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Ratanakiri

First visit: October 15-18, 1999

The flight to the provincial capital of Banlung, a very sedate village in its own right, was on a 17-seat prop (this was on Royal Air Cambodge which no longer flies to Banlung - or much of anywhere else for that matter). It didnít take long to realize that I was someplace different. Upon alighting on Banlungís dirt airstrip my first impression was of the airport Ďterminal' - Iíve seen houses inhabited by people of modest means larger than this building. Leaving the airport, I passed about twenty locals gathered under a tree. One of them had lassoed a two-foot long lizard and they were trying to figure out how to get the reptile down, leaving me to wonder what they planned to do with it if and when they managed to get it down.

I settled into the Mountain Guesthouse, a large wooden house within walking distance of the airport. Actually, almost everything in Banlung is within walking distance of the airport. Not wanting to spend four days trying to pantomime accurate directions from villagers in their own state of shock from the sight of a lone westerner stumbling into their village, I asked about getting a guide to drive me around the province and help me annoy shy hill tribes. The young man running the guesthouse offered his younger brother as a suitable guide. "Suitable for what?" soon became a recurring question in my head. He did not speak much English and didnít want to anyway. By the third day, he didnít want to do much of anything but sit home and watch satellite TV. As I experienced again on my return to the province in October 2000, a lack of quality guides seems to be a Ratanakiri problem - there's a real business opportunity here for someone. On my third visit in February 2002 I found that this problem has in fact appeared to have been solved - but not by the Mountain Guesthouse.

The first excursion was a thirty-kilometer ride south to the village of Lumphat. This, for me, was a must-see destination, for this area was supposedly the inspiration for "Apocalypse Now". The road to Lumphat is in fairly good shape and passes few signs of human habitation, passing mostly through old-growth hardwood forests with the occasional hut along the way. Once in Lumphat it took me a moment to realize I was in the village as this former provincial capital has all but been abandoned. A few houses, a pagoda, and a market with little to offer, are all that remain. However, for those wishing to relive the search for Kurtz, it's possible to find somebody with a raft or small boat willing to take you along the river for an hour or two in exchange for a few dollars, an opportunity I passed up. I did meet a few locals, one of whom, a man about my age spoke limited English and Thai. He was quite friendly but keeping in mind cholera epidemics, I declined his offer for even a glass of water.

It was soon evident that I wasnít apt to find any parallels to "Apocalypse Now" or Conradís "Heart of Darkness". There was nothing to inspire utterances of "the horror, the horror" (except maybe to drink the water). Instead, there was only the wide, lazy river. There were no tribespeople in face paint running along the riverís edge; just four monks relaxing in a gazebo overlooking the river and two giddy teenage girls, waving and giggling at me as they walked past.

I returned to the Banlung area, stopping along the way at the first of three waterfalls I would visit. Ka Chhoung (Ka Tieng) is the easiest to reach and has the additional bonus of providing a set of stairs to reach the bottom. Itís a short wide fall, which, it being October and the end of the rainy season, was at full flow.

After the waterfall, I came upon a small village with some particularly outgoing children who mugged it up for the camera and otherwise exhibited nothing tribal whatsoever. But these children aside, I was beginning to notice that the overall character of the villagers was considerably different from that of the rest of the country. Iíve always been drawn to the outgoing warmth of Cambodians, especially in rural areas, but here in Ratanakiri, people are quite shy. However, their shyness excludes staring warily at the odd foreigner they chance upon - something Iím more accustomed to in China than in Cambodia. But this should be no surprise, really, as when I visited Ratanakiri there probably werenít ten foreigners in the entire province.

Outside Banlung at both the eastern and western approaches to town are rather large curious statues depicting some ethnic minority. The one to the west is apparently a woman carrying some produce to market, but in silhouette all it really looks like is a woman with a chicken on her head.

The quest for decent food brought me to a long-standing Ratanakiri institution. Near my guesthouse, the Ratanakiri Restaurant more commonly known as the American Restaurant offers a peculiar assortment of basic Khmer dishes and adaptations of western items. I have absolutely no idea where they learned to make a hamburger, but no health problems resulted from it, although the taste was, well, indescribable, and Iím not entirely convinced it was even a hamburger (water buffalo?). The restaurant is popular with the handful of NGO workers in the province, a combination of health care and agricultural consultants. The restaurant is across the street from the gas station nearest the Mountain Guesthouse, not to be confused with the *loud* karaoke place that is also across the street from the gas station on the opposite corner. If you wander into the restaurant and don't see anyone, quite likely at certain hours, just poke around until you find someone.

