NORTHEAST CAMBODIA borders Laos and Vietnam and embraces Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri Province of Cambodia. The area is home to a variety of highland tribes, including Kavet, Brao, Kreung, and Tampuan populations. Historically, these areas were raided for slaves by the dominant Khmer and Siamese cultures. In 1863, Cambodia became a French protectorate. The indigenous highlanders were resistant to colonial rule, but when the French relinquished their claim to the country in 1953, they reported that the highlanders had been subdued. One can only imagine what that entailed. After the French left, the dominant Khmer culture tried to impose its hegemony over this area, with relocations of tribals to the lowlands. The government tried to create rubber plantations in the region with their forced labor, which was met with heated resistance and the effort was abandoned. Resentments created during this period led to the minorities’ later sympathies with the Khmer Rouge. [Source: Howie Nielsen, mongabay.com , March 14, 2013]
During the American-Indochinese war, the areas near Laos and Vietnam were bombed by the U.S., as parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail ran through potions of the region. Resentments created by the Cambodian government’s heavy-handed efforts led to the minorities’ later sympathies with the Khmer Rouge. Lon Nol pulled all troops out in 1970, effectively giving the area over to the Khmer rouge. By 1975, life under the Khmer rouge had become intolerable in the northeast and a majority of the tribes moved to adjacent Vietnam and Laos to escape the brutalities. The area was subsequently liberated by the Vietnamese in 1978, forcing more highlanders into Laos, but eventually pacifying the area.
Returning minorities chose to relocate along the area’s major rivers, the Sesan and Sekong, for security reasons. Over time the population has been pushing back into the forests, returning to their traditional rotational swidden agriculture, but with the added dimension of servicing markets, now available as Cambodia develops its infrastructure.
Many of the minorities maintain villages along the rivers, with paddy fields for rice created behind on the floodplain. Beyond is the community forest and with the increase in market access due to the ongoing road building, increased pressure from logging and hunting has occurred. The people are moving away from a subsistence lifestyle and crop farming of cashew and cassava now leads to additional forest loss.
Ratanakiri Province (636 kilometers from Phnom Penh) is located in Cambodia's far northeast and bordered by Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east,Mondulkiri Province of Cambodia to the south, and Stung Treng Province to the west. About 70 percent of the residents of this rural rugged province are ethnic minority, which are known as "Chunchiet". Ratanakiri has traditionally been off the beaten track and has been "discovered" step by step since the 1990s. And even today, once you get away from it's capital Banlung you won't run into too many other tourists. still a remote province in Northeastern Cambodia worth to visit. The word "Ratanakiri" itself is a derivative of two Cambodian words, which are combined to mean "place of gems and mountains." The word comes from the Sanskrit words Ratna (gem) and giri (mountain). If you are looking for somewhere else to go in Cambodia after visiting Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, Ratanakiri is worth considering.
Ratanakiri is situated on the northeast plateau of Cambodia at an altitude of between 200 and 400 meters. There are two big rivers crossing the province (Sre Pork and Sresan River ). The total area of Ratanakiri is about 10,782 square kilometers. There are 63,333 males and 64,774 females living in the province making up a total population of 128,107 inhabitants. living. The population density is 11.8 inhabitants per square kilometer.
Ratanakiri became a province of Kingdom of Cambodia in 1960 under King Norodom Sihanouk's reign. Banlung, the province capital, is situated along the 200-kilometer-long National Road No.19 from Ou porng Moan to the Vietnam border about 200 kilometers. (Ou? porng Moan-Banlung is about 120 kilometers away, Banlung-Vietnam 80 kilometers). Lomphat is a small town in the southern plains, which was once the former capital of Ratanakiri. There are a few other small towns like Ta Veng and Voen Sai. The province is getting more popular with tourists, especially for those who seek with the province’s ethnic groups and abundant wildlife. Forest cover varies from area to area, from the dense impenetrable forest in the northern reaches, which are still rich in wildlife, to the drier and sparser forest, found in the southwest. Similarly, the soil types present range from rich volcanic soil to the sandy soil found near rivers.
Ratanakiri Province has a climate similar to that of other areas in Cambodia. The rainy season runs from June to October and features temperature above 27 degrees C. The cool season is from November to February, with temperatures above 24 degrees C. The hot season is from March to May. Temperatures then range from 20 degrees to 32 degrees C. Ratanakiri's average temperature throughout the year is lower than that of other areas of Cambodia (except Mondulkiri Province).
Ethnic Groups and Economy of Ratanakiri Province
Eight major hill tribes and ethnic groups live in Ratanakiri. Most of them live in the deeper jungle, on the hills and covered mountains in small separated villages. Usually they make their living through traditional ways of cultivation (shifting agriculture), hunting and collecting fruits and other foods from the forest. These old cultures believe in spirits, derived from their animist beliefs. There eight main hill tribes and ethnic groups are (percent of the province’s population): 1) Tumpoun: 24.13 percent; 2) Kreung: 18.89 percent; 3) Kavet: 2.65 percent; 4) Kachok: 2.65 percent; 5) Charay: 19.47 percent; 6) Prou: 7.54 percent; 7) Phnong: 0.24 percent; 8) Lun: 0.20 percent. 9) Total: 75.77 percent.
The vast majority of the indigenous peoples living in Ratanakiri are subsistence farmers, who raise rice, corn, pumpkins and other crops. Some of them grow an additional catch crop such as peanuts or cashews. There is quite a number of wealthy Cambodians and Vietnamese, who own large plantations surrounding the capital of Banlung. Most of them plant peanuts, coffee, or cashews. Additionally, Ratanakiri boasts hundreds of square miles of lucrative rubber plantations, of which rubber is mostly exported to neighbouring Vietnam. Due to the present reconstruction of the Cambodian National Highway 19, which runs through the center of the capital of Banlung, the area's trade with Vietnam will soon rise. In mineral wealth alone, Ratanakiri boasts gold, gemstones, granite and onyx. Fertile red soil, water sources, wild animals and quality hardwoods abound and the weather and scenery are perennial assets.
Getting to Ratanakiri
Flying is, of course, the easiest way to go. There were only two flights per week and for a time there were no flights at all. For more details, please contact a travel agent. The overland trip from Phnom Penh in 636 kilometers: 1) Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham and Kracheh (Overnight ), continue to Rattanakkiri by car. From Phnom Penh to Steung Treng by boat in raining season (Overnight), continue to Ratanakiri by plane or car.
NR 78 is a paved, two-lane, all-weather road; in good condition that links Ban Lung Town in Ratanakiri Province to O Pong Moan and the O Yadao O Yadao—Le Thanh (Vietnam) border crossing in Stung Treng Province. The road is part of an East-West Corridor between Cambodia and Vietnam. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2010]
Share taxi pickup trucks only go from Banlung to Stung Treng. Bring food, water, and mosquito repellent, because if there is a breakdown on this quite bumpy backwoods road you may be caught in the jungle for the night (especially during the rainy season). Shared taxis usually go in groups in case of a breakdown, but anyhow the other vehicles are usually full as well, so people do get stranded sometimes. The five-hour trip stretches mostly to seven hours for shared taxis during the rainy season. The fare is about 35,000 riel per person for an inside seat. Banlung to Stung Treng The 146-km journey from Banlung to Stung Treng takes around 5-7 hours during the rainy season, so knock at least an hour off for the dry season.
The road is generally lousy, passing through areas of bomb craters that create deep lakes during the rainy season, but you can skirt around the perimeter of most of them. Where you can't, the road goes zigzagging through the jungle, and is slow and slippery in the wet months. However, there are a few decent stretches, and the last 19 kilometers on Highway 7 are fairly easy ones. It's certainly not one of the better roads, but it's not the worst either. There is some nice scenery, but as with other bad highways around Cambodia, you are usually too preoccupied with the road to enjoy it unless you stop. The same suggestion we made in the share taxi section applies for riders on this road. Bring food, water and mosquito repellent.
If you have a breakdown there may not be anyone else coming by, depending on the time of day. It's always best to get an early start to improve your chances if you do have a problem. Banlung to Mondulkiri, If you come from Stung Treng and want to try the back trail to Mondulkiri (Sen Monorom) and it's the rainy season, read the Death Highway section. Or follow the simple advice we gave in the Mondulkiri section: don't do it. There is a bunch of small splitting trails leading nowhere! In the dry season, it's a tough trail that will put your riding skills to the test.
If you attempt the tri[ ny motorcycle make sure you have spare parts for your motorcycle and bring plenty of food and drinking water. The trip will take around two days during the dry season. Koh Nheak town (near halfway) is the only place that sells bottled water and some food. Fuel is also available. Don't do it alone. It’s best to have some help if you have a breakdown or a mishap. You are a long way from help in most stretches of this remote trail. It would also be best to bring along a Khmer speaker as the trail sometimes intersects with other trails and you will want to clarify that you took the proper way when you do come across somebody. It's definitely an adventure, so if you try to tackle it be fully prepared so you have an opportunity to enjoy it. Security these days is not a problem.
Stung Treng/Lao border - Banlung is definitely a tour you can only manage by motorcycle and during the dry season. The road is just a dirt trail, which will testify your advanced riding skills. Starting from Stung Treng you have to take the national highway No. 7 to the north (Lao border). Just 10 kilometers before the border you have to take a dirt trail, which splits from the main road to the right. Now you have to challenge 130 kilometers of dirt trail, passing quite a few villages, such as Siem Pang, Samong, Phum Bah Ke Toch and Veun Sai. On the way you have to cross several small rivers by little boats, so make sure you bring enough change to pay the villagers. Almost every village sells fuel and bottled water. Reaching Veun Sai you have made the hard part of the trip, the further laterite surface road to Banlung is just a 45 kilometers ride.
Banlung (586 kilometers from Phnom Penh) is the dusty capital of Ratanakiri Province. Located not far from where Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos all come together and reached primarily by plane, it is not the most exiting place in the world but it is peaceful and laid back. Many ethnic minorities live in the area and the Khmer Rouge was never very active here which means they are not many mines, amputees or suspicious people. Kinds of transportation in Banlung include cars, pick-ups, mountain bikes, motorbikes, elephants riding, boats and trekking.
Within walking distance of Ratanakiri are waterfalls, pagodas, rubber plantations, rice fields, pleasant countryside, volcanic lakes and villages. Within a 30 miles radius are hill tribe villages, rain forest s with bears and monkeys, mountains, gem mining areas (where zircons are mined with bamboo cranes), and boat trips on local rivers. 20 ethnic groups and subgroups live in the area. You can also visit Kreng ethic villages, the strange graves of Tompoun ethic group, the Andoung Meas (Golden wells) district, the Charay hill tribe, the gem mines and digging wells at Bar Kaev, coffee and rubber plantations and Kavet minority Chinese village, Banphang village, where you can get your wrists tied with cotton yarn and splashed with water by elderly villagers,
Banlung is located in the central highlands of Ratanakiri province. Its wide red laterite roads are bordered by new, recently built houses, replacing the older ones. The center of the town features a lively market with everyday things. Remnants of an ancient volcano exist near to Banlung in the form of a crystal-clear lake that was formed after the active volcano went dormant. There are also a few ancient lava fields in that area. Beautiful waterfalls, clear rivers winding through stretches of jungle, and rolling hills that meet mountains near the Vietnamese and Lao border provide a full agenda for nature lovers. Non-structured, low-impact, custom trips to outlying villages and natural areas can be organized (by yourself or with help from a guesthouse).
There are a few foreigners living in Banlung, many of them working for NGOs. If you will visit the hill tribe people in the further areas outside of Banlung, don't be surprised if they are surprised by your presence. They just haven't seen many, if any, foreigners. Items found at Banlung market include intricate stone sculptures, woodcarvings and gemstones. Many goods are brought in by tribes, like baskets, crossbows, gourds (water containers), bracelets, necklaces, clothes and pipes from the outskirts of the town.
