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Practical Information on Ratanakiri

updated February 2006

Getting there
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.

Border crossings
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.

Staying there
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.

The Cambodian 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 at tourismcambodia.com.

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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