I began the next morning with the short walk to the center of Banlung. The image of a young boy grazing his cows in the central market square sums up the general character of the town. The heart of Banlung is about two blocks by two blocks with a large covered marketplace at one end. Outside the marketplace is an outdoor market, which is quite lively early in the morning.

Many of the villagers in the market walked great distances to get there, carrying their produce over their backs in khapas. These are straw baskets of various sizes, usually woven from bamboo and with straps made from rattan. The most ubiquitous of the local handicrafts, they are used to carry vegetables, grains, and small tools.

The dress of the villagers is quite ordinary, the colorful dress and exquisite handicrafts that characterize some of the minority groups in neighboring countries are noticeably absent, but perhaps itís worth mentioning that Ė sometimes Ė that colorful dress is nothing but a put-on for the tourists. But no matter what the dress, the more remote villages of Ratanakiri possess a refreshingly non-commercial feel, where women still walk topless, tobacco pipes dangling from their mouths. Tobacco is popular here, both men and women smoke pipes or rolled tobacco leaves and itís not uncommon to see girls as young as ten years old partaking in the habit.

Mid-morning I headed to another village, Voen Sai, about thirty-five kilometers to the north of Banlung on a very good road. There are actually several villages here. Voen Sai, the largest, sits on the south side of the Tonle San River. On the opposite side of this river are several smaller ethnic villages. Small boats ferry passengers back and forth for 200 riels. The view along the way to Voen Sai is a combination of ethnic villages, fields, and thick forest. I often passed groups of villagers walking the long distance to or from Banlung, no longer surprised to see young girls smoking rolled tobacco leaves as they made their way home.

In the middle of Voen Sai's main road (okay, Voen Sai's only road), sat an old bus, about fifty years old, give or take a decade. I was convinced it hadnít moved in years, existing for no other purpose but to offer a shaded place to sit and pass the hours. I made the assumption that the two or three people inside were doing just that. Two hours later, as I was returning to Banlung, the very same bus, proving to be quite capable of mobility, and loaded down with passengers, rumbled by. As it turns out, this iron-age relic makes daily runs between the two villages, providing Ratanakiri with its only form of public transport.

Just south of town is one of the headquarters for Virochey National Park, established to provide an area protected from the ever-encroaching logging industry that is rapidly deforesting the province, and also to provide a refuge for the provinceís rare species, most notably, the tiger. Though I saw no tigers that day, a picturesque lake next to the park headquarters provided some cool comfort for several resident water buffalo. There is also murmurings about the existence of the often-discussed yet rarely (?) seen jungle cow, the kouprey. If you find one, send me a photo. 

There is a park headquarters building, but when I stopped in it was completely deserted except for one young woman standing around outside whose business there I could not determine. Along the walls of the building are photographs of the flora and fauna and various things to read which are all in Khmer.

On the way back to Banlung I stopped at the small village of Karlai where a group of children were assembled around a well. At first they seemed rather shy by my presence, but a few smiles soon warmed them up and several proved to be excellent photographic subjects.

The photograph on the left has since been published twice - as the front cover of the October 2000 issue of Bayon Pearnik and as part of a story on Ratanakiri I wrote for the February 2000 issue of Traveller: Southeast Asia. Continue reading to the "Second Visit" section for more on these girls.

Perhaps Banlungís biggest natural attraction is Yeak Laom volcanic lake. Located a few kilometers southeast of Banlung, itís an almost circular lake about 700,000 years old, 800 meters in diameter, and 50 meters deep. There is a small dock on the side nearest the main entrance off of which some local kids were diving. A trail of about three kilometers in length circles the perimeter of the lake, which I would suggest walking only half of.

Starting from the dock, I walked counter clockwise, hiking a wide, well-trodden path. Occasional breaks in the foliage yielded picturesque views across the lake. About a quarter of the way around I stumbled into the Cultural and Environmental Centre of Yeak Laom Lake.

Inside the center are many examples of local crafts (blankets, scarves, pipes, musical instruments, baskets, cowbells). The center also provides additional photographs and bits of information on the region - in English! The photographic display is rounded out by an image of Hun Sen visiting the province. One curious item on the wall is a 1973 map of the province courtesy the United States Defense Mapping Agency. Gee, three guesses what that was used for!

I continued along the trail in the same direction. Several simple lean-tos constructed along the waterís edge may have once provided a shaded place to sit and enjoy the serenity of the lake, but they now appear a bit unstable for safe occupancy. About halfway around the lake I began to tire of the spider webs and the occasional crab-walks necessary to make my way under the numerous bamboo shoots. At this point I should have turned around. The second half only got worse. I spent most of my time doing the bamboo limbo, peeling spider webs from my face, and watching for sticks that might in fact prove to be anything but a stick, and confirm that point with a set of fangs sunk into my calf.

