Ratanakiri is situated atop the northeast plateau, bordering Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, Stung Treng to the west and Mondulkiri to the south. A scarcely populated province, Ratanakiri shows considerable promise as an eco-tourism destination with plentiful waterfalls, volcanic lakes, a large national park and a number of waterways, all of which can be explored from the provincial capital of Banlung.
As with Mondulkiri to the south, loggers (legal and illegal) have well and truly had their way with Ratanakiri and while some areas have been protected to some extent -- notably Yak Lom crater lake and Virachey National Park -- the scars of the over-exploitation of lumber can be seen across the province and while driving across the windy, red clay roads, fields of charred tree stumps are visible.
Most travellers who make the effort to reach here tend to stay at least three nights, exploring the waterfalls, minority villages and cemeteries and perhaps doing an overnight (or longer) trip into the national park. Bear in mind that tourism is still a developing business here and that things may not always turn out quite as you expect. The makeshift feel to trips around the province add to its authentic allure.
Known for its red dirt, Ratanakiri becomes a dust-bowl in the dry season and a mudpit in the wet. While the roads have improved considerably, in the height of wet season some are virtually impassable. A good time to visit is in November, when the rains have stopped and the dust has not got too far out of hand.
Banlung itself has grown from a hideously dusty or muddy (depending on the season) truck-stop to a mid-sized (often still dusty or muddy) town set pretty much at the centre of the province. Connected by a sealed road to Stung Treng and via a very rough trail to Sen Monorom, Banlung is one of the most far-flung of the Khmer capitals.
It's a fairly recent invention. The original capital of Ratanakiri was Lumphat, about an hour's motorcycle ride from town. Lumphat was obliterated by bombing during the US War and the capital was moved to its new location. Pretty much all that remains of old Lumphat is a roundabout -- which must have been made of sturdier materials than pretty much everything else.
There is a good range of guesthouses and hotels in Banlung, and if flights ever start running again, it will regain its popularity as a weekender choice for people living in Phnom Penh.
Weekenders aside, most visitors stay at least three to four nights as there is plenty to do in the province, much of which can be done as daytrips from the provincial capital. The Yak Lom crater lake is really the only attraction within walking distance of the capital -- and it is well worth a visit. Take a swim if you're not worried about the Yak Lom monster.
Mr Keo Sona, formerly the receptionist at Yaklom Lodge and now a tour guide, is as eager as he is helpful, and his English is fantastic. He can be reached at either (097) 825 0366 or (012) 581 396. Mr T at Tree Top also offers good advice.
The Le Thanh/O Yadao border crossing into Vietnam is 70 kilometres from Banlung. The road to the border is in excellent condition. Foreigners as well as Vietnamese and Cambodian nationals are all able to cross into Cambodia from Vietnam and obtain visas upon arrival (bring at least one passport-size photo with you or expect to pay a small bribe). Like all crossings into Vietnam, you must obtain a Vietnamese visa from an embassy before going to the border. We've heard mixed reports about foreigners sometimes not being allowed to cross into Vietnam here, so ask around.
By Stuart McDonald .