PAILIN would be just another insignificant but pretty town in the mountains of Cambodia, had it not become the headquarters of the genocidal Khmer Rouge after their defeat in 1979. The town provide the perfect retreat, with access to Thai markets and buyers of timber and gems, and a launching pad for raids of Battambang and beyond.
Two of the principal architects of the holocaust, Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, grew wealthy in their fiefdom, and when the foot soldiers faded away, “surrendered” to their ol’ pal, Hun Sen- who made them provincial officials. There is a legal border crossing to Thailand 20km away, so if you are keen to avoid the shitshow of Poipet, this little backwater could be worth a try.
Khmer Rouge leaders retreated to Pailin in 1979, running the town as their capital.
80km up the mountains from Battambang, and conveniently 20km from the porous Thai border.
Architects of Cambodia's genocide including Noun Chea and Khieu Khieu Samphan and others made this lovely rural town their home for 30 years.
They stripped the forest and shipped the timber over the border to Thailand.
The communist who abolished money grew rich, and financed their war efforts, from Pailin's famous gem fields.
As regular KR foot soldiers tired of the jungle life, the notorious fighting force faded away.
Without an army to protect them, the pair responsible for the deaths of more than 1 in 3 Cambodians "surrendered" to the Phnom Penh government.
The men responsible for millions of deaths remained free in their mountain fiefdom, after King Sihanoouk prevailed upon PM Hun Sen - no doubt for a share of the spoils. The King and PM were both KR officers.
Both enjoyed 9 more years of mountain life before arrests in 2007. Life sentences followed in 2014 for crimes against humanity, and in 2018 for genocide.
The pretty town in the hills I visited a year after the surrender showed me no signs of its dark history.
Besides the location and the history, there isn't much to Pailin. Sights are few. Wat Rattanak Sopoan purports to date back hundreds of years, founded by Burmese immigrants.
Burmese King Bayinnaung took control of Pailin from the Khmers in 1558. Siam later ruled the territory, even as late as 1946.
Ethnic Kula (Tai people from southern China and northern Burma) migrated in the late 1800s, followed by Shan in the 1920s.
The Kula were attracted to Pailin's legendary gems, reportedly finer than those of Burma's Mogok, and are famous for their skills.
Gems are polished in workshops and traded openly at the market, along side more mundane farm products.
The market was, and probably still is, the centre of Pailin. Just don't expect Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
With a population of 60,000, Pailin is easy to get about on foot. Traffic was minimal.
These days, you could probably arrange trips further afield, to see what is left of the forests, or to waterfalls.
Decades of conflict and corruption have strangled development in and around Pailin.
For a visitor, that made it one of the nicest rural towns in Cambodia, of simple rural scenes and romantic imagery.
For the residents, it meant grinding poverty. Mountain farming is already harder than lowland plots, even without land mines.
Some google-peeking revealed that, naturally, Pailin has progressed since those dark days, and perhaps one day may enjoy the benefits of its riches and location. Perhaps.