Restaurants in Banlung
The American Restaurant is an unlikely name for a restaurant with the best food in town. It turns out that an American used to be the owner and cook of the place. He taught the staff to cook the Western dishes on the menu and also to be meticulous in the cleanliness of the place. They got the idea, as it's a simple but well taken care of restaurant. If you've been in the bush a while, they serve up a mean hamburger with all of the trimmings of a California Burger with tasty fries on the side. There are plenty of choices of Western and Khmer food and if you want something special made up for you, the friendly staffs are happy to accommodate you. Open all day. The restaurant rents Honda Dream motorcycles for US$ 5 a day.
Banlung Guesthouse Restaurant is situated next to the airport. They serve Khmer, Western and Thai food throughout the day, starting with breakfast. It's a friendly place and the food is good. Market Food Stands: Located near the market and share taxi area is a bunch of simple noodle and rice dish shops, if you want to eat the cheap way. Gengliang's Place is Located 5.5 kilometers from the Independence Monument on the road toward the Vietnamese border. It is an outdoor restaurant set amid trees and a small stream in a valley. It’s a nice, simple setting that serves up a very good Vietnamese noodle and curry cold dish. They have a few other treats, as well as fresh fruit and drinks. The name of the friendly Khmer owner of the place is Gangling and she speaks French.
Terres Rouge Lodge is a high-class hotel with an excellent French and Khmer cuisine. So, if you're up to spend a bit more money than usual, but to spoil your tongue, reserve a table for the dinner. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Tribal Hotel and Yak Laom Lodge: Both guesthouses have good restaurants, which serve Khmer and western food in a nice surrounding. If you are hungry after a swim in the Yak Laom Lake, the Lodge of the same title may offer you a near possibility to assuage your needs.
Accommodation in Banlung
Banlung Guesthouse is situated near the market. This friendly place has fan rooms with a bathroom inside for US$ 5 and a/c rooms for US$ 10. Clean rooms with a share bath go for US$ 3. They have a restaurant and can arrange guided trips to the local attractions and beyond. They also have guides who speak the various hill tribe dialects and can take you to some outlying villages. They rent Honda Dreams for US$ 5 a day and also a pickup truck with a driver for US$ 50 a day, including the fuel. They are currently trying to reorganize their elephant trekking after the recent death of the elephant that was normally used.
Mountain Guesthouse: (tel. 075/974047) has fairly decent simple rooms for US$ 5 a night for a room with a fan and bathroom. The walls are paper-thin so watch the hanky-panky; they have a small restaurant that serves breakfast. They also have Honda Dreams for rent at US$ 5 a day. The English-speaking owner of the place helps you to organize trekking tours if you’re interested. Mountain Guesthouse 2 is run by the sister of the owner of the similarly named place mentioned above. They have Spartan accommodations that are not well cleaned for US$ 5. There is a funky share bath area. The upside is a nice second-floor terrace and they also serve breakfast.
Lebanese Hotel: With no staff anywhere to be found on the three occasions when we stopped by, it is not recommended. Belongings can easily disappear if nobody is minding the store. Rattan Hotel: (tel. 012/958322) is the highest building in town, but that isn't saying much. They did some remodelling in the front outside area of the building, but the rooms are the same as before. Rooms in front have a terrace and window overlooking the street. They have and attached Western bath, double or twin beds with a/c for US$ 10 a night. It’s a clean place, but when we went through, not overly friendly.
Terres Rouge Lodge: ( tel. 075/974051) is a quite traditionally-equipped hotel with 12 rooms, which show Khmer textiles and artefacts. The lake view gives the visitor an idea of having real holidays. The only disadvantage is the 4 kilometers ride to the center of Banlung. The room rates are: US$30 for a single room, US$35 double room, around US$40 for a room with two single beds and US$50 for the suite. You need to place a reservation in advance. The Tribal Hotel (tel. 075/974074) is near the center of Banlung on the road, which goes out of town in direction of Yak Laom Lake. There are plenty of rooms at different rates: single room US$5-6, double room with two single beds US$7, bigger double rooms are available for around US$10. All rooms have a bathroom and TV; some have a little balcony and AC. You may ask the owner for Internet connection as well as for help organizing a tour in the area.
SIGHTS AROUND BANLUNG
Norng Kabat Forest (23 kilometers the north of Banlung) is a place where visitors can see animals and birds which comes to a pond and visit ethnic villages and see their traditional religion, festivals, dancing and music. The Norng Kabat Forest is said to be a popular destination of the bird watchers.
Ou'Chaloy (34 kilometers . south - west of Banlung) is located on the Sre Pok river and is only accessible during the dry season. The Sre Pok River is a major tributary of Mekong. It runs through the province to meet the Mekong River near Stung Treng town. Of the 440 kilometers length of the river, 281 kilometers is in Cambodian territory. It was a crucial means of transport before the development of infrastructure in this region.
Viel Rum Plong (14 kilometers northeast of Banlung) is a huge granite terrace in the forest in O'Chum commune, O'chum district. The site is a popular place for picnics. According to the Kreung legend, there once was a boy named Rom Plong who flew his kite on this terrace. Unfortunately, the kite got stuck in a tree. Rom Plong climbed the tree to retrieve his kite, but fell from the tree and died. His body was buried in the forest. Since then, members of the Kreung hill tribe, who live in nearby village, believe that Rom Plong's spirit is protect the forest surrounding the terrace, so they dare not cut it down, even to plant crops. That is how the site came to be known as Viel Rom Plong.
Phnom Eysei Patamak
Phnom Eysei Patamak (two kilometers from Banlung) is also known as Phnom Svay. At the foot of the mountain is Wat Isana Rattanaram, where villagers living in Ban Loung come to worship. On the top of the mountain there is a large statue of the reclining Buddha reaching nirvana. It was built in 1994. The top of the mountain affords visitors a picturesque view of Banlung town. The temperature at the top can be cool, however, even during the hot, dry season.
