Pailin: 70% Retired Khmer Rouge, and the Birth of Operation Skateboard

The ride to Pailin from the city of Battambang is very beautiful. You feel like you are going into another world. Something very strange happens on the road; all the normal chaos of of Cambodia goes quiet, and mountains rise up where there were none. A peaceful feeling washes over you. Although it is a mere 100 kilometers (give or take) from Battambang, you may as well be in another world. As we got close to the town of Pailin on my trusty xr250, I turned my head to tell Shalma, “This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life.” Nestled in the Cardamom Mountains, the hilly greenery is simply breathtaking.

Pailin is a strange place, one with very few tourists, and the only proper city we have been in without a single tuk tuk. So what is the reason for this? The best guess is its sort of shady history. Pailin is essentially where the Khmer Rouge went to retire and was in fact their last stand. The town remains 70% former Khmer Rouge to this day. In the last few months, the most recent trials of Khmer Rouge war criminals have concluded. I believe all the defendants were picked up in Pailin. I cannot deny, it reminded me of seeing old men in Germany in the 1990s. I would always think, what were you doing in the late ’30s and early ’40s? At any rate, it seems as though Pailin is a place largely forgotten by the rest of Cambodia.

The first thing I noticed as we went into the town was a giant pagoda on top of a lush green hill. The second thing I noticed was what a sleepy town this is. There is a broad avenue that goes through the center of town with very sparse traffic. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t a tuk tuk in the entire city. Shalma and I decided to check into a hotel, and we found a large, nice looking place right in the center of town.

We parked the bike, gathered our belongings off the rack and headed into the lobby. The lobby was impressive, full of carvings of soon to be extinct tropical hardwoods. Cambodia is facing a deforestation problem due to a rise in agriculture and a market for beautiful wood. We approached the front desk, and there was a woman there who didn’t speak any English at all. Nonetheless we managed to secure a room. It was not long before we realized that we were the only people staying in this grand hotel.

After checking into the room, we decided to go for a walk. Less than 25 meters from our hotel was a skate park. There were little kids running around and playing on the ramps, but nobody was skating. We saw a gentleman standing in the distance, and he invited us to come in. This is when we met Chai Ching, the man who owns the skate park. He is a delightful fellow with a gregarious personality. He allowed us to look around and offered us some water.

We sat down with Chai Ching, and he began to tell us his story. He has lived in Pailin for twenty years and had worked in IT. He seemed a little burnt out on IT and had created this skate park in order to create something within this poor isolated community. The problem is that he only has a bunch of old second-hand inline skates and only one skateboard. I told him that I would see what I can do about getting him some skateboards from the US, a task that is easier said than done!

I decided to take a little spill, I mean, spin on his skateboard. It didn’t go as well as planned. It has been a long time, and the trucks were far too loose.

We told Chai Ching that we were hungry, and he told us that he had the perfect place for us to eat. A relative by marriage owns another hotel called Happy Garden just near the entrance to town, and he suggested we have lunch there. He offered to meet us over there so that he could introduce us to his relative.

We sat in the back garden. It was beautiful, and the hotel had a soccer field full of youngsters playing ball. The relative was wearing dark aviators and wore a white buttoned down shirt that was loosened at the collar. He was relaxed and drinking Johnny Walker Gold with an acquaintance, but we never established their relationship because neither speak any English. We did discover that Chai Ching’s relative is a high ranking general in the Cambodian army, and from what people told us, we think he pretty much runs the town. More than one person said, “If you know that guy, nobody can do anything to you. If anyone bothers you, you say you know him. You can go anywhere you want with no problem.”

After lunch we went in search of waterfalls. We drove for several kilometers out on a dirt road and got to a beautiful place where the water flowed from the jungle. However, it was getting late, so we decided to head back to our hotel since the darkness would make the trek back more dangerous. I didn’t see a hospital anywhere in the town, and I am not sure how well EMS services work. Besides, nobody would even look for us if we ended up in a ditch.

