As the number of visitors to Cambodia grows, it’s good to know that there are still plenty of places that are not just off the beaten track, but scarcely on the same map, and Pailin is one of them. Home of mountains, waterfalls, coffee and pepper plantations, and a real frontier feeling, this remote, under-serviced area is a rich, if quiet, reward for the adventurous, especially trekking and cycling fans.
The smallest Cambodian province only formally came into existence by royal decree in 2008 before which it had been a separate municipality carved out of the side of Battambang in 1996 after Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary surrendered to the Cambodian government. In the 1970s Pailin was one of the first areas targeted by the Khmer Rouge who were drawn there by its rich mineral and gem deposits. They never really left, and a significant proportion of the population there are Khmer Rouge children. The gems though are now mostly gone.
As home to some of the top KR leaders, including Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, both of whom were convicted by the Khmer Rouge Tribunal (Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or ECCC), Pailin has traditionally attracted attention as the place authorities go to when they need to arrest former KR head honchos, and has often traded on that reputation among the handful of visitors who make it there. But there’s more to it than that.
If you’re coming to Pailin from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, prepare for something completely different. On the mountainous frontier with Thailand, Pailin is greener, hillier, wetter and cooler than the flat plains of central Cambodia. It’s also lovelier. Tourism may not have taken off there yet — and may never really do so — but there are still attractions for those with a more adventurous bent. There is plenty of trekking and cycling to be done, waterfalls to explore and swim in, camping, coffee plantations, gem mining, and perhaps the chance to find the “best pepper in Cambodia” which, by default, would make it the best pepper in the world.
It may be hard to communicate with the locals, most of whom don’t speak English. But if you do succeed, don’t be surprised to hear people speak wistfully of the “good old days” from 1979 to 1996 when Pailin was a Khmer Rouge stronghold made fat through raiding the natural resources, in particular gems and illegal logging. As a result, the old cadres were able to provide assistance to their supporters, in the form of food, security and healthcare, all of which unravelled when Ieng Sary made his defection. Today, those who can are farmers, while the rest are struggling and unemployed, hence the nostalgia.
Illegal logging continues, aided and abetted by the Thai military, but of equal concern is the amount of forest being cut away for agriculture. The hills to the west of Pailin are being denuded to make way for banana, corn and other plantations. Whether this will produce the usual consequences (landslides, flash floods), only time will tell.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire province has been turned over to cassava production, which can make some of the landscape look rather dull and uniform, even when green. Rather bizarrely, ghosted images of a cheerfully sinister Hun Sen loom out at you all over the place — no doubt a hangover from the 2013 elections.
You’ll need a guide to get the most out of Pailin as access — safe access — to most of the interesting sites is a matter of knowledge and while large areas of Pailin have been cleared of land mines, not all have. Sticking to the track is essential. English-speaking guides are around 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 your hotel.
For food, if your hotel doesn’t have a restaurant then you can check out the local market just off the main drag in the centre of town. The locals are very curious and will want to chat though most don’t speak English. That’s not always a barrier when pointing, waving, laughing and big smiles can say so much.
Pailin’s bus station, share taxis, banks, police station and internet cafes are all within walking distance of the central market.
There is not much to the town itself. It sits along a dog leg on National Route 57 that connects Battambang with the Thai border. In the main, it consists of three connected drags that join one another at Phnom Wat Yat and the Independence Monument roundabout. Along these roads, you’ll find plenty of street side food stalls and merchant shops. The market is just off the third leg (towards Thailand). There are other roads, but exploration yielded little of interest.
Pailin has a small hospital, but for anything serious you’ll need to head to Phnom Penh or more likely Bangkok.
Unless you’re a gem expert, be careful when shopping at the local gem shops. You’ll likely be overcharged, and the gems being turned up by the dwindling number of miners are no longer the good quality ones for which the region used to be known.
For your banking needs, Acleda and Canadia Banks are located in the city centre, both of which have ATMs.
Internet access is slow but available at a few locations in the city, including the Po Penh restaurant just off the main drag in the centre of town.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 16th October, 2016.