Some people pitch tents and stay overnight. On clear days you can see Laos in the north and Vietnam in the east. Wat Rahtanharahm ('Wat Aran') sits at the base of Eisey Patamak Mountain about 1 kilometers east of town. Follow the road past the wat and up the mountain. Just below the crest a large reclining Buddha sits amongst a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside.
To get there: From the American Restaurant, follow the road toward Stung just over half a kilometer and turn right on the dirt road that goes to a temple area. The main temple is on this level. If you continue on the road that goes upward behind the temple for just over another half a kilometer you come to the hilltop area. There is a reclining Buddha resting and enjoying the nice view of the countryside and the mountains off in the distance.
Yeak Laom Volcano Lake
Yeak Laom Volcano Lake (5 kilometers south of Banlung) is a beautiful place is not far from town and is great for a swim, picnic, or hike around the crater rim of the old volcano. Due to the lake's tremendous depth of 48 meters, its water is exceptionally clean and crystal clear. The lake is almost perfectly round and measures around 750 meters in diameter. It has a small informative local museum thrown in to boot. In 1995 the governor of Ratanakiri officially set aside a 5,000-hectare (12,350-acre) protected area, of which the lake is a part, and in 1996 got help from the International Development and Research center of Canada and the United Nations Development Program to develop an effective resource management program.
Beung Yeak Laom is located in Yeak Loam commune, Ban Loung district.There are two places along the bank where visitors can relax and enjoy a panoramic view of the lake and the flora and fauna. A tourist information center is on the west bank, and handicrafts made by hill tribes living nearby are available for sale. Beung Yeak Laom is a place of worship for the hill tribes. They believe there is a powerful spirit who owns the surrounding land and forest. Beung Yeak Laom is popular with tourists who like to swim or hike in the forest surrounding the lake. Because there are no vendors, visitors should bring along their own food and beverages. At the western bank of the lake, there is a tourist information center where for guiding and giving information center where for guiding and giving information to tourists, and also for displaying souvenirs and handicrafts made by ethnic minorities.
This area represents Cambodia's finest attempt at preserving a site. Full-time rangers work to ensure the area is protected. They receive regular training and have put up signs throughout the area reminding people not too littler, wash clothes or toilet in the lake. That's amazing for Cambodia. The main swimming and picnic area features a nice wood deck that's great to use for a jump into the crystal clean water. Nearby, park rangers erected a couple of examples of hill tribe construction in the form of bride and groom homes, where the man gets the elevated home (his status in the relationship) and the woman has the one nearer to the ground.
A few hundred meters away is the Cultural and Environmental Centre, which has information about area history and displays of local hill tribe tools and handiwork. They also sell some of the handicrafts made by the hill tribes: musical instruments, beaded belts, shirts, and hats. From the center you can take a nature trail around the entire crater rim. King Sihanouk had a chalet built on the shores of the lake and used it during the 1960s. It was destroyed in the 1970 war between the Lon Nol government and Khmer Rouge guerrillas. You can still see the remnants of this and also-indifferent spots around the lake-trenches that held gun emplacements during the fighting.
The original inhabitants of the area are the Khmer Leu hill tribe people, who have always recognized the lake as a sacred place, home to the spirits of the land, water, and forest. Here those spirits interact with humans and, according to the local legend of Yeak Laom Lake, fabulous, spiritual aquatic beings reside here. The surrounding forests of the area are also said to be the home of spirits and therefore can't be cut. This helps to explain why the hill tribe people took so strongly to the idea of protecting the area.
Yeak Laom Volcano Lake is very easy to get to: just go east from the Independence Monument circle 3 kilometers to the Hill Tribe Monument circle (two indigenous figures) and go right for about 1.5 kilometers to the entrance gate. The local hill tribe community connected to the lake get to collect an entrance fee, giving them a source of income and revenue for protecting their resource. It’s US$1 per person and a few hundred riels for a motorcycle.
Waterfalls Near Banlung
Cha Ong Waterfall (two kilometers west of Banlung) is in the forest in Cha Ong village, O'Chum commune. It was given its name by the Kreung hill tribe living nearby.The waterfall gets its water from Phnom Eysei Patamak or Phnom Svay near Banlung. From its upper level, the water flows from a small canal before dropping 25 meters to a lower level. A mountain slop leads visitors to the bottom of the waterfall, where they can sit inside a cave and enjoy the view. A trail leads to the bottom of the waterfall, where they can sit inside a cave and enjoy the view. The source of this waterfall is a mountain named 'Ey sey Pak Ta Mak' or called 'Phnom Svay' close to Banlung town. To view the waterfall, you should go down to the stream below where you see a big rocky cave with plain roof. At the bottom of the stream, there are many big rocks used as the seats for viewing the falls.
Ka Chanh Waterfall (6 kilometers southeast of Banlung) is located in Ka Chanh commune, Ban Loung district. The waterfall is 12 meters high and is fed year round by the OKan Teung canal. From the waterfall the water flows into Sre Pork River in Lum Phat district. The waterfall was given its name by the Kreung ethnic minority in Ka Chanh village. There are a number of scenic rubber plantations along the canal leading to the waterfall. The base of the waterfall, which is a lovely place for picnics, can be reached by climbing down a 72-step wooden staircase. The visitors can swim or sit to look at the waterfall and other natural scenery in the area. Elephant rides to the site may be available.
Ka Tieng Waterfall (7 kilometers southwest of Banlung) is in the middle of lush forest at the Lbang I commune, Lumpart district. The name of Ka Tieng is originally got from Kreung hill tribe in Ka Kieng village. The waterfall is about 10 meters high and flows and falls throughout the year. It is also located in the Koutung Stream, three kilometers below Kachang Waterfall. Katieng Waterfall is one of the less visited waterfalls in the area. You can enjoy some wonderful time if you combine your visit to this waterfall with an elephant ride. Elephant rides are available from the elephant village of Phume Kateung, north of the falls. You can also see the Katieng waterfall from flights, if you are lucky. When the plane is landing or taking off, watch out for the falls. Elephant rides to this falls are available for an hour and a half. These can be organized by the lodges you are staying in.
