One of Cambodia’s loveliest provinces is also one of the furthest away from anywhere else. But Ratanakiri is truly worth the effort, and is now easier to get to than ever before.
Tucked away into the northeast corner of Cambodia, on the borders with Vietnam and Laos, Ratanakiri is home to few people, and some vast — for now — forests, glorious waterways, waterfalls, lakes and grass plains, all of which can be explored from the provincial capital, Banlung. The once epic journey from Phnom Penh can now be done in as little as seven hours, making it no further away, temporally, than Siem Reap.
As with Mondulkiri to the south, loggers (legal and illegal) have well and truly had their way with Ratanakiri. While some areas have been protected to some extent — notably Yeak Laom 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. And even Virachey is not immune. We have seen recently taken aerial photographs that show huge sections of the protected forest that have simply disappeared.
Most travellers who make the effort to reach here tend to stay at least three nights, exploring the waterfalls, minority villages 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 mud pit 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 is not immune, though most of the town is now paved, and is connected by a sealed road to Stung Treng and from there to the rest of the country, and via a patchy route to Sen Monorom. In the common imagination, though, Banlung remains one of the most far-flung of the Khmer capitals.
It’s a fairly recent invention in fact. 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.
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. Do 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.
The central market has pretty much everything that you’re likely to need, such as clothes, jewellery (lots of jewellery), toiletries and souvenirs. Most of the other shops in town seem to be mobile phone stores. Go figure. If you haven’t the energy for the market, there is a mini-mart on the corner of Street 78 and the road that leads straight to the market (overlooking the roundabout). This has a small selection of toiletries, drinks and snacks.
Speaking of jewellery, the word “Ratana” is Khmer for gem, and Ratanakiri is known for its gem mines, to the south of the city. They’re fairly well-depleted now, though some visitors still head out there for a look-see as miners eke out the last of what’s left. You’ll definitely need a guide for that, as you’ll never find the mines on your own, and are also guaranteed an infinitely better price than you’ll get in the market in town. Caveat emptor and all that jazz. If you’re not into buying, it’s still nice to browse, and check out the gold workers in the market.
On the subject of gold, heading west of town, you’ll come to a turn-off on the right side for Phnom Svay (Mango Hill), and Eisan Ratanaram Pagoda, which is a small, working pagoda. Continuing up the hill past the pagoda for another 500 metres will take you to a small, open-sided building that houses a reclining Buddha, whose view of the surrounding hills is somewhat obscured by the trees, but you can get a much better view just 100 metres back down the hill. It’s a nice diversion around sunset time, if you don’t have anything else planned.
There is an Acleda Bank on the main drag (Street 78), just to the east of the roundabout that links to the market, with an ATM that takes the major international credit and debit cards.
By Nicky Sullivan . Last updated on 13th November, 2016.