Mountains alongside Otavao Waterfall is both scenic and peaceful. Wat Phnom Yat certainly deserves a visit; it's a shame the Khmer Rouge leaders didn't pay more attention to the statues depicting savage punishment of sinners there. The views from the top are superb.
Besides trekking and temples, a fun way to enjoy Pailin is to check out the local gem mining operations. While gems of significant value are rarely found these days, locals continue to work along the riverbanks hoping to strike it rich. The miners change their location often, so you'll need the help of a guide to track them down; the friendly locals may even let you give it a try.
If you're spending the evening in Pailin, swing by the evening food stalls where you'll strike it rich among offerings of chicken feet, fried insects and popcorn. It's a great opportunity to interact with the generally shy but curious locals. As always, beer is available — cold and cheap.
Warning: While landmines are said to have been cleared from the area, we suggest staying on marked roads and paths when venturing outside of the city.
Pailin's bus station, share taxis, banks, police station and internet cafes are all within walking distance of the central market.
There's a small hospital, but for anything serious you'll need to head to Phnom Penh or Bangkok.
Unless you're a gem expert, be careful when shopping at the local gem shops. According to our guide, you'll likely be overcharged.
For your banking needs, Acleda and Canadia Banks are located in the city. Both are equipped with ATMs.
Internet access is slow but available at a few locations in the city. Worldnet Internet Café, a short walk from Pailin Ruby Guest House, has the best computers and internet connection speed.
English-speaking guides are available but might be difficult to find. They'll likely approach you if you're out in public or eating at the central market. Otherwise, ask staff at Pailin Ruby Guest House.
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Text and/or map last updated on 6th December, 2010.
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