Ka Chanh and Katieng (or Ka Tieng) waterfalls are so close that both can be visited within an hour of Banlung. To get to Katieng take the road out of town west for 2 kilometers then roughly 3,5 kilometers to the south. Just beyond a school is a dirt track veering off to your right. Keep following this track past cashew nut plantations (with the possibility of taking an elephant) until the road descends over a rutted track. In all from the turn it’s about 1.5 kilometers. From the food stalls it is pretty obvious that you have arrived though the road proper fords the stream and continues onwards. A small entrance fee is required. Above the 10 m high fall is a large park-like area. Off to the left is a trail that leads to a staircase to the huge pool below well worth a great swim.
On visitor to Banlung’s waterfalls wrote: “We went to see 3 waterfalls in total, visiting Ka Tieng, Kinchaan and Chaa Ong. To get to Ka Tieng. we had to go through a small river with the bike, which was pretty nerve racking, but worth the effort. On to Kinchaan, where we met some local guys keen to show off their cliff jumping skills, although I was happy to remain dry after my last cliff jumping experience ended in hospitalisation. I was happier to get wet at Chaa Ong, where I took a dip in the powerful spray dropping around 10 meters. We headed back to Ban Lung at sunset, impressed by the waterfalls and happy I had coped on the motorbike.”
Other Waterfalls Near Banlung: Ou'Sean Lair Waterfall (26 kilometers south of Banlung) has four levels with the height of each level is around four meters. The water flows throughout the year. Around the Waterfall are beautiful natural landscapes and the visitors can take a swim if they wish. Ou'Sensranoh Waterfall (9 kilometers. south of Banlung) is 18 meters high and the water flows and falls all the time.
Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary
Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary (37 kilometers. south of Banlung) covers a total land area of 250,000 hectares (2,225 square kilometers). Animals and birds there include tigers (perhaps), elephants, red-headed vultures, bantengs, gaurs, bears, and smaller carnivores and primates.. Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ratanakiri. It is so large it overlaps with the neighboring provinces of Mondolkiri and Stung Treng. Generally you will find here the same types of animals as are present in Virachey. But there are a few additional attractions like the endangered and rare wild ox, the Koprey. Projects at Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary are carried out by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). Based on the reports of these projects, the management is planning to promote ecotourism and plans are being undertaken to develop the sanctuary with good access and modern visitor facilities.
Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary joins the Mondulkiri Wildlife Sanctuary. It contains ranges of mountains, a mix of forests and lowlands, interspersed with prairies, ponds and water channels from Tonle Sre Pok River. Tourists wishing to visit Lumphat should contact the park's ranger-guides of Phnom Prik national park. They will guide them around the site if visitors want to see more, they can camp here for up to one week. It gives them the time to enjoy the area's natural beauty. Visitors can ride elephants, using a facility operated by the Phnorng minority. Hiring an elephant and handler costs around $15-25 per day.
VIRACHEY NATIONAL PARK
Virachey National Park(45 kilometers. north of Banlung) covers a total land area of 332,500 hectares (3,444 square miles) of mostly forests and mountains. It is home to a wide variety of plants and animals, including clouded leopard, leopard, Asian golden cat, jungle cat, sun bear, Asiatic black bear, gaur, small-clawed otter, pangolin, civet cats, wild boar, stump-tailed macaques, gibbons, douc langurs, Sambar deer, barking deer, Great hornbills, Oriental pied hornbills, water dragons, and a poisonous snake which has no name. A lack of elephants, bateng (a large wild ox) and tigers suggest that some poaching occurs here. Some of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Vietnam War went through what is now part of the park. Not so many mines were planted here.
According to Mongabay.com: Ringed by forested mountains forming the Cambodian borders with Laos and Vietnam, the northeast corner of Cambodia has been an intriguing blank spot. Nestled up against this frontier is Virachey National Park, created in 1993 in a place supposed to be a land of mountain spirits and tree fairies and a forgotten branch of the Annamite The Lonely Planet guide describes a 7-day trek to a large grasslands (Veal Thom) deep within Virachey. This park is bordered by rugged jungles and protected areas in both Laos and Vietnam, and taken together, Virachey and the areas across the borders comprise an immense wilderness. The park was so huge and relatively unexplored that Javan rhinos were rumored to persist deep within the interior of the jungle. [Source: Howie Nielsen, Gree McCann mongabay.com , March 14, 2013; Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, May 3, 2012]
The area had been written off by NGOs due to massive land concessions given to logging and rubber concerns. The World Bank abandoned its 8-year effort to create a management scheme for Virachey after the concessions were granted. In 2008 when the Cambodian government announced it would allow Indochine Limited to explore 90 percent of Virachey National Park for mining of gold, bauxite (for aluminum), and other metals. A shellshocked World Bank, which had invested million in the park, left. A moratorium on the concessions is temporarily in place, but illegal logging incursions into the park continue. Next came rubber plantation concessions inside the park and proposals for large hydroelectric projects. Some believe as much as one third of the park has already been sold off to rubber developers, The good news conservationist say is that no mining has actually occurred and it looks as if no worthwhile deposits have been found yet.
The only attempt at a biological assessment came in October 2007, when Conservation International helicoptered 10 researchers into the park for a 2 week stay. Over 15 days, they found 30 species of ants, 19 katydids, 37 fish, 35 reptiles, 26 amphibians, and 15 mammals, including a surprising number of sightings of the Asian wild dog known as dholes (Cuon alpinus), a predator that is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
“Our first few hours of the trek were through this mixed use landscape, but by afternoon we had entered healthy looking forest. But the buzz of chainsaws was ongoing, with rough tracks cut to haul out the cut timber. Late in the day, I was stunned as we walked out into a large recent clearing, still smoldering, with large, charred stumps the only remains of the forest. A handful of primitive huts were scattered amongst the devastation. Each hut had clots of filthy, naked children along with foraging pigs and chickens. These families all had moved from the village we started our day from, probably maintaining a home on the river as well.”
