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Photos from a Frontier Town

A small town 17 kilometers from the Thai border and 80 kilometers from Battambang, Pailin is often called the Wild West of Cambodia. During my three-night stay, I didn’t see another Westerner. I was even forced to try out my very limited Khmer when it came to ordering food and drinks and finding out how much things cost. Pailin would be the perfect antidote to anyone burned out from Cambodia’s “tourist trail”.



It’s true that there’s not a lot here for travellers, but for me that’s part of its appeal. There are no Western-style bars, no nightlife to speak of. It’s a true Cambodian town which has not felt the touch of tourism. In fact, every transport option that I was given while there offered me a lift out of town, either to Battambang or to the Thai border. For a Westerner to stay in Pailin is evidently still something of a novelty.

The town has a chequered past, from being a wealthy area famous for its abundance of gems and timber in the 1800s to being one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge as recently as 1998.

The area is populated with descendents of Burmese immigrants who came to the area in the late 1800s in search of fortune. One of the remaining influences from Burma is the golden stupa at Wat Phnom Yat on the edge of town.


The Road to Pailin

The day started, as always, with coffee. I’d successfully completed my second night of about 8 hours of solid sleep. Last time that happened was so long ago it’s faded from my memory. Both nights were filled with dreams which toggled disturbingly between fun as well as morbid. There was no common theme, except perhaps the impermanence of existence, but they were all insightful.

I sipped my sweet milk coffee and gazed out from the 4th floor rooftop terrace of the Royal Hotel, across Battambang’s skyline, the deep blue above speckled generously with woolly clouds. A strong soothing breeze drifted with purpose across the dining area on the terrace, flipping my notebook pages inconveniently as I tried to take jot down some pointers on the day’s intended destination. Not confident of mobile coverage further west of Battambang, I was using my smartphone to leach off the Royal’s WiFi for research purposes, and scribbling anlogue notes (with a pen and paper and everything (!)) into my notebook.

My destination: Pailin. A town 17 kilometers from the Thai border in a territory carved out of Battambang province in 1996 and given provincial status by royal decree twelve years later. A town long renowned for its generous gem and timber deposits in the surrounding hills, the proceeds of which went on to fund the Khmer Rouge insurrection force during much of the 1990s. It was here that Khieu Samphan, Head of State for Democratic Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge, was living between his defection from the KR in 1998 and his arrest in 2007.

There was very little online which could give me info re. lodgings and places to eat, which told me very few Westerners spend a great deal of time in Pailin. Possibly just a day trip from Battambang and then back before sundown, or maybe a night while transiting either to or from Thailand.

Armed with the flimsiest of notes (a couple of guesthouse names and the rough location of a hilltop temple close to town), I shouldered my bags and headed to the bus station half an hour early. It’s rare for Cambodian buses to depart on time, let alone early, but I do like to make sure I won’t miss out on transport.

I need not have bothered. I dropped my bags and sat down and waited, and watched the big hand on the wall clock slowly circle around.

I stood and walked out onto the street, where it was about 3 degrees cooler. I lit a Djarum and tried to maintain my level of quickly-fading patience. I wiped my face with my krama, glanced up and down the street, then went back inside and sat down.

Ninety minutes after I’d arrived (so an hour after the scheduled departure time), a rusting smoke-spewing steel and aluminium and glass box in the vague size and shape of a bus rumbled up to the depot. It was immediately beset by a locust-swarm of tuktuk and motodop drivers and accommodation touts while the exclusively Khmer passengers struggled to disembark, dragging their luggage behind them.

Ten minutes later, we were ushered onto the bus which I then dubbed the sketchiest heap of crap I’ve been on in this country (but not in Southeast Asia; that dubious honour goes to the bus I took from Pakxe to Savannahket in Laos last March, a joint-and-ligament-jarring 14 hour trek during which I could see the road through holes rusted through the floor). Quite a few of the windows were cracked, and some of the seats were only tenuously bolted to the floor. I selected one which seemed more firmly fixed than others, towards the back and on the passenger side.

A leisurely ten minutes after boarding, we were underway.

We jolted westward through neighbourhoods I’d never seen before, and then along Highway 57. I’m not sure if it was the condition of the road or the dodginess of the bus suspension, if it existed, that made the ride so rough. I knew it was a relatively short distance to Pailin from Battambang (80 kilometers), but all the same, I prepared for a too long and rough trip I slipped my headphones on, picked a playlist at random and watched the scenery trundle past.

The outskirts of Battambang dropped away to reveal tranquil rice paddies backed by tree-covered mountains, heavy white and pale grey clouds drifted above the scene while bright sunlight blazed through slender gaps in the rain-laden sky. Kids in school uniforms walked or bicycled along the road’s shoulder, sometimes having to make way for farmers herding cows or a water buffalo in from a day’s grazing.

