Pailin: Cambodia's Long Forgotten Gem

(This blog post was also published on WheninPhnomPenh blog.)
Pailin, a province in western Cambodia, holds a special place in my heart.
When my mother was a teen, she was forced to go to Pailin with a big group of other young women to take as much as food as possible back to Battambang base where she and her family were ordered to stay. Back in 2008, I got an assignment to translate and arranged interviews with former high ranking Khmer Rouge officers in Pailin for an American journalist from Baltimore Sun for almost a week. It was a very historically enriching experience about the place and the darkest history of Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge era.

There are Burmese scripts on the stupa
a There are Burmese scripts on the stupa

Phnom Yat Stupda
Phnom Yat Stupda

Phsar Prum market, Phnom Yat Guest House, and the golden stupa at Phnom Yat Hill in Pailin
Phsar Prum market, Phnom Yat Guest House, and the golden stupa at Phnom Yat Hill in Pailin

Beautiful evening
Beautiful evening

Sunrise at the resort

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An evening scenery in Pailin

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A cute baby who was born in Pailin. I don’t think he liked being held by this auntie. ;D His parents (young young) who were taking care of a large fruit plantation were really helpful to visitors.

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Bamboo restaurant and guest house. We were there for a stop for lunch only.

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It is not every day where you can find a beautiful house in a middle of nowhere like this. The clear blue sky and the blue roof of the house built in a non-Cambodian architectural style 🙂

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The Burmese grape trees are about 10 minutes from Memoria Palace & Resort

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Everyone that comes from Phnom Penh has to drive on this road. You should stop to pay homage to Yay Yat (Grandma Yat) and check out the Phnom Yat stupa.

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The heat was almost unbearable, but who cares about the heat when the clear blue sky is all round like this? I would take this any day.

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Your Pailin visit wouldn’t be complete without the visit to the Burmese grape farm. But, the Burmese grapes aren’t all-season fruits. You will need to go to Pailin in April or May. After that, you can see durians, rambutan and a few other tropical fruits. Since you drive through Battambang province, you need to visit Phnom Banon to see how the red grapes are made into red wine. 🙂

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My dad was probably drowsy after sitting in the car for more than 7 hours. My sister remained her cheerful self standing in front of respected Yay Yat or Grandma Yat who is believed to take care of Pailin and the whole area.

Before I went to Pailin in April this year, my second trip to the place, I did a little bit research on the Internet and asked people around what was up in Pailin. Shortly after that, I found out on Facebook that a friend’s friend opened a hotel called Memoria Palace and Resort in Pailin.
Once I talked to the hotel’s owner, Mr. Long Panhavuth, and arranged an accommodation there, I took a car to Pailin. It was about 8 hours to get to Pailin from Phnom Penh. The hotel was kinda easy to find thanks to big road signs. Once you get to Pailin, you can easily ask villagers for the direction to Memoria Palace and Resort. You need to pronounce the hotel name the local way for people to give you the right direction.
If you want to stay in a comfortable and mosquito-free hotel with an affordable price, you should definitely check out the Facebook and website of the hotel and resort. The price of each room varies depending on the type of room you’d like to stay in: as there are 4 types of room.
I should let the photos talk.
Mr. Long Panhavuth’s wife at Burmese grapes (Phlae-Phnhiew) farm about 10 minutes from the hotel

The swimming pool at Memoria Palace & Resort, Pailin

Papaya salad

Shrimp paste

Chicken curry

We stopped for some gasoline, and then I spotted these yellow daisy-like flowers.

I know this is crazy, but I happened to be at the hotel the same time as Bill and Melinda Gates who came to Pailin to meet officials from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. There was probably a big annual meeting of the Foundation over there. Bill and Melinda, his wife, stayed at the Raffles Hotel in Siem Reap, but their foundation officials stayed at Memoria Palace. Guess what, I stayed at one of his bodyguards’ room, and the cigarette smoke could still be smelled in the room. I wished I could change the room that day. But, I was so distracted by Bill Gates’ visit, so I started tweeting and Facebooking it. A moment later, a journalist friend from the Phnom Penh Post picked up the story from my Facebook timeline. Here’s the story about Bill Gates’ visit which he wrote. 🙂
Bill and Melinda in the helicopter on their way to Siem Reap
Bill and Melinda in the helicopter on their way to Siem Reap

I think a visit to Pailin wouldn’t be worth if you don’t know some facts below:
– Pailin boasted high quality gems and other valuable gemstones that were mined almost clean now to support the Khmer Rouge back in the 80s and 90s.
– Pailin hosts a lot of former Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families. Nobody wants to talk about this, of course.
– Pailin bothers Thailand, and a small market which you can access by paying a ticket fee of 5,000 riel to Cambodian immigration police is called Psar Prum market. It’s too small to be bothered about anyway, but it’s worth looking around on a brief visit.
– Pailin was a destination for Burmese mine workers back in the colonization period. British mining companies sent a few Burmese people to Pailin to do some gem mining. Therefore, people today can find the Burmese scripts on the stupa built by Burmese communities back then. In other words, Pailin was once home to Burmese merchants known as “Kola”, who lived there for centuries but disappeared during the Khmer Rouge.  My mother told me that, “Kola” is a name given to half Cambodian half Burmese persons, and Kola people were persecuted by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-79. Many were found killed in their houses. Because my mother was sent to Pailin in around 1977, she was asked to stay in a Kola’s house which she described as “wealthy and well-decorated”. Yet, what shocked her was the fact that they were targeted by the Khmer Rouge.
– On my personal list, songs written about Pailin in the 1960s were the best of the best. Those Pailin songs in this Youtube list always bring a lot of emotions in me, and especially take me back to the time when Pailin was a very wealthy part of Cambodia enriched by the gems and other natural resources. When I was a child, I always wondered what it was like to be in Pailin in the 1960s seeing that my awesome mother almost always spoke highly of Pailin and its natural beauty. My mother still vividly remembers the very first time she was in Pailin, and speaking about it brings her goosebumps. One morning, when she was washing up in a small pond with crystal clear water, she suddenly looked up. She described red, blue, and green gems everywhere. Another interesting thing I found out in my recent trip was that in Khmer language, you use the word “Bor” in front of Pailin and a few other places there such as Bor Pailin, Bor Taing Su, or Bor Jra.

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