Cambodia for years has had a Wild West reputation. Though changing rapidly like much of Asia, Cambodia is still a bit rougher around the edges than many of its neighbours. This reputation still runs true for the tiny border province of Pailin (pronounced “Bye Lin”) and its eponymous capital. My first attempt to get to Pailin, the dusty gem mining town in Cambodia near the Thai border with a dodgy reputation, ended shortly after it began a few years back, without success. This year I was determined not to be beaten.
I’d first decided to head there last time around after a beer at the now defunct Gecko Café on an earlier visit to the country’s second city of Battambang. The Gecko was housed upstairs in a wonderfully renovated corner colonial building. Like much of the town itself it had ambience, the food was good and it was a pleasant spot to watch Battambang go by.
After checking at my hotel the two options at my first try were; ride a motorbike the 80kms, not the best if an accident left you bleeding out on the roadside; or take a taxi. I decided on the latter. It seemed straightforward. After picking me up from the front desk we drove around Battambang to one of the markets, where my driver promptly disappeared into a coffee shop and didn’t come back. This was I discovered, after a guy off the road climbed into the back seat, the driver’s way of filling up the car with passengers before setting off. More passengers, more money but the process is slow, and it’s incredibly hot in the backseat of a Toyota in summer in Cambodia. After 20 minutes I’d walked back to the hotel, defeated.
Today the quiet streets of Battambang are giving way to an emerging regional centre with more of a small city-like feel. Around the Phsar Nat near the river on Street 113, the old shop houses now belong to cafes, restaurants, guesthouses and art galleries. The city, along with Kampot and Kratie are set, they hope, to acquire UNESCO World Heritage status; something Phnom Penh should be, if developers and politicians hadn’t let that gate close.
No taxi this time around. Motorcycle hire can be had for as little as $6, but few places are renting. I asked at the Chhaya Hotel on Road No. 3 if the bike, a 125cc step-through could be taken out of town to Pailin. In exchange for the money and my passport as security he said take it where you like – or words to that effect. They’re easy going up here; usually easy going all round in Cambodia truth be known.
Street 127 takes you to route 57 and the road to Pailin, and shortly thereafter, the Thai border, a crossing popular with smugglers and locals with barely a tourist to be seen. The area is the tail-end part of the Cardamom Mountains, jungle-covered, rich in timber and in gems, both smuggled across borders, and heavily laced with landmines, laid year-after-year in conflicts going back decades. They’re, as they say, there to stay. The locals suffer injuries and fatalities, and there are many three-legged cows, and many maimed people.
The road to Pailin takes you through rice country. The road was only paved in 2010. Most of Cambodia's roads are new, they just look old. Battambang is Cambodia’s rice basket. Once it was part of the mighty Khmer empire like the rest of Cambodia, but along with Siem Reap and Sisophon became Thai, and then Cambodia again in 1907. It was the French that got them back, but the Cambodians remember the deed for King Sisowath.
Near Battambang are the Killing Caves of the Khmer rouge at Phnom (Hill) Sampeu. To get to the top is a steep walk in blistering heat, even the little motorbikes struggle. At the top is a commanding view. There are also leftover artillery, errant monks, elderly beggars, local tourists, and monkeys looking for a fight.
Riding a motorbike in Cambodia requires all your concentration. At 70kph a bee in the face is not pleasant, and potentially sight-threatening. Pot holes are enemies. The road surface can buckle or hide ridges, which the bike’s small wheels cannot absorb. A split second and you can be off. Merging traffic takes its chances and no one looks at anything with due care except their phone. It can be dangerous out there.
My bike developed a worrying metallic noise. I pulled up on the roadside near a house and put the bike on its centre stand, checking the front disc brake like I knew what I was doing. Something was heard to drop out. “They get stuck in there sometimes” the man said wandering back indoors, a krauma around his waist. My mechanical skills clearly up to the task I carried on.
Before the Khmer Rouge the Cambodians used this route to escape to the border with Thailand. The civil war drove more Cambodians through here. Battambang had its differences with central government even before Pol Pot, Norodom Sihanouk once sent in the army to put down rebellion. Englishman, Colin Grafton, lived in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge and recalls taking a helicopter to Pailin in 1974. He took one roll of film with him and recalls seeing hundreds of Cambodians digging for gems, mainly sapphires, in muddy fields. It was like a image from a Sebastiao Salgado Brazilian mine. Eventually it proved a sanctuary for the Red Khmers themselves backed by the West, Thailand and China. They set up a fiefdom run by Ieng Sary, the regime’s former Foreign minister, co-founder, and Pol Pot’s in-law, they were keeping it in the family.