There was such serenity out the window, rolling/bouncing by, life continuing there as it has for hundreds if not thousands of years. Except for a conspicuous period of war and horror in the middle of last century, of course… but since then, a relative stability had slowly settled over Cambodia… my head tilted forward and I was surprised at the improbability of feeling drowsy on this bus, on this road, particularly when I find it hard to fall asleep even while wrapped in the comfortable embrace of Emirates Airlines…

Languid slide guitar tunes by Ry Cooder unravelling into my ears… the jolting faded…

“L’via! No dejes de descansar!”

What the fuck?

“El la calle caminas!”

Who the hell is shouting at me in Spanish? A jangling set of guitars slammed my ears and tore me out of a light doze. The music morphed into a strange almost salsa-like syncopation. I jumped in my seat as the bus hit one of the lengthier sections of rough road, and any hint of weariness evaporated.

My iPod had started playing The Mars Volta at some point during my presumably brief snooze. It’s a dangerous thing to wake up to, especially while being roughly conveyed across western Cambodia in a disintegrating pile of spare bus parts.

I took the headphones off and looked around. Two very young Khmer kids, possibly brother and sister, had invented a game they probably called “Who Can Get Closest To The Foreigner?”, and so far the little boy was winning. As soon as I made eye contact with either of them, their bravado vanished and they’d hide their faces and giggled and run back to their parents, only to repeat their attempts moments later.

The road swept around some peaks rising gently from the rice fields. The sun had sunk closer to the western horizon, the clouds now low enough to be skimming the tops of the surrounding hills, ablaze with the late afternoon light. Stilt houses lined the road, families gathered for the evening meal.

The bus rumbled through the beginnings of town. We turned left at a monument under construction and came to a stop about 50 meters from a guesthouse, the name of which I recognised from my online searching from earlier. The driver unleashed a stream of Khmer, the only words I understood was “stop” and “Pailin”. I grabbed my bags and dragged them off the bus.

There were no high-rise buildings, and very little traffic, and no Westerners at all. The warm sun was tempered by a strong breeze from the west. Discounting the emanations from the bus, the air smelled clear.

A motodop dutifully pulled up and asked, “Where you go, sir?”

I pointed up the road. “Guesthouse. Ot ch’ngai. Aw khun.” Not far. Thank you.

“Not go to border?” he asked. “Thailand?”

I smiled. “No, I stay in Cambodia.”

“Ah, okay.” He smiled and nodded.

I threw my main bag over my shoulder and started walking…

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The Benefits of No Itinerary

I’m frequently glad that I’m the sort of traveller that doesn’t even really concoct an itinerary in the first place, let alone stick to one once I’m on the road.

My original plan for this trip was the United States, Israel, Burma and Cambodia. I’ve only hit two of those countries this time around, having changed my plans because of budgetary concerns. Also, I’d flown from Los Angeles to Sydney and then from Sydney to Bangkok over a two day period, so another flight from Bangkok to Tel Aviv appealed to me about as much as spending a night in Poipet.

Then I had to strike Burma off the list this time around because of budget reasons again. However, it’s been great to “fall back” on Cambodia again. It was far from a hardship, I’ll tell ya.

Soon after scuttling the plans for Burma, I realised that there are still loads of places in Cambodia that I’ve not yet seen, despite having spent a lot of time here.

The main reason I’ve been relatively inactive on the photo front is because I’ve had about two months in Cambodia, but have yet to spend much time in previously unvisited areas.

That’s about to change. I intend to explore as much of the rest of the country as I can before my visa runs out, and I’m sure that will mean I’ll be shooting more.

(Actually, I’ve shot a bit of timelapse around Phnom Penh, but the Net here is so slow that I can’t upload any of the footage yet.)

There’s something to be said for hooking up with a tour group. You can be reasonably assured that you’ll get to see most if not all of what you set out to see. If it wasn’t for companies organising everything from accommodation to transport and meals, my parents would never have come to Cambodia to visit me in April of 2010. They’d rather have someone else look after all those details which they find tedious and confusing. There’s no way in the world they would’ve come to a developing country in Southeast Asia if they had to book hotels and transport themselves.

In my view, though, to have the iron-clad itinerary of a package tour takes all the spontaneity away, and that’s probably my favourite aspect of travelling.

Also, I’ve also seen the “edge” of what most Westerners would call civilization in Cambodia, and it’s a place where tour groups just do not go. Some people wouldn’t set foot out of their own country if not for mass tourism, but it’s just not a method by which I could travel.

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