Information on Ratanakiri
updated February 2006
By air - PMT (Progress Multitrade) has several flights a week from Phnom Penh. About $110 return. Don't expect much from the aircraft.
Roads north from Phnom Penh are mostly new and improved and there is bus service all the way to Stung Treng now, but you'll probably want to break the journey in Kratie. Most of the boat services have been discontinued. From Stung Treng it's pick-up truck or share taxi to Banlung.
The border between Laos and Cambodia above Stung Treng is open and if coming from Laos, Cambodia visas are available now on arrival.
For more info see this page: cambodia-overland-laos-reports. Some day the border to Vietnam will be open to everyone, but that's still not the case even though as far back as February 2002 I rode out to it. I stopped at the gate where I was asked for my passport.
I thought that was a rather odd question as I wasn't aware that foreigners
could cross here into Vietnam, thus my passport was back at my hotel in
Banlung. Well, yes, they told me, I could exit, and yes they would give
me an exit stamp. And if I wanted to come back in? Yes, they'd stamp me
in so long as I had a visa in my passport. Would I have to pay any money?
No, no money. This however, does not allow us to assume anything about
the Vietnam side. But if Cambodia will let you out, then perhaps if you
have a Vietnam visa, they'll let you in. Of course, in this remote area
you'd have to prearrange some kind of transportation on both sides of
the border. And four years later they've made no further progress.
The time was everybody stayed at the Mountain Guesthouse. There is also
the Banlung Guesthouse which I know nothing about and the Mountain 2 Guesthouse.
On my most recent trip I stayed at the Ratanak Hotel which is pulling
in a lot of business now. Once ratty and rundown, Mr. Leng fixed it
up a little bit and it is definitely providing the best deal in town.
Mr. Leng speaks good English and has gotten his hands on the best crop
of English-speaking Motodop/guides.
Ten minutes east of Banlung is the Yaklom Hill Lodge.
The newest on the Ratanakiri scene is an
upscale establishment, the Tribal Lodge, opened by Mrs. Kim of Mountain
Guesthouse fame. I don't know much of anything about it, but the word
is that the posted rates start at $35 a night. Also providing more upscale accommodation as well as some excellent knowledge of the surrounding area is Terres Rouges.
In Banlung you must experience the American Restaurant. After that national
institution, to the east of the main market are a series of Vietnamese-style
noodle shops. The Ratanak Hotel has a restaurant, nothing special, but
adequate. Mountain Guesthouse has a restaurant, but when I last stayed
there in October 2000, the menu consisted of Mrs. Kim asking me "what
do you want?" Well, Mrs. Kim, since you asked, do you think you can
manage a fresh bucket of steamed Alaskan King Crab legs? The larger towns
(Bokeo, Voen Sai, etc.) have nondescript restaurants serving rice and
noodles. At the smaller towns like Ta Veng you can at least find some
noodles, just be sure the water is thoroughly boiled.
This is not a particularly clean or healthy area. This is one place I'd
recommend a cholera shot (or pill) for. Typhoid is also a problem and
there is malaria as well. Given the prevalence of cholera, think about
what you're putting in your mouth before you put it there.
Getting around the province
Best way is by motorbike. Rent one. You can self-drive or hire a guide
to drive you. Why hire a guide? Two reasons. Number one, it's really easy
to get lost, especially looking for some of the waterfalls and you'll
never find the gem mining village on your own. And two, if you'd like
to visit some villages ask yourself how you're going to communicate. Nobody
speaks English, some villagers hardly speak Khmer. The guides provided
for me by the Mountain Guesthouse during my 1999 and 2000 stays were rather
useless, but the Ratanak Hotel has some good ones. Also, you can hire
a guide and still ride your own motorbike. As some of the trips are quite
long, if you're comfortable on a moto, you might prefer driving yourself
and just riding alongside your guide. 110cc Honda Dream-type bikes are
readily available for rent for $5 a day and Mr. Leng at the Ratanak Hotel
can usually locate a 250cc for $10 a day if you prefer a larger bike.
The roads in Banlung are rough but not impassable, at least in the dry
season. I have seen and ridden on worse in other provinces. But be prepared
for a lot of red dust. And I do mean A LOT. You will get absolutely filthy
in the dry season.
Boat trips along the rivers (Srepok and
Sresan) are possible but can be expensive and time consuming if you want
to travel a long distance. Money will buy you pretty much any trip you
want, but the Srepok can be a bit dicey, especially in the dry season,
as there are a lot of rocks and rapids as one gets closer to Stung Treng.
Internet and communications
As of February 2002, a single shop in Banlung near the market was offering
internet and e-mail service. When I went in, the staff consisted of only
one teenage boy who spoke virtually zero English and was content just
to shrug his shoulders and say "no have" to whatever I asked.
Mr. Leng of the Ratanak told me that when the connection worked it was
very slow. He is planning to put a few computers of his own into his hotel
and offer internet service soon.
Mobile telephones work in Banlung but nowhere
else in the province.
Four years later I expect the internet situation has improved a bit...
I don't normally pontificate about photography, but I'd like to offer
a few words about taking photographs of people in Ratanakiri. The people
in this province are very shy. A majority of the people don't want their
photograph taken under any circumstance. Zero. None. Nothing. Not at all.
For every person you see photographed in this section, no less than ten
people refused to be photographed. And for those that did allow photography,
in many cases it was preceded by considerable time spent warming up to
these villagers. I did not simply pull up on a motorbike and start clicking
away. Far from it. So please, if you want to get some close-up photographs
of people - ask permission but expect to be rejected about 90% of the
time. Please respect the locals' wishes. You may also be met with demands
for small amounts of money in exchange for photographs. Obviously, many
before you have already done so or they wouldn't be asking. Should you
pay? It's a personal decision. Generally speaking I'm against giving money
in exchange for photographs, but I'd be a liar and a fool if I told you
I've never done it. If you do want to photograph people, it is almost
imperative that you have a guide/translator with you. Visit a village,
hang around, make conversation, then take photographs.
On my latest trip, I did notice that in
the larger villages and in Banlung the shyness of some of the residents
has eased a bit due to the recent dramatic increase in tourism and in
some of the more frequently visited villages you may find villagers approaching
you with, "money, photo" requests.
Marcel Stoessel's 90
Days in Cambodia account includes an interesting trip to Ratanakiri.
Institute of Human Rights provides some details on the present condition
of hill tribes in Ratanakiri.
BGreen has some photos from Ratanakiri
on his Cambodian
Vacation web site.
Some general background and tourist info
I honestly don't know whose web site this
is but it's an informative enough story
anyway which I think originated with the Ministry of Tourism. This same
story also appears at GoCambodia.
What a road can do - an Asia
Times report on the effects of building a road to an isolated village.
Numerous tour operators offer excursions
to Ratanakiri. I'm not going to plug any of them, but a web search of
either "Ratanakiri" or "Rattanakiri" should locate
most of them.
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