An infamous gem town

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.

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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.

Sometimes it is the little things. Photo by: Nicky Sullivan.
Sometimes it is the little things. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

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 ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 800 words.)

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