Ieng Sary had retreated there and started an insurgency against Cambodia's fledgling government from several strongholds along Cambodia’s border with Thailand. By the mid-1990s, these remnant forces were largely a spent force. The government offered them a deal; stop fighting, defect to us, and we will let you be. So Ieng Sary and his wife, the Khmer Rouge’s minister for social affairs, and about 5,000 soldiers changed sides. Their deal worked and they were able to live freely, and well enough, in this gem and timber rich area, even trying their hand at fledgling capitalism.
Khmer Rouge power remained. Pailin province was then carved out of Battambang province as part of the deal to defect. Pailin had Khmer Rouge with government uniforms, their own police force, still under their Khmer Rouge commanders. The governor for 20 years was Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s former bodyguard, and a former military commander, Y Chhien, recently retired. One of his deputies is Ieng Vuth, the son of Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith, a woman with a fearsomely clever reputation. She was the sister of Pol Pot’s first wife, and was born down the road in quaint Battambang. Chhien had been a handpicked candidate for the Pailin seat in the National Assembly -- a Khmer Rouge toehold in government.
But in 2007 the deal went sour. Ieng Sary and a few others were arrested and put on trial for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge regime. the trial process continues and is likely to last well beyond the lifetimes of the frail, elderly accused including Ieng Sary who died in 2013, and was buried in Malai, a tidy little town in Cambodia’s northwest that for many years has been an enclave for Khmer Rouge holdouts.
Pailin has been described as “not an ordinary place” and that is probably still true today. The town and its surrounding area is home to some 25,000 Khmer Rouge defectors. I only saw one other foreigner in town when I visited and he was leaving. Pailin has always had a rough Wild West feel to it. In the 1990s early experiments with a civilian economy and exposure to the outside world saw restaurants, tiny hotels, billiard halls and dozens of brothels opened in a frontier atmosphere. There was even a gambling hall, the Caesar International Casino, built. In tin-roofed karaoke parlours, former Khmer Rouge soldiers, then idle young men sat around singing along with sentimental Cambodian love songs late into the night.
When he died one of the wreaths at Ieng Sary’s funeral read “To be born, get old, be sick, and die”. Ieng Sary like his wife was also then on trial for assorted mass crimes before a UN-backed tribunal. Among the 500 die hard mourners was his legal representation at the trials, Michael Karnavas, an American lawyer. He was asked who was paying for the funeral, and then by a journalist if it was true the deceased Khmer Rouge figure had a Hong Kong bank account worth US$20M. “Don’t fuck with me” was the response.
Pailin was once part of the Kingdom of Siam, the area heavily influenced by Burmese minorities, mainly the Kola people who traded with what is not Myanmar in the 19th century. The Kola and other minorities living in Cambodia were persecuted and murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Their architectural legacy however remains. Above the main road on the way into town from Battambang stands Phnom Yat, a popular spot these days with locals and with its distinctive Burmese 87-year-old stupa recently restored, its gold-colour glistening under the midday sun and with a commanding view of the area. The Khmer rouge pillbox positioned on one of the hairpin bends up to the temple, a reminder that war recently existed where now there is peace and tranquility.
Hungry, I stopped at Pipop Penh Chett restaurant, seemingly the only one open in town, and where a Sunday lunch for two large groups was then interrupted by the arrival of a foreigner. It was one of those everybody stop and stare moments you see in films. The food was excellent, the service friendly. All the table ware came from the Kingdom of Thailand, as did the drinking water, and most everything else used in the restaurant.
Sunday is quiet in Pailin but I suspect not much happens there anyway, and the locals are keen for it to stay that way. It is not foun don the tourist beat. There are no backpackers or busloads of Chinese or tourists, though they can turn up in the unlikely of places, remote Mondulkiri for example.
Every Cambodian town has a roundabout with a statue depicting some form of Khmer culture. Pailin’s is the wonderful lotus-inspired Independence Monument designed by the late Vann Molyvann, the full-sized version can be seen at the intersection of Sihanouk and Norodom boulevards in the capital, the traffic swirling around it.
In Pailin there is hardly any traffic, and the only people near the monument were two late middle-aged men chatting sat on a concrete bench in the nearby park. They barely seemed to notice my presence. I was reminded of someone I had met years before, an academic who had been a negotiator for the UN when Ieng Sary still ran Pailin. He remarked the most fearsome characteristic he remembered of the young Khmer Rouge soldiers he encountered, was their eyes. “Blank” he said; “like the just stare right through you.”