pailin – Yin Tha, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla in this remote region accessible only by a roughshod dirt road filled with potholes and flanked by land mines, sat one night in front of Pailin’s new night market, still in disbelief of how much life for him has changed.
“Before, we had nothing like this,” he said, looking at well-lit fruit stands and food stalls. “When the sun was sinking, the dark was coming and I saw only the darkness and mosquitoes.”
Now, when the sun sets over this northwestern autonomous region, lights at the market go on, and people come out. Finished with work for the day, they visit the market to sit and drink fruit juice or soda, or they come with their children to play in a newly built park.
More development is planned, some of it through deals made by officials with casino owners, requiring them to develop roads and bridges as the region struggles with its isolation and tries to grow.
Though the numbers in the region fluctuate, there may be as many as 50,000 residents here now, up from the 20,000 living here in 1996, said Lee Samith of the Pailin Information Department. Population has dropped at times in the past due to tax increases made by Pailin authorities in efforts to increase revenue.
The region will soon support three telephone prefixes, and there are negotiations underway to bring cheaper electricity from Thailand, Lee Samith said.
Dams, schools, roads, wells, and a new municipal building have all been built recently by the government, said Ieng Vuth, first deputy governor of Pailin. “But it’s still not enough. So we need more. We need more organizations or investors to help.”
Once known for its plentiful gems—which helped the Khmer Rouge guerrillas fight resistance, Vietnamese and government forces—Pailin has had to reinvent itself as precious stones became less plentiful.
Many men, women and children still spend their lives trying to strike it rich, and stories circulate of those who have. Locals here recently were talking about a man who found a ruby worth nearly $250,000. They say he quickly left town under protection.
But such stories, even if true, are rare here. For the most part, people still live under the staggering weight of poverty, and the government’s attempts to raise revenue by increasing taxes has chased some away. Some, but not all.
Ex-soldiers like Tin Tha say they like the changes in the town.
“Pailin during the 1980 civil war was an area full of malaria, forests, mines and fighting,” he said. “I was living on alert, running to settle in a new place many times to escape fighting. Every day I heard shelling and the death of soldiers….We were living like frogs.”
But now peace has come, and with it some happiness.
“Now that the war is ended, I can get everything—if I have money,” Tin Tha said. “I have time to sit at the park in front of the municipality with my children and wife after work.”
Security has meant extra customers for Min Mom, who sells eggs and beer at the night market.
“Pailin is good for me to live and make business,” she said, adding she was happy with security and glad that there weren’t roving bandits “like in other provinces.”
“There is no shooting here at night,” she said. “I hope that more tourists and investors will flock to Pailin when the road is smooth from Battambang province.”
Already, there are signs of improvement to the road. On the outskirts of town, a bridge is under construction, with fresh concrete pilings already in place and dirt and gravel piled next to heavy machinery. On the road to Battambang—which is still a pot-holed disaster—there are more signs of future construction.
“The road is very necessary for the people, for the farmer and the businessmen. If we have a good road, more people, more tourists will visit Pailin,” Ieng Vuthy said.
The improvements are part of a deal the Flamingo casino on the Thai-Cambodian border made with officials in order to operate, according to Victor Chao, director of security and finance for the casino, and also co-owner of Phnom Penh’s Manhattan’s nightclub.
The Flamingo has promised to improve the road and four bridges from Pailin to Battambang at a cost of around $670,000, he said. The Caesar International casino will improve the road from Pailin to the Thai border. Already that road has been smoothed, and the drive from Pailin to the border is an easy 20-minute trip.
“Casinos are a necessary catalyst for development,” Chao said. “These casinos here feed more than 1,000 families.”
For Jena, a 17-year-old waitress at Caesar International, the border casino provided some much needed income for her Kompong Cham province family.
“My whole family moved here because in Kompong Cham it’s hard to make money,” she said. “Here, it’s easy.”