In 1974, the only way to reach Pailin from Phnom Penh was by helicopter. The road already belonged to the Khmer Rouge. It was more easily accessible from the Thai border, and many of the people there seemed to be Thai. Much Thai was spoken, and Thai baht and dollars were the main currency.
I was offered a lift in a military helicopter. I forget the exact circumstances, but it was through some connection, perhaps with Hem Keth Sana, then Minister of the Interior, to whom I was teaching English at the time, or with Sydeth, whose husband was a pilot, and who came with me. It was an exciting chance to escape from Phnom Penh for a few days. We flew low over the jungle, and I was looking out for Khmer Rouge. This was probably in the early part of the dry season. It was cool and there was no rain. I remember being warned about the high incidence of malaria of a particularly unpleasant kind. The town of Pailin consisted almost exclusively of wooden houses, many of them shacks.
It seemed that half of these shacks were cafes and restaurants, bars and brothels. People walked around with shirt breast pockets stuffed with banknotes. It was an expensive place. The prices were almost double those of Phnom Penh. There was a nightlife. Filipino bands played in the bars.
Pailin had the atmosphere of a gold rush cowboy town. It seemed that people in every corner café were holding up gemstones to the light between thumb and forefinger in a characteristic pose. It was said that, after rain, you could walk down the street and pick up sapphires from the mud. But by this time, there were few sapphires to be found, and the most precious gems were garnets.
When we went down to the river, I was astonished at what I saw. Hundreds and hundreds of people were panning for gems. Occasionally someone would cry out and hold up a stone. It all looked quite innocent, with a holiday atmosphere, like people from the city come to pick strawberries in the countryside. But on the riverbank there were guys on watch. The workers in the river were being observed by the overseers, who were making sure with their eagle eyes that no gem was surreptitiously slipped into a pocket.
I did not know it at the time, but Pailin’s history is quite distinct from that of the rest of Cambodia. In the mid-19th century, there was a migration of ethnic Tai Yai (Shan) people from Burma to Chanthaburi, a gem-mining area in Thailand. From there, many made their way to Pailin, which at that time was still part of Siam, in 1876. ‘Kola’ was one of the names given by the Khmer to people from Burma (the other being ‘Pumea’). These people were noted for their skill in the precious gem business, and were likely attracted by the similar circumstances in Pailin. They may have come from the Mogok region of Burma which is famous for its gemstones. In the 1920s, another wave of migrants arrived in Pailin from the Shan State. The people speak dialects of Shan, Khmer and Kola, and the local Khmer dialect has been influenced in tone and pronunciation by Burmese as well as Mon and Kham Muang language.
Despite the war, Pailin at the time of my visit was a hive of activity, a huge contrast to the rest of the country which was staggering towards its final collapse in April 1975. Later, Pailin became the last refuge or ‘sanctuary’ of the Khmer Rouge leaders throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. They mined it to excess, and were also responsible for extensive logging and environmental damage, so that now the only gems on the market are cheap, low quality hand-faceted specimens. There were, according to a caretaker at Wat Phnom Yat, “tens of thousands” of Kola people in Pailin before the war, but now there is only one, an old lady nicknamed “Yeay Kola”.* What happened to them? It is thought they fled to Thailand or died under the Khmer Rouge.
The pagoda which sits on a hill overlooking Pailin, Wat Phnom Yat, was named after a Kola woman, Yeay (Grandma) Yat. Her statue is one of the dominant figures in the temple, and she has her own shrine where visitors go to make offerings. She and her husband, Ta (Grandpa) Yat, were gemstone traders. There were a lot of guns in Pailin at that time, necessary for protection due to the accumulation of wealth and the resulting influx of thieves. The guns were also used for hunting in the forest around the town. This practice disturbed the neak ta (spirits), and so the most powerful of them came to offer a deal to Yeay and Ta Yat. If they could persuade their people to stop the hunting, they would find more and more gemstones and become rich. The hunting stopped, the Kola became richer, and they built this pagoda to show their gratitude to the spirits. This story is recounted in Khmer in a collection of folk tales to be found in the Institut Bouddhique, Phnom Penh.* Another variation on the tale suggests that Yeay Yat herself was the neak ta.
*Ref. Simon Lewis & Phorn Bopha, Irawaddy Magazine, 9 January 2015