Pailin Is Cambodia’s Wild West
One of Cambodia’s out-of-the-way destinations is Pailin Province. Few foreigners get here, which is reason enough to put the province in your travel planner. The area has a long history, and although Pailin City is small with a wild-west flavour, there are plenty of places to visit in and around town.
Pailin is Cambodia’s second smallest province and is in Western Cambodia. Pailin City is nestled in a picturesque valley with magnificent sunsets over mountains that separate Cambodia and nearby Thailand. The town is also located in the foothills of Chuor Phnom Kravanh, which is part of the Cardamom Mountains making the south of the municipality quite hilly. There are also a number of smaller rivers coming from the mountain range. These places provide lots of opportunities to visit waterfalls and rivers for cool afternoon swims, nature and wildlife reserves, and local villages.
A Brief History of Pailin
Once a part of the powerful Khmer Empire, Pailin was conquered in 1558 by the Burmese under Bayinnaung and later ruled by the Siamese until 1946 when it was returned to Cambodia: it was known to the Thais as “Phailin”.
Since the war, Pailin has suffered an economic depression and the failure of most local businesses. However, since the area has recently stabilised politically, it is now seeing a new wave of tourism focused on its ancient temples, natural forests and wildlife, and the gem market.
In 2001, Pailin was officially separated from Battambang to become a province and separate administrative division: a process started after the surrender of the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge in 1996. More on this crew later.
Don’t be Alarmed
If you’re planning a visit to the area, especially the countryside around Pailin City, land mines are a concern. In fact, Pailin is located in one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. Land mines have plagued Cambodia for decades as a result of the devices being used extensively during three decades of war; Pailin still remains a hot zone for mines. While Pailin is definitely worth visiting, people are cautioned to stay on marked roads. De-mining is ongoing, and if you decide to visit any out-of-the-way places then check if it is safe. The locals will know.
A major cause of these mines was the Khmer Rouge.
Khmer Rouge Invasion, Occupation and Defeat … or Not
Pailin remained under Khmer Rouge control long after they were defeated in 1979 and it served from 1994 to 1998 as the capital of the “Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation of Cambodia.” During the 1980s and 1990s, the city was a key Khmer Rouge strongpoint and resources centre.
Pailin is known to much of the world as the area where many Khmer Rouge leaders came from and retreated to after the murderous regime fell. Even after the death of their leader Pol Pot in 1998, many Khmer Rouge leaders stayed on.
Fearing punishment for their crimes, some leaders went into hiding, while other leaders brashly lived openly in the province. Estimates are that almost 70 percent of the area’s older men were Khmer Rouge fighters: few have been brought to justice. However, Pailin’s last Khmer Rouge leaders have been rounded for their time in court. These men included Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
Goodbye Good Times
In the early 1970s, Pailin was a prosperous town stemming from the extensive gem deposits in the surrounding countryside. Because of its resources, it was one of the first cities invaded by the Khmer Rouge. The city offered no resistance and Khmer Rouge soldiers were greeted as liberators. Meanwhile, deposed King Sihanouk had allied himself with the Khmer Rouge and most locals believed that they were fighting to restore him to power. It was not long; however, before locals were forced march to the countryside to work in rice paddies. Many of those people were never seen again.
Pailin became the major revenue source for the Khmer Rouge through the exploitation of the provinces rich supply of gems and being a prime logging area. The Khmer Rouge used proceeds from mining and logging in the Pailin area to bankroll their initial campaign and later Democratic Kampuchea once they seized power.
When the Vietnamese Army ousted the Khmer Rouge from power, the Khmer Rouge retreated to Pailin.
Not to be deterred, the guerrilla group continued the fight against the Vietnamese and even invested some money from the production of natural resources in Casinos.
Unfortunately, by the time the Khmer Rouge had been dislodged from Pailin they had almost mined out the gems and deforested the area. Nowadays all you can find is low-quality, cheap, hand-faceted gemstones at the market in downtown Pailin.
Beyond the Dark Days In Pailin
These days Pailin is a much different place. In fact, the locals seem happy to see a foreigner means that not only money is coming in but also a sense of normalcy is returning to the area.
The town has a number of interesting places to visit including Wat Gohng-Kahng, and Wat Phnom Yat and at its base Wat Rattanak Sophoan.
The people of Pailin are Kola. These are descendants of Burmese immigrants who settled in the area from the late nineteenth century. Another group of people, the Shan, arrived a bit later. As a result, the people of Pailin are different from other parts of Cambodia. This difference can be seen in the cuisine and the clothes.
The best parts of Pailin are outside the main city, and the best way to see these places is by bicycle. For more on Pailin read Cyclebodia: Wild West Pailin.