Cambodia’s Wild West

One of Cambodia’s rarely visited destinations is Pailin Province. Few tourists go there, which is reason enough to put the province in your travel plans. 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 Province, located in Western Cambodia, is Cambodia’s smallest. Its capital, 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. This makes the south of the province 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 part of the powerful Khmer Empire, the Burmese conquered it in 1558. It was later ruled by the Siamese until 1946 when Thailand returned it to Cambodia. The Thais knew Pailin as Phailin.

Since the end of the civil war and Khmer Rouge rule, 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 visitors interested in its ancient temples, natural forests and wildlife, and the gem market.

In addition, Pailin officially separated from Battambang in 2001 becoming a province and separate administrative division. This was a process started after the surrender of the Ieng Sary faction of the Khmer Rouge in 1996.

Don’t be Alarmed About Pailin

If you’re planning a visit, especially to the countryside around Pailin City, landmines are a concern. In fact, the location of Pailin is in one of the most heavily mined areas in the world.   Landmines have plagued Cambodia for decades as a result of the devices used extensively during three decades of war. Pailin still remains a hot zone for mines. While Pailin is definitely worth visiting, Visitors need to stay on marked roads. De-mining is ongoing, and if you decide to visit any places off the beaten track then check if it is safe. Check with the locals.

The Khmer Rouge laid most these mines.

Khmer Rouge Invasion, Occupation and Defeat … or Not

Pailin remained under Khmer Rouge control long after they were sent scurrying in 1979. During the 1980s and 1990s, the city was a key Khmer Rouge strong point and resources centre. It served from 1994 to 1998 as the capital of the Provisional Government of National Union and National Salvation of Cambodia.

Pailin is where many of the Khmer Rouge retreated to after the fall of the murderous regime. 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 lived openly in the province. Estimates are that almost 70 per cent of the area’s older men were Khmer Rouge fighters. Of these, few have been brought to justice. However, some of Pailin’s Khmer Rouge leaders have been rounded up for their time in court. These men include Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.

Goodbye Good Times | Pailin

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. The Khmer Rouge soldiers were liberators. Deposed King Sihanouk had allied himself with the Khmer Rouge and most locals believed they were fighting to restore him to power. It was not long before the Khmer Rouge took locals into the countryside to work in rice paddies. Many of those people disappeared.

Pailin became the major revenue source for the Khmer Rouge through the exploitation of the province’s rich supply of gems and logging business. The Khmer Rouge used proceeds from mining and logging 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 and other questionable ventures.

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 are low-quality, cheap, hand-faceted gemstones at the market in downtown Pailin.

Beyond the Khmer Rouge Dark Days

These days Pailin is a much different place. In fact, the locals seem happy to see a tourist. This means that not only is money coming in but also a sense of normalcy has returned 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 mostly Kola, who are descendants of Burmese immigrants who settled in the area from the late nineteenth century. Another group of people of Burmese descent are the Shan, who arrived a bit later. As a result, the people of Pailin are different from other parts of Cambodia. The difference is reflected in the cuisine, clothes and language.

Outside Pailin

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.