The cool night air of Ban Lung, Ratanakiri’s provincial capital, is a pleasant reprieve after several weeks spent in the balmier climes of southern Cambodia.
Sandwiched by borders with Vietnam and Laos, Cambodia’s northeastern frontier is home to some of the Kingdom’s most untamed pastures, and its sparsely populated villages are a far cry from the tuk-tuk crowded streets of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. The majority of travellers use Ban Lung as a base to explore Ratanakiri’s treasures, with the majority of attractions a short run out of town.
A Lake to Remember
I kick off my first full day in the province with an early start. Yak Loum, a perfectly circle-shaped lake that is one of the province’s famed scenic spots, is the first stop on my itinerary. At 6am, Ratanakiri’s untamed natural beauty unfolds before my eyes. Situated five kilometres from Ban Lung, a swift motorbike ride is all it takes to reach the 700,000-year-old volcanic lake. Yak Loum’s placid glass-like surface casts a sublime mirror image of the trees lining the shore, and a ghostly reflection of the rainclouds that loom above. While the chilled green water does offer the allure of an early morning swim, a bracing 30-minute walk around the lake’s perimeter is another sure way to get the blood pumping.
A Powerful Torrent
A trip to Cha Ong waterfall is next on my Ratanakiri bucket list. However, sturdier transportation is needed to traverse the bumpy tracks that lead to the waterfall, so a tuk-tuk it is. Upon arrival at the edge of the forest, visitors pay a small entrance fee to descend the 81 steps to Cha Ong – the largest fall in the area. Christened “Cha Ong” by the indigenous Kreung people living nearby, the waterfall’s 25-metre drop is fiercest during the rainy season, when water from the Phnom Sei Patamak mountain feeds the torrent with a burst of rust-coloured water which takes its red tinge from the iron-rich soil of the province.
Head for the Hills
In addition to Ratanakiri’s natural attractions, the province is also home to many of Cambodia’s ethnic minority communities. Known collectively as the Khmer Loeu, the majority of the indigenous communities live in the province’s highlands just a short drive from Ban Lung. The small roads that traverse the province deteriorate into a thick red mulch during the rainy season, which gives us an excellent excuse to hire a four-wheel drive to continue our exploration of the highlands. We also decide to hire an English-speaking guide who can tell us everything he knows about the unique lifestyle of Ratanakiri’s indigenous communities.
A Wild Ride
A trip to the Laotian, Chinese and Kachork villages on the northern bank of the Sre San River means the chance to experience a ride in a motorised canoe, a common means of transport for locals. As we settle on the floor of the canoe, the wooden sides of the boat protruding merely 30 centimetres from the surface of the water, the face of our Chinese motorist crinkles into a smile as he glances at the sky – we are in for a downpour. Koh Peak, home to the indigenous Kachork community, is a 90-minute cruise upstream. Upon arrival at the village, the sight of approaching visitors sends toddlers running to hide in the safety of their homes. Our guide forges on with the journey and leads us deeper into the thick woodland that fringes the Kachork village.
The Ghost Forest
According to ancient custom, when someone in the Kachork community passes away they are buried in the forest that lies some 400 metres from the main village.
“This is the ghost forest,” says our guide, explaining that when a Kachork dies the whole village throws a celebration in his or her honour. As the forest canopy thickens, it is possible to make out an increasing number of fenced off grave areas erected just off the overgrown track, that are flanked by wooden statues carved to represent the rudimentary forms of a man and a woman. Over the years, mourners have adorned statues with tools that represent the former lives of their inhabitants and objects they hope the deceased will possess in their future lives. A pair of fake Ray Ban wayfarers and a model helicopter provide further evidence of the modernity that is seeping into the everyday lives of Ratanakiri’s minority communities.
- For a trip to Ratanakiri, it is essential that you come prepared. The temperature in this northern part of Cambodia is significantly cooler than the south, so it’s important to have a few sweaters packed. If you are planning on venturing into the forest, a hardy pair of walking shoes is also a smart idea so you can explore to your heart’s content.
- Photography etiquette is something to bear in mind if you visit any of Ratanakiri’s ethnic minority villages. For some of the communities, taking photographs is thought to bring bad luck, so you are not likely to be received well if you enter the village brandishing your camera and start snapping photographs in every direction.
- Beat the crowds and head to Ratanakiri’s natural beauty spots – like Yak Loum – early. Not only will this provide a more memorable, enriching experience for yourself, but it also means you will be able to avoid the hubbub at peak times of day when the local kids use the lake for their dive bombing competitions.
- If Cambodia’s rural northern provinces have made their way onto your bucket list, travel there sooner rather than later. The slow, rural pace of life that currently presides in Ratanakiri is slowly giving way to 21st century life in the Kingdom. Deforestation in the province also means that, sadly, the clock is ticking for Ratanakiri’s Khmer Loeu.
- If you are heading up to Ratanakiri, hire your own local guide to take you around the local sites of interest. Tuk-tuk drivers are generally not the most reliable of guides, and you are probably better off connecting with a guide through your hotel. That way, you can learn everything there is to know about the province’s intriguing local customs.