The park was dubbed by guides as Indo-china's "last forest." In fact, according to Conservation International (CI), the forest of the Indo-Burma hotspot (comprising Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and parts of India) are the world most threatened hotspot. Only 5 percent of the historical forests remain.
Greg McCann, a PhD student studying the relationship between tribal animism and the regional ecology among minorities in Cambodia, wrote on mongabay.com: “Our guides said that they saw a 3-meter long adult tiger in pursuit of game near a ridgeline about 3 hours south of Mera Mountain, a golden hill that contains a cave which, legend has it, served as the unwanted home of a young woman named Mera who was kidnapped by a tiger. Our guides say that they saw the tiger in August 2011...Human disturbance in the area is low, there is an abundance of game, and there are plenty of mountains where cats can hide. Jeung, Neap and Neam, our guides, say that clouded leopard are also present, and that ten years ago villagers spotted a rhinoceros not far from where the tiger was found. There are so many unexplored canyons and mountains that form the wild and unmarked border of Laos and Cambodia in Virachey that one cannot rule out the possibility that a few hang on. Nobody knows.
I hope to fill in some of the wildlife data gap in Virachey with a 2014 camera-trapping expedition to Haling-Halang, a 1,200-meter massif that straddles the international border. This mountain is a one-week walk from the nearest village and is the source of four major rivers. I have talked to two people who have been there –both Kavet highlanders- and they say that when they last visited it in the late 1980s Haling-Halang swarmed with tigers, leopards, elephants and bears. Large “spirit leeches” apparently fall from the trees on this mountain and cause bleeding that is difficult to stop, and the best bamboo for rice wine drinking straws grows on this mountain (no doubt this will be an added incentive for our guides!) Haling-Halang is also considered to be the most powerful God in the park, inspiring fear in many of the villagers and exuding such power that aircraft cannot (so they say) pass over it.
Jackson Frechette, an American PhD student who studies gibbons in the Voen Sai Protected Forest adjacent to Virachey and whose research is sponsored by Conservation International, saw a Siamese crocodile in the O Lai Lai River last year, and a villager actually caught one and claimed that many young escaped his hunt. A former ranger claims that there is a “Siamese croc pool” near the headwaters of the O Lai Lai close to Haling-Halang. No doubt, surprises await deep in Virachey. Stories from locals have convinced McCann that a small population of Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti) survive in the mountains, and that these untouched places may even harbor populations of the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a Critically Endangered mammal that was only discovered in the 1990s. To date the saola has never been confirmed in Cambodia, but only in neighboring Laos and Vietnam.
Getting to Virachey National Park
To get to the various sights in this area, head west from Banlung to a big fork in the road that has a large painted sign in English (the fork is 8 kilometers from the Independence Monument). The sign says that the road to the right takes you to Taveng, 67 kilometers away (that’s from town, not from the sign). Following this road for a few kilometers brings you to a large clearing on both sides of the road. You soon notice that this is an ancient lava field where the flow followed the down ward slope of the area and left the cooled volcanic rock in its wake. The forest surrounding the entire area is honeycombed with footpaths that the hill tribe people of the area use to gather their various bounties from the jungle. It’s possible to hike off onto these trails and come upon individual hill tribe homes scattered about.
Just keep track of your direction, as it’s easy to get turned around and lost back there. Continuing on toward Taveng, the road condition worsens and is not suitable for a rainy season journey. If it’s the dry season and you are keen on an adventure through some pristine countryside, it’s possible to go all the way to Taveng and cut back on the small river road to Virochey. You could take in the activities there and complete the triangle journey by heading back to Banlung on the other road from Virochey.
The road to Virochey (going left from that fork 8 kilometers Banlung) is definitely the better of the two roads and can be used during the rainy season as well. Virochey is just under 37 kilometers north west of Banlung. As you approach the town, you will see the Virochey National Park headquarters on the left. They sometimes have an English-speaking ranger there who can give you a bit of information about the area.
Continuing further along the road, you will come to the end of the line— the Tonle San River. There are cheap food and drink stands there and they also have fuel. Across the road is a local general store with clothing, fishing boat accessories and other gear. This is the place to inquire about renting a boat to take you northwest on the Tonle San River toward Laos. The river is very clean and the boat ride is scenic so it makes for a fun trip to follow the river for a swim and some photos. You will see and can stop at a temple on the south bank of the river. Fishermen working the river with nets from small boats, and the mountains ahead in the not too far distance complete the picturesque scene. There are several sandbars along the way if you want to stop for a swim. The cost of the motorized boat and driver is US$ 10.
The beach and boat landing area are just behind the food stands where you reached the town. It's a gorgeous and extremely wide white sand beach and also makes a good spot to cool off in the clean river. There is a small boat there that serves as a ferry, taking people across to the Chinese and Lao village on the other side. It's 200 riel per person and 1,000 riel for a Honda Dream (if you rented one in Virochey). It's an interesting village to hike or motorbike around. From the food stand area, it’s also possible to motorcycle down about 1,5 kilometers to the riverside temple.
Little Explored Area Virachey National Park
Greg McCann told mongabay.com: Veal Thom Grasslands “is reached after two and a half days of tough jungle trekking. You emerge from the canopy into an upland world of sunlight and burnt yellow savanna hills set against a huge chain of dark green mountains: these are the mountains that divide Laos and Cambodia, an arbitrary borderline selected by the French in 1904. The grasslands seem inexplicable—a secret world of golden light and open vistas carved out of the middle of the jungle, an immense area of rolling amber hills that would require two days to walk the entire circumference. According to the Brao people who live along the Sesan River south of the park, Veal Thom (which means ‘wilderness grasslands’) was formed by a family of giants who used the area as farmland. One day there was a family dispute, and several of them stalked off in anger and established the Yak Yeuk Grasslands, which is about 15 kilometers east of Veal Thom. [Source:Greg McCann, Jeremy Hance, mongabay.com, May 3, 2012]
Guides say that 30 years ago the hills of Veal Thom were black with elephants, gaur and Sambar deer, but today only the Sambar deer remain (of those three); the remaining elephants have fled into the barrier mountains and gaur hide out in the forests north and south of Veal Thom, but rarely come out into the open anymore. Because of the Khmer Rouge, they say, everyone in Ratanakiri had a gun, and they went up into the grasslands and wiped out the vast herds.
