Photo: Gem shopping in Pailin.


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Green hills, thick with forests made lush by the humid environment and rich soils, a strong agricultural tradition, the delicious — if highly improbable — possibility that you might just trip over a priceless gem to take home from your travels, and a remoteness confirmed by the fascinated stares of the locals working the fields that you pass, all combine to add to the sense that Pailin is special. It is certainly nothing like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, or even nearby Battambang, with their flat plains and miles-away horizons. All of which means that this is perfect trekking country; with one minor glitch.

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Aiming for yonder hills.

Aiming for yonder hills.

Pailin is known for two kinds of mines. One produces blue and red stones whose polished brilliance can light up a room, or someone’s eyes. The other has a rather different effect, robbing people of life and limb. The border between Cambodia and Thailand used to be the most heavily mined area in the world, with thousands of vicious seeds of death sown by the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese and Cambodian governments. It’s glorious, but don’t ever step off the path in front of you.

We rarely came across company.

We rarely came across company.

We took a guide with the Memoria Palace Hotel, who charged $40 for a day’s guiding into the hills just below Pailin. He took us into the hills just to the southwest of Pailin city, where we climbed past banana and corn plantations, past tiny, battered houses inhabited by individual families that farm the lands around them.

We rescued this fellow on the way up.

We rescued this beautiful fellow on the way up.

We ambled along a wide, clearly marked path that was obviously regularly used by those farmers. Cows watched us warily, and birds sang from distant trees. An eagle coursed high in the mottled sky above. Phalla showed how the natural tree cover on the hills was being cut back for farming as the fruit trees and crops inched their way up the inclines.

At a small clearing an old man cleaned his motorbike, a 250cc Suzuki Djebel, in front of his rundown wooden house. Three of the bikes were lined up in the shade, with a total worth of about $6,000. He was not so poor as it would be easy to believe. He also marked the end of the easy trail.

While there were few flowers, those that were there were spectacular.

While there were few flowers, those that were there were spectacular.

Now the “path” became little more than a slight blur in the green showing where someone might have recently pushed through and trodden down the foliage. We picked through it. Or Phalla marched through it and we picked through it as the open skies overhead soon became crowded with the dense green branches of the surrounding forest. And the climb began.

“Level 2?, or thereabouts.

Crisscrossing the river that plunges down the side of the hill, we worked our way up and up. According to Phalla there are 32 levels to this particular waterway, but we were only going to number 10. After that it gets a bit “adventurous” he said. On reflection, our only thought on that is “holy god”.

There are no spiders, there are no spiders in Cambodia.

“There are no spiders, there are no spiders in Cambodia.” Right?

Clambering, climbing, staggering, hauling, slipping, wading, teetering, straddling and generally somehow hanging on, we made our way up 500 metres, praying to the gods that we wouldn’t see a spider as we were pretty certain that we’d let go of our too tenuous grip on the wet stones.

Level 10!

Level 10!

Having scaled a near-vertical earthy bank and then had to come back down it again 50 metres on we were starting to wonder about the logistics of extracting bodies from the hills around here. It was a bit of a relief when Phalla said there was just one more to go, and then showed us what we’d have to do to get there. We have to confess that we nearly chickened out at the vertical bank of rotten trees and wet, mossy stones.

Millions of butterflies, but only one would stay still long enough for this.

Millions of butterflies, but only one would stay still long enough for this, at the old man’s house.

One thing about trekking around here: the guides know what they’re doing, and won’t take you beyond your limits. But really, you need to make sure you’re not hungry, dehydrated, or hungover. A misstep could get really messy. Phalla said no-one’s fallen on any of his trips, except him, and he’s been at it for five years. He fell trying to get beyond the 10th level on this waterfall, luckily landing with a big splash in the pool behind him.

The remains of someone's dinner found on the way back down again.

The remains of someone’s/something’s dinner found on the way back down again.

Pushing up for that final leg was a challenge and we couldn’t for the life of us work out how we were going to get back down it again, but it was beautiful at level 10. Surrounded by thick, thick forest, falling water, twirling butterflies and the sounds of birds we couldn’t see, we took off our shoes and tucked into a well-earned lunch. We’d only been walking and climbing for two hours, but it felt like much more.

More wildlife...

More wildlife…

Weirdly, the climb back down again was much easier, and we started to wonder what on earth we’d been worried about — still deeply, deeply glad about the absence of spiders. We were also glad that we hadn’t brought the expensive camera. Worrying about that would have probably ruined the expedition.

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Pailin.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda
 Read up on where to eat on Pailin.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Pailin.
 Read up on how to get to Pailin, or book your transport online with Camboticket.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Pailin? Please read this.
 Browse the web securely while travelling with TunnelBear. Try with a 7–day free trial.

See below for more sights and activities in Pailin that are listed on

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Pailin? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Cambodia.

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