From Discover Magazine: Volcanic lakes, crashing waterfalls and ethnic communities await travellers that venture to the wilds of Ratanakiri
By Rebecca Foster Photography by Anne Holmes
The cool night air of Ban Lung, Ratanakiri’s provincial capital, provides a pleasant reprieve from Cambodia’s balmier climes. Sandwiched between borders with Vietnam and Laos, the Kingdom’s northeastern frontier is home to some of its most untamed countryside, and its sparsely populated villages are a far cry from the crowded streets of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
At dawn, the landscape’s ethereal natural beauty unfolds with the rising sun at one of the province’s most popular tourist attractions, Yeak Lom. Situated five kilometres from Ban Lung, a swift motodop ride is all it takes to reach the 700,000-year-old volcanic lake. Yeak Lom’s glass-like surface casts a sublime mirror image of the trees lining the shore, and a ghostly reflection of the rainclouds that loom above. The sound of crickets echoes across the deserted lake, which will soon be crowded with picnicking local families; the icy stillness of the water broken by playful local children. An early morning swim in the chilled green water is the perfect wake-up, while a bracing 30-minute walk around the lake’s perimeter is another surefire way to get the blood pumping.
Many travellers use Terres Rouge Lodge – Ban Lung’s best accommodation option – as a base to explore Ratanakiri’s treasures, with the majority of attractions a short run out of town. Cha Ong waterfall is one of the first stops on Ratanakiri’s tourist trail, and five minutes after leaving town we are following a winding dirt track towards the forest, criss-crossing the path to avoid a collision with one of the baby piglets trotting in and out of the yards that line the road. 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. Its 25-metre drop is fiercest during the rainy season, when water from Phnom Sei Patamak mountain feeds the torrent with a burst of rust-coloured water that takes its red tinge from the iron-rich soil of the province. The coppery rush crashes onto a plateau of jagged onyx-coloured rocks below, making it possible to hear the waterfall before sight of it emerges from between the trees. Bold explorers can shimmy across the platform of boulders behind the fall and absorb the atmosphere from a private cocoon of water and rock.
In addition to Ratanakiri’s plethora of natural attractions, many of Cambodia’s ethnic minority communities call the province home. Known collectively as the Khmer Loeu, the indigenous people that inhabit the region’s highlands comprise just over half of Ratanakiri’s total population. The small roads that traverse the province deteriorate into a thick red mulch during the rainy season, which gives visitors an excellent excuse to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle to continue their exploration of the highlands.
Upon arrival at an ethnic Kreung village, 15 minutes outside of Ban Lung, our guide, Vet, explains that the 500-strong community sustains itself using a slash-and-burn farming cycle, which lasts about 20 years, before moving to the next site. As such, rampant deforestation in the province provides a great threat to communities whose way of life has changed very little in hundreds of years.
Excited children charge in and out of the wooden meeting house that is positioned on stilts as the village’s centrepiece. A short stroll around the wooden huts unveils a world that is largely untouched by the technological innovations of the 21st Century. The village’s revered spirit woman smiles at us from the depths of her simple, one-room home and the nutty aroma of steaming rice drifts along the breeze, the same way it has for centuries.
A visit to the Laotian, ethnic Chinese and Kachork villages on the northern bank of the Sre San river offers the chance to experience a ride in a motorised canoe, a common method of transport for locals. As we settle on the floor of the canoe, the wooden sides of the boat protruding merely 30cm from the surface of the water, our ethnic Chinese driver’s face 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.
The sight of approaching visitors sends toddlers running to hide in the safety of their homes, while older brothers and sisters happily pose for photographs. Vet leads the way out of the village down a path crowded with wild vegetation, passing by several grazing albino buffalo.
According to ancient custom, when someone in the community passes away they are buried in the forest that lies some 400m from the main village. “This is the ghost forest,” says Vet, explaining that when a Kachork dies, the whole village throws a celebration in their honour.
As the forest canopy thickens, it is possible to spot a number of fenced off grave areas erected just off the overgrown track, flanked by rudimentary wooden statues carved to represent the forms of man and woman. Over the years, mourners have decorated the gravesites with tools that represent the lives of the deceased, as well as objects they hope will be possessed in their future lives. A pair of fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and a model helicopter provide further evidence of the modernity that is seeping into the everyday lives of Ratanakiri’s minority communities.
On the drive back to Ban Lung, the sun illuminates the rolling hills and forests that line the roadside – greenery that is punctuated at regular intervals by flat expanses of rubber plantation. A sense of poignancy hangs over the jeep as it passes by whole families ambling along the roadside, leaving behind work in the paddy fields until tomorrow. It is clear that visitors have little time left to appreciate the slow pace of Ratanakiri’s agrarian society before it is swallowed by the demands of the 21st Century.
If after your adventure in Ratanakiri you’re still after a little more nature, head to neighbouring Mondulkiri province where elephant riding and overnight and multi-day treks are becoming increasingly popular with visitors.
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