Ratanakiri Province is filled with amazing waterfalls, wonderful trekking opportunities, a 200,000 year old crater lake and all the peace and quiet you need from the busy city life. Our journey to Banlung town in Ratanakiri began with a 6am bus from Siem Reap to Kom Thom (4hrs) with freezing blast air conditioning. People were wrapping themselves and the A/C duct with the curtains. We met two single Germans who had just met at the station while waiting one hour for transfer. A shitty local bus with no A/C and crop-lined central walkway picked us up for our 6 hour sweaty ride to Ban Lung. Upon arrival, we were bombarded by moto and tuk-tuk drivers scheming for a ride from bus station to our hotel in Ban Lung. We grabbed a tuk-tuk and had our hotel pay for the free transport. (didn’t think our backpacks could fit on a moto).
Natural Beauty around Banlung, Cambodia
Crater Lake is the main sight around Banlung. We rode bikes 5km east to the lake, paid entrance fee of 2,000 riel, and found a pleasant dock to jump off into the lake and swim. It’s a very beautiful area with lots of locals who believe the lake was created by the gods due to its perfect circular shape. We met Rebecca and Von from Portland while swimming and shared eachothers adventures around Southeast Asia.
There are three famous waterfalls within 10 km of Banlung. We took mountain bikes to Ka Tieng and Kinchaan, in the 98 degrees smeltering heat. The majority of the ride was down powdered dirt road easily consuming your body in orange dust. It was physically exhausting because of the heat and terrain. Ka Tieng waterfall (2,000 riel) was breathtaking from two view points. We experience the waterfall from the very top and then climbed down to the bottom. Christie swam just close enough to the falls to feel the spritz but away from the danger zone.
Kinchaan waterfall (2,000 riel) was equally astonishing with a creaky wooden suspension bridge spanning the entire width of the waterfall. We scurried across the bridge and down the hill for a closer look at the three separate waterfall streams.
“Eco-tourism” is a big attraction for Ratanakiri, although there is mystery around deforestation vs. protected habitat and wildlife. There is a whole vibe about “finding the right tour guide”, where to go, how long, what village etc. Everyone is trying to figure it out the right logistics and at the same time find a good group to trek with. Trek tours are expensive at $20-40/day pax depending on group size and tour company. We initially wanted to trek into Virachey National Park which is advertised as eco-friendly untouched forest and jungle. It was important for us to find a fun group, as well as latch onto an indigenous local ranger and English speaking guide.
Virachey National Park
We immediately headed to Virachey National Park Headquarters since you can only legally enter Viarachey with the government-run Cambodian Department of Tourism. No private guides may enter Virachey without receiving a three month prison sentence for trespassing. As we went through the tour program at the headquarters, our skepticism grew. The only trekking options appeared to be at the very border with a homestay just outside the park. There weren’t any guarantees of seeing wildlife or many villagers within the park. In general, the ranger didn’t make us feel excited about the trek and our questions were continually diverted. Since we’d be paying so much money (3 days/2 nights $110/person) we wanted to ensure that a portion of the money would be reinvested into the local village and park conservation. The ranger and his wife were extremely shady about where the money goes. One interesting thing was that $60 went to a very short boat ride between Banlung and a village. We wondered if it was a government run boat.
Logging destroys the Cambodian forestry
Our overall assessment is that the government is destroying the national forest by illegally logging or selling the land to big business loggers. They do not allow anyone into the park without their supervision and those that enter are confined to a small section of the park. No one has fully explored Virachey or knows what lies beyond the boundaries of the national park. Our theory was reaffirmed throughout our stay in Cambodia.
We left Virachey headquarters disgusted and unenthused about trekking. But we continued our search for other trekking opportunities around Ratanakiri. We visited a few other tour companies and emailed a few local guides recommended in Lonely Planet and our hotel. No one responded to our emails but we found valuable information at Dutch Co. and Backpacker Pad. Dutch Co. is a well organized company focusing 100% of its resources on eco-tourism. They immediately confirmed our suspicions about Virachey and the Cambodian government. Our hesitance with Dutch Co. was lack of excitement in the itinerary, no guarantee of seeing village life, a higher daily rate and no other travelers around to form a group. We weren’t confident our planned trekking excursion would come to life in Cambodia.
Organizing our Ratanakiri Trek
The following day (after a nice run around the lake), we stopped at “Backpacker Pad” for a Khmer lunch. We met the owner Sophat and his family. He spoke extremely good English and once he discovered we were from San Francisco he wanted us to help build his website. We thought it would be a fun small project so he picked us up later that night for dinner. While chatting about his online presence and business, we met a group of travelers who were planning a 2 day/1 night trek with Sophat’s tour company. At this point we just wanted to at least visit the jungle so we asked to join their group. We met a nice couple from Cape Town, South Africa (Andrew & Melissa) at our hotel who were interested in trekking, so they decided to join the group too.
The next day after visiting the waterfalls, we went to Backpacker Pad to finalize our trek plans. The original group had split up and eventually all bailed out of the trek…. leaving the four of us as a group. We brought Andrew & Melissa to the Pad to discuss the trekking logistics with Sophat. While there, four girls were interested in joining the trek. After hearing the itinerary we all decided on the 3 day/2 night trek, as you get to experience more of the jungle, including an overnight stay in a local village. We finally had a great group of eight people headed on an interesting trek with an indigenous ranger and English speaking guide. Hammocks, blankets, water and food would all be provided for us along with a porter to carry everything. We packed our bare essentials and got a good night sleep. The following morning, Melissa knocked on our hotel room door. Andrew was feeling ill and they thought it would be best to forego the trek in favor of rest and relaxation. We were disappointed, but understood the potential risks involved given the seclusion of the forest. Read about our 3 day jungle trek in Ratanakiri here.
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Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia