Pailin today: stories of glittering stones and playful otters live on. stronghold, Pailin was once the playpen of otters..
bout 375 kilometers north west of Phnom Penh lies the town of Pailin, renowned as
Cambodia's most important gemstone town. Pailin, better known to the Khmer people
as "Bor Pailin", takes its name from an old Khmer legend.
The name Kanleng Pe Leng, or Pe Leng - "the place where otters play in the stream"
- was, so the legend says, given to the area by wildlife hunters after they stumbled
across a colony of otters. Equally captivating to their eyes, and as it happened
more important, was an abundance of shiny stones. Although they were unaware of their
value, the hunters were attracted by the brilliance of the gems they found, and when
they returned to their village they took a selection of the finest stones as gifts
for their families and friends.
Word of their discovery soon reached the ears of the Kola people from Chanta Bun
province in Siam territory, which is in present-day Thailand. To the historical benefit
- and more recent detriment - of Pailin, the hunters had unwittingly started the
local gem industry. The Kola people set up a regular trade in the stones with the
hunters, who were quick to cash in on the benefits. The hunters kept returning to
the stream of otters, to which they gave the name 'Kanleng Pe Leng'.
Over time the name was abbreviated to 'Pe Leng'. Later still, Kola immigrants arrived,
established settlements and engaged in trade themselves. They altered the name to
better reflect the sound of their own language and called it "Pe Lin".
For some years the Kola people, being of one kingdom but living in another, managed
to avoid paying taxes. That changed in 1881 when the Kingdom of Siam decided to levy
taxes on the gem miners.
In 1904 the Siamese returned Battambang, Mlour Prey and Stung Treng provinces to
Khmer rule under King Sisowath. Although the overlords changed, taxation continued.
Under the French Protectorate a representative was sent to the town to monitor tax
payments. One subtle change, though, was made to the name: taking the town's Kola
pronunciation as their reference, the French named it "Phai Lin". From
there it was only a small step to the town's current spelling.
During the civil war Pailin was one of the most important Khmer Rouge bases, and
the town suffered greatly during government attacks and Khmer Rouge counter-attacks.
Many of the town's finest buildings and much of its infrastructure built in the time
of Sangkum Reastr Niyum were destroyed.
Pailin languished for many years, and it was not until the 1996 defection of Ieng
Sary, former foreign minister in the Democratic Kampuchea government, that the town
had an opportunity to revive.
Although its resurgence has been rapid, some complain that it has not been rapid
enough. The poor condition of the road from Battambang provokes constant complaints
from passengers squeezed on to rattling pick-ups.
That looks likely to change, although the improvement could be some way off. The
town itself has seen a remarkable regeneration: since 1998, it has both attracted
investment and people in good measure. Recent additions include a new city hall building,
a park, hotels and housing. The population has more than doubled as opportunities
coax business people from other areas.
Despite these recent improvements, local politicians are keen for further development.
"We have lagged behind other provinces and towns for almost 16 years, which
means we have to run faster to catch up with other parts of the country," said
Second Deputy Governor Kert Sothea.
Sothea harbours ambitions for Pailin to become the most popular tourist drawcard
in Cambodia. Natural features such as waterfalls and mountains are enhanced by man-made
structures such as Phnom Yat.
It seems likely that the legendary origins of Cambodia's most important gemstone
production center will be used to pull a larger share of the increasing numbers of
tourists visiting the country to the place where otters once played in the stream.