Until recently another grassland Yak Yeuk (pronounced ‘yook’ and sometimes spelled as ‘Yok’) had never been explored by scientists or visited by tourists. If not for World Bank Sponsorship between 2004-2008, rangers would never have visited the place either. The only people, aside from the two rangers expeditions that involved trekking 15 days (round trip) to visit this locale, the only other people who might have seen Yak Yeuk are engineers from Indochine Ltd, the mining company that has the license to explore 90 percent of Virachey. They would have flown in on helicopter. No photos exist of Yak Yeuk anywhere on the net—a rarity today (you can’t even see it from Google Earth, as cloud cover is blocking the view). Two rangers have photos, but they have yet to email them to me, and I have just one shot which I took using the maximum zoom on my camera taken from the highest mountain in Veal Thom, a vantage point which affords a small glimpse of Yak Yeuk. The rangers who have been there say it is even more beautiful than Veal Thom, as this grasslands—which is almost the same size as Veal Thom—sits virtually right on top of the barrier chain near Laos. Adventure travelers need look no further!
Rangers say that it takes 5 days (one-way) of extremely tough trekking to reach Yak Yeuk, and for that reason, poachers probably don’t go there; it is simply too far and there is no guarantee of a bountiful catch. There are no trails leading there; it’s nothing but bush-whacking the entire way. When rangers visited it during the World Bank's tenure, gaur were spotted in the open, and gibbons and douc langurs watched the rangers with curiosity from trees at the edge of the grasslands before running off.
Ching-Yum Mountain—part of the barrier chain—is another place that poachers probably have not reached. Rangers passed by it en route to Yak Yeuk from Veal Thom with World Bank support, and they observed abundant signs of carnivores. There are numerous mountains that form the border between Cambodia and Laos and they serve as the final refuge for wildlife in the area. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was a population of saola clinging to existence up in those mountains.
Rangers believe that four to five tigers still prowl the unexplored canyons of the park. Footprints were found and photographed in summer 2010, and in late 2010 two were heard roaring near the border with Vietnam—the team of six rangers was so frightened that they had to build up a large fire to try and keep the cats away. The following day the rangers destroyed a very large trap that was probably set for a tiger. The forests on the Vietnamese side of the border (Chu Mom Ray National Park) of Virachey have probably been emptied of tigers, but Laos still has a lot of suitable tiger habitat in Nam Gong (Kong) Provincial Protected Area, which sits astride Virachey to the north, and Virachey itself still has plenty of quality forest and prey species.
I am pretty sure that they were gray-shanked langurs (which are known to exist in neighboring Kontum province in Vietnam, but not in Virachey). We had just left the grasslands and entered the forests when we heard a loud, bizarre, cackling sound. It was unlike any primate I had ever heard before. Without a moment’s hesitation my guide said, "douc langur." We dropped our bags and ran into the forest in the direction of the shaking branches in the canopy. For one fleeting second I saw one leap from a branch and disappear into foliage. Could they really be gray-shanked doucs? Gray-shanked doucs are confirmed in Kontum province right up to the border with Virachey, yet the entire area was once covered in forest. Why wouldn’t animals cross over the ridge lines and spread into Cambodia? Animals don’t recognize political boundaries. Are there species species unknown to science in the park? Without a doubt. Scientists recently discovered a new species of skink in the Voen Sai Protected Forests outside of Virachey.
Trekking in Virachey National Park
Howie Nielsen wrote on mongabay.com: “I met Greg in Phnom Penh on January 16th and the following day we took the 12-hour bus trip to Ban Lung, Ratanakiri’s capital town and gateway to Virachey. The following morning we met Su, the Lao minority ranger, who would accompany us, handling translation duties. We had three Kavet porters who met us later down on the river. After shelling out money for fees, transport, food and support, we proceeded to the market where Su provisioned us for the trek. Rice, instant noodles, fresh vegetables, fresh pork for the first half and dried fish/canned sardines for the second, made up the bulk of provisions. Greg added 2 liters of whiskey and I made sure there was enough instant coffee. Once geared up, we had a hired truck carry the three of us north to the river town of Vuen Sai on the Sesan. Here we met our porters and after beers and lunch, filled a pair of long wooden canoes and headed up river and into the O Lai Lai tributary. We reached the Kavet village of Khong Ngok.[Source: Howie Nielsen, mongabay.com , March 14, 2013]
Our first night was to be spent in the village, staying at the house of one of our porters. Included in our evening was the village elder (6 years my junior), considered the village ‘magic man.’ Rice wine, shared from a communal vessel is integral to life in this region and is included ceremonially. We were all called to squat around the 2-foot tall jar. While rubbing the jug’s rim with bits of straw, we simultaneously called out our requests for luck and protection from the spirits. Individually, we drew a mouthful of wine from the special bamboo straw and stepped out from under the house, spraying the wine to the ground, followed by another litany of incantations. A ceremonial chicken was then sacrificed for the occasion by 3 whacks to the head, with the bulk of the bird going into the stew pot.
We hung our hammocks that night along a small stream. Half asleep and wrapped up in my hammock by 8:00pm, I somehow recognized a bird call worth exploring. I pulled myself out of the hammock and cued up the Oriental Bay Owl on my recorder and wandered off into the night, moving delicately as I was wearing flip-flops instead of my boots. Earlier in the day, we found a "cobra," a 6-foot long serpent identified as such by our ranger.
