Virachey National Park
A bit of a mixed bag
What we say:
All trips to Virachey have to be arranged through the park service and accompanied by a park-approved guide.
You can pay extra and have your guesthouse or tour company arrange this, or you can go to the office and arrange the trip directly with the rangers. The Office of Virachey National Park Headquarters is located three blocks north of the post office, only a few minutes from the centre of town.
The most popular trek is the three-day, two-night trip that includes sleeping one night inside a hut adjacent to a Brou village just outside the park, and one night in hammocks about 20 km inside. The entire hiking distance for the two days is about 30 km. It costs around $100 per person but can be slightly cheaper with groups larger than two.
The trip starts in the morning at the park office, with a stop for food in the market with the guide. He loads up on the rice, meat and veggies he will prepare for the next three days. He also buys enough water for the first day or so -- after that it's boiled water from the stream.
From there, trekkers load on motorbikes and drive 50 kilometres northeast to the San river. The ride is beautiful when not too dusty or muddy, past steep hills, stilted villages, and endless cashew and rubber plantations. The drive stops in Ta Veng, a large-ish stilted village with several intersecting roads lined with grazing cows. There's not much there other than villagers and the river, but it's a pleasant place to walk around while your guide waits for the boat driver to show up. The trip upstream aboard low motorised canoes is lovely as well, if a bit frightening when bobbing over whitewater patches.
After two hours, you reach Yorn, the Brou village to spend the night. Guides speak the language and can help you communicate, though most of the men are already drunk by early evening. The accommodation is in a separate hut and neither the guides nor the villagers are too interested in interacting, so if cross-cultural exchange is your goal, (politely) pester your guide to help you. US Army issue hammocks with sewn-in mosquito nets are more comfortable to sleep in than expected.
The next day, trekkers head further upriver and into the Tak Yak tributary to reach the park and the trail. From there, you put on leech socks (make sure there are no holes!) and start hiking. During the rainy season, this will be a wet, leech-filled adventure. Expect to spend the entire time trudging through small streams, flicking at parasites, and foraging through dense brush. Occasionally, you hike on the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the tracks from the trucks that drove through are still visible, as well as stockpiles of rusted-out artillery.
Lunch is beside a lovely stream and waterfall that's nice for swimming, and, after hiking for another 10 kilometres or so, you set up camp by the water too. The guides prepare dinner and arrange the hammocks so they're shielded from the night's rains by individual tarps. The next day's trek is shorter, only about 10 kilometres total, and finishes at another tributary leading back to the Sesan. From there, you boat back to Ta Veng and drive back to Banlung.
Other than bamboo rats at night and two birds, we saw no wildlife whatsoever. A few tigers and a few hundred sun bears supposedly remain, but hunting has made the park a relatively quiet place. This was part of our main problem with the trek -- its lack of payoff for the discomfort it requires. Beside the pleasant swims, there's a lookout point with a decent view but that's about it. We hear there's a better chance of seeing guar and monkeys during the rainy season -- and fewer leeches then too. We recommend only attempting this trek between December and March.
There's also a shorter, two-day, one-night trek that goes northwest instead of northeast. Travellers pass briefly through Voen Sai then spend the night inside the park. It costs about $50, depending on the size of your group. Our guides told us it is "not so wonderful".
More detailsOffice of Virachey National Park Headquarters
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