A real adventure
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.