In a nutshell
Getting off the beaten track these days is not easy, especially in countries like Cambodia where the road network just keeps on improving. Luckily, there are still a few hidden gems for the more adventurous travelers, such as Pailin.
This small province is rich in history, as it was one of the first places targeted by the Khmer Rouge, who were enticed there by its vast gem and mineral deposits. These days, Pailin is a quiet but beautiful spot, perfect for adventure seekers who enjoy trekking and cycling. It will also make a welcome change in landscape, as it is a lot more mountainous and green than central Cambodia.
When to go
Just like the rest of Cambodia, the best time to visit overall is the cool season, between the months of November and March. However, the surrounding scenery is probably at its most beautiful during the rainy season, but accessibility may be affected.
Getting in and out
The easiest way to get to Pailin is to catch a bus from Battambang. The journey takes about two hours and costs USD4, or you can take a taxi for a little more.
Trekking in Pailin
Trekking is easily one of our favorite activities when we'm traveling, as there's really no better way to explore a new area. And there's something extremely satisfying about conquering a big climb, which there are plenty of in Pailin.
The biggest issue with trekking in Pailin is that it is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, so it's absolutely essential that you remain on the designated paths at all times. Very few people in Pailin speak English, but hiring an experienced trekking guide is definitely the best way to stay safe during a trek.
You can book a trek with your accommodation – we tried Memoria Palace (USD40 for a full day), and the guide was very professional and knew the area well. We were taken aback by the remoteness of the area; we didn't see a single tourist all day, just a few farm workers in the fields. The scenery was lusciously green, and it really did feel like a proper jungle adventure. The highlight of the day was scaling the various levels of a waterfall, which at times felt a bit scary, but our guide did a great job of making sure we were safe at all times. The trek was strenuous at times, so make sure you stay energized and well hydrated.
Day-tripping to Samlot
If you consider yourself a traveler with an interest in food, be sure to put a day trip to Samlot on your itinerary – in fact, it is a must! Your trip will most probably include a visit to both a pepper and coffee plantation, plus a stopover at some sunflower fields. The fields are particularly stunning between December and March, when the sunflowers are in full bloom.
Samlot pepper is supposedly the best in Cambodia, which by default makes it the best in the world. It really is delicious, and you'll want it on every meal after one taste. The trip can also be extended to include some more trekking in the Cardamom Mountains, and a visit to a waterfall.
If you only plan to be in Pailin one day, a visit to Otaveo waterfall should be a priority. It's a really easy climb to the top of the waterfall, and there's a nice restaurant at the top where you can grab some refreshments and enjoy some excellent views of the surrounding scenery.
The waterfall is at its most beautiful during the rainy season (May to October), but is worth a visit all year round. Admission is USD2 for foreigners, and can be reached most easily by tuk-tuk or motorbike, as it lies around 9km outside of Pailin town.
Wat Phnom Yat
Temple lovers on a day trip to Pailin can also squeeze in a visit to Wat Phnom Yat, a colourful hillside temple that looks out across the town and beyond.
Although Pailin town itself has little to offer, the beautiful surrounding countryside is reason enough to spend a few days here if you have time. There really isn't much choice when it comes to accommodation, but the options available are pretty good. Adventure seekers should head to Memoria Palace (Bor Yakkha, double room with fan USD55), as they have experienced, English speaking guides. The rooms here are good quality, and there are even a couple of eco lodges. They also have their own restaurant and bar, which is a real selling point considering how few restaurants there are in town. We really enjoyed my stay here, and this is by far the best place to stay in Pailin.
For those on a tighter budget, our recommendations would be either Bamboo Guesthouse (Chamkarcafe Village, bungalow USD15) or Pailin Ruby Guesthouse (National Route 57, double room with fan USD11). The former has a pool, whilst the latter is the cheapest and most conveniently located guesthouse in town.
Unlike the majority of towns in Cambodia, you won't find any Western restaurants in Pailin. However, there's a good amount of choice when it comes to Khmer cuisine, so you'll still eat well here.
Our favorite restaurant was Po Penh, located just off of the Independence Monument. The food was delicious and we got to try some new dishes, mostly because we had no idea what we were ordering as there was no English menu!
If you're up for a little adventure, there's also a lovely riverside restaurant called Rambutan a little further out of town, where you can enjoy a bite to eat followed by a refreshing dip in the river.
For super cheap eats, there are a few stalls by the central market offering a good variety of street food. We could easily eat the pork or beef noodle soups they sell here every night, and a bowl will only set you back 3,000 riel. At night, there are also stalls throughout town selling all sorts of weird and wonderful delicacies, including crickets and chicken feet!
As previously mentioned, the biggest safety concern for tourists in Pailin is landmines, so as long as you always stay on the beaten path, you'll be fine.
Pailin does have a small hospital, but for anything serious, you should head straight to Phnom Penh.
Make sure to pack a phrasebook as well, because hardly anyone speaks English here. It will really come in handy in restaurants or if you want to take a tuk-tuk or taxi.