That evening, Shalma and I walked around the town. There is a park in the center of the main boulevard. In the park, there was what could almost be described as a street fair, complete with a bouncy house. There was loads of delicious street food around, and the conditions looked a lot cleaner than those of Phnom Penh or any of the little villages we have been through. I bought some satay that was absolutely delicious, and Shalma and I were treated to durian fruit by one of the local vendors. We had heard that durian fruit is disgusting to most Westerners, but I thought it tasted much like banana custard and found nothing offensive about the flavor or fragrance.

We walked around the town a bit. Shalma got nervous when we neared a brothel in a dark alley, so we decided to go back to our hotel and go to sleep. The next day we were planning to properly check out the waterfall.

Shortly after we got up in the morning we stopped by to see Chai Ching. He told us that there was a better waterfall in a remote part of the jungle. He led us to the trail by car. Shalma and I headed up it, and it was some of the roughest terrain I have ever traversed on two wheels. At some points I had to actually have her get off the bike so I could safely go up or down a steep embankment. It is an unimaginably rural part of Cambodia and people live much as they would have a century or more ago. We eventually gave up on finding that waterfall and went back to the one we were at the previous day. Below you can see some of the terrain I am talking about.

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After we went back to the waterfall the previous day, Shalma and I saw a sign that indicated there is a higher point along the falls with a much bigger waterfall. We decided to find it. We began up a trail that went higher and higher and higher. As we ascended, the trail began to become more overgrown. Shalma started wanting to turn back, and I kept saying, just another 100 meters and then we will turn back. Eventually, the trail was almost indistinguishable and Shalma was becoming more concerned with snakes and other critters. It was hot, sticky, steep, and rocky, not an easy trek. As we got higher and higher, the altitude began to make the trek more difficult.

So, what got me to turn back? A giant spider. I tried to take a picture of it, but it attacked the moment it realized the paparazzi was present. I couldn’t get the shot, but if you google “giant cambodian wood spider” there are plenty of images to show you what this is. I’d rather be chased by a tiger. Its web was blocking the entire trail, and there was no way past if without venturing into the bush.

 

 

It is important to stay on trails in this part of Cambodia. This is the final and last refuge of the Khmer Rouge. From my understanding, there are areas that are still heavily mined. Not only that, but there are king cobras and other dangerous snakes.  We decided to head back. Shalma checked our activity on her iPhone to see how much walking we did. It said we went up 95 floors.

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We went back down the hill, and I decided to get into the pools to cool off. Shalma isn’t a confident swimmer, so she hung out and took pictures. I was excited to get into the cool water.

The water was amazing! We then decided to go back and check out the pagoda on top of the hill and the monastery that sits just below.

 

That night we were invited to have dinner with Chai Ching. So we headed home, got washed up, and went over to the skatepark. There we met with him, his wife, and his two lovely daughters. Chai Ching’s wife made quite a spread of delicious food for us.

The things we saw and the people we met really touched both of our hearts. We have thought and spoken about them often. I made a promise to Chai Ching that I was going to get skateboards for the kids at his park, and this is my next project. So far I have been very fortunate to have friends offer to help me with this project. The only thing is that I have been a bit distracted by the sickly orphaned cats that Shalma and I have rescued. We are temporarily fostering them, which has cut into our ability to travel a bit. In the meantime, we are enjoying watching the cats grow stronger while we look for jobs here. It seem as though my next post will be primarily about kittens, which is good because the internet loves kittens.

 

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3 thoughts on “Pailin: 70% Retired Khmer Rouge, and the Birth of Operation Skateboard

  1. Richard Henry

    I think you should insert more pictures of the things you were describing in the article, as you describe them. You have these great images you paint with your words yet nothing to admire visually to reinforce it. I think you should saturate your posts with great images!
    (also, you go from present to past in your typing, gotta choose one or the other. Either I’m there in the moment or we are remembering things in the past, not both.)
    Thanks for these posts. I hope they become a lot more frequent. Also, more videos, that are right side up, but more videos!

    Like

    Reply

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