Our second day had us reaching the foothills, with a few logging tracks and sounds of chainsaws still in the air. But by mid-afternoon, signs of human activity had all but disappeared. We were trying to follow an old trail, overgrown, but one could see the signs of bush knives work from past seasons. Cut saplings had re-sprouted, these giving the best clues of previous human passage. The signs were subtle, but our guides managed to keep us moving up the trail.
My heart soared as we climbed into a cathedral forest of stately, white-trunked Lagostromia, which created a tall canopy with little mid or understory growth. It was pure magic. Unfortunately, after we reached the ridgetop, we passed into a new habitat of tall bamboo clusters, with 6-inch diameter stems reaching 75 feet or more. Again, a stunning landscape, but with age and winds, the canes fall into an impenetrable jumble.
For the next 2 days we fought against the forest. Large tree falls would bring down tangles of vines and smaller trees with them. The Kavet would hack our way around these and usually would be able to quickly regain the trail, but often they would wander off in different directions looking for signs, while Greg and I stood around resting in our sweat. Our guides were all at least 6 inches shorter than me, so their resultant trail-cutting yielded a tunnel requiring a stooped gait, while bobbing and weaving from hazards.
Scrambling over logs, extracting thorns and calling for help when the razor-barbed flagellum of a rattan vine snagged your clothes or flesh, was ongoing. If you attempted to bull your way through the rattan tangles, they left you bleeding and by day 3, I had discarded my light, quick-dry trousers, as they were in tatters. The only compensation to the abuse from that vine, was culinary, as the porters harvested it daily and we ate the roasted pith, not unlike well-done asparagus.
January is the height of the dry season: the biological activity is reduced, with few fruits and flowers, a rather meager dawn chorus of birds and fewer pests. Leeches were only found in moist areas along streams and mosquitoes rare. One exception to this was tiny ticks. I managed to find a nest of them, and they found me. My legs and groin looked like Seurat’s pointillism in red. No one else got hammered like I did. After that I broke out the DEET.
The end of our fourth day of trekking had us camping along a larger river that allowed a complete immersive bath and a bit of a swim. The Kavet set a net, hauling 2 dozen 6-inch fish, destined for a soup or skewered on bamboo—sweet and delicate. One of the more interesting meals occurred when an edible plant was found at our campsite. Leaves were gathered and steamed in a meter long section of green bamboo, tossed on the fire. Chiles, garlic and a can of sardines were added. The mix was then mashed using a long stick. A thick, green slurry was poured out over our rice. Minority cooking at its best.
We broke out onto the Yak Yeuk grasslands late on the 5th afternoon. After days of claustrophobic tropical forest interior, reaching our destination felt like a prize. The border mountains, now in view are really just big hills with the highest peaks, such as the powerful spirit mountain Haling-Halang barely reaching 1200 meters. The scene was a mosaic of grasslands with ribbons of riparian corridors bringing the forest down from the highest ridges of the hills.
I was able to indulge in enjoying this remote piece of nature. The birds kept me busy, adding slaty-backed forktail (Enicurus schistaceus) and yellow-vented green pigeon (Treron seimundi) to my personal Cambodia list. The one fruiting tree I did manage to find was a 10-minute walk from camp and drew in great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), mustached barbet (Megalaima incognita), Asian fairy bluebird (Irena puella) and a variety of bulbuls. It is also where I discovered the pigeon, which was known in Cambodia from one record in Bokor NP. Although we heard gibbons singing most mornings, this was the one spot where I managed to watch a troop for a few minutes.
The area had fresh dung and many tracks of gaur, the largest bovid. On one occasion I spooked a large mammal presumably of this species. I find myself wondering what are the possibilities of finding any large predators here, (do I dare whisper the word tiger) as the area sees limited human pressure, there is an ample supply of prey, and there appears to be some remote corners in these hills that might give some sort of protection and refuge from hunters. No sign of elephant was encountered, though I was told that 2 herds remain somewhere in the park. And any talk of rhinoceros is probably only that.
We broke camp after 3 nights and began our decent. It was different this time. We knew the trail and it had been cleared a bit on our ascent. The Kavet, sporting lighter packs, knowing we had to shorten our planned return if they wanted to be fed and eager to be with their people took off on a pace that we had not experienced. They danced down the trail, with Greg and me struggling to keep them in sight. On our own, we would still struggle with recognizing the trail. Su always brought up the rear to keep an eye on us. If you focused on protecting your eyes and face, there were frequent vines to lasso your ankle, lurching you forward. Each time some part of my anatomy took a hit, I repeated the mantra "way to take one for the team!" Somehow that kept up my spirits.
We passed our last camp during the approach early in the afternoon and it was decided that we would continue a bit farther. We finally made camp in semi-darkness. Both Greg and I were exhausted and angry that we had been on a forced march all day. We lectured Su on how the trip should be managed and it was then that we learned of the impending rice shortage. I suspect that it didn’t help that the whiskey was gone and the guides had smoked up their supply of cigarettes.
By mid-morning we managed to organize our slightly inebriated team and head out for the last major day of walking. We had to cross a small river at the clearings edge, having a choice of wading or balancing on a log. Greg chose to get wet, but under the spell of rice gone wrong, I climbed the log. I usually freeze in these situations, so this was a challenge to myself. No problem, sailed across. Lesson learned: carry a hip flask for all high-wire crossings. Young men on motos had just arrived at river's edge, planning on heading into the forest beyond to continue cutting. Greg’s hiking mojo had been blown by the liquor and he wanted Su to negotiate rides for us. All went, save for Su and me, as there weren’t enough bikes. ..After an hour walking, bikes approached. The same boys stopped, knowing that they’d get more money and off we went. We were dumped in a Kavet village across the O Lai Lai River from our porter, Niem’s village, where we’d spend the night. We were greeted by a group of men, with Greg in the middle, all smoking, drinking beer and talking about where we had been...Once back home with my computer, I retraced our trip on Google Earth. I measured the distance between the Sesan starting point and Yak Yeuk and repeated this several times, because I could not believe that our trip took us all of 11 miles. Obviously we weren’t going in a straight line.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
Last updated August 2020