Walk finished, it was off to another waterfall. To the northwest of Banlung is Chaa Ong, as interesting to find as to see. Even my guide got lost as we wound our way up and down steep roads that seemed poised to turn into a mudslide with the next rainstorm.

Along the way we passed several minute villages and inadvertently rode through the heart of a magnificent rubber plantation. Though Ratanakiri has no shortage of rubber plantations, this was the largest one I saw. It has the further bonus of having several roads cut through it and farmers were working throughout, tapping the trees for their rubber, filling large plastic jugs with the gooey white liquid. Had we properly found the waterfall, much of this majestic forest would have been missed. Sometimes a bad guide is a good thing.

Once out of the rubber plantation and back on the hunt for Chaa Ong, we traveled several kilometers along a narrow path, passing the occasional hut and small farm until the path came to an end. We parked the motorbike and walked through some brush towards the sound of the waterfall, coming out near a raging torrent of water cascading some 20 meters or so downward. Itís a steep, slippery walk to the bottom but once there, itís also possible to walk under a rock overhang behind the waterfall.

The last stop for the day was to Phnom Svay, a hill just west of Banlung and home to a large reclining Buddha. This location provides expansive views across the countryside to the distant mountains that mark the Laos-Cambodia border. At the bottom of the hill is an active Buddhist temple occupied by a number of monks who didnít seem to have much to do, and thus poking fun at the rare foreigner on their temple grounds seemed as good of an activity as any.

The following day began with a ride east about thirty kilometers on a bad road to the gem mining town of Bokeo. This village is a mixture of Khmer, Vietnamese, and local hill tribes. There is a guesthouse in the village, an unremarkable wooden house bearing a sign that reads "Guesthouse", but it doesnít appear to do much business. In the village market uncut gems are available for a few dollars, a real bargain if you know what youíre buying - I donít, so I didnít.

I asked about visiting one of the mines and was told by my guide that it canít be done. It would involve bushwhacking several kilometers through thick jungle only to arrive somewhere that I might not be overly welcome. As I found out later, this was a complete lie. The mines can be visited. My guide/driver who was already losing favor with me for his laziness told me this, I assume, for no other reason but to avoid having to walk through the jungle to see the mines.

Around the province are a number of roads that look like they might belong to a logging operation. These unfortunately mark the existence of numerous logging operations working throughout the province, not all of which are legit. However, since that first visit, there has been some easing of the rapid deforestation in Ratanakiri. Still, if it looks like a logging road, stay off it, as the workers arenít in the business of showing tourists around.

The road itself to Bokeo produced its own adventures. In terrible condition at the time, I frequently had to jump off the bike and carefully find my way around deep mud puddles. The occasional 4WD vehicle passed by, but as with most roads in Ratanakiri, solitude was the order of the day. Company often comes solely in the form of small groups of villagers taking a break by the side of the road. This can actually be comforting to know should you be out alone and have a motorbike breakdown. While perhaps not being able to fix your bike, the villagers could at least reassure you in their own hill tribe language that your bike is indeed broken and you will have to take it somewhere to be fixed.

After lunch I visited Ratanakiriís third waterfall, Kinchaan. Kinchaan requires a bit of effort to reach. Itís accessed by a road that may, with a little luck, be found without a guide. The road passes several minority villages and then continues on a little longer before terminating at a stream. The road actually continues beyond the stream but with the water level high, for motorbike drivers, itís over.

Having no other choice, I rolled up my pants (though not far enough), held my camera and bag high above my head and waded through, watching as the water rose with each step, eventually stopping midway between my knees and waist. Once across, a right turn along a narrow, soggy trail brought me to the top of the waterfall. If thereís a safe way to the bottom I couldnít find it, but carefully stepping to the edge of the waterfall, I looked straight down about 15 meters.

On the return from Kinchaan, I stopped at one of the villages; one that I would guess had been hard-hit by the cholera epidemic earlier this year. There was an elderly woman, a young woman and a young man (relationship undetermined), four children from a young baby to about ten years old, and two water buffalo. Judging by the overgrowth around much of the village, a number of the huts appeared not to have had residents in some time. When I arrived, the elderly woman made a hasty disappearance, but the two younger adults were friendly and seemed not to mind my poking around or photographing them. The woman embodied a fairly common sight - topless (except when I raised my camera), smoking a tobacco pipe, and carrying a baby on her hip, supported by a krama.

I rode around Banlung a bit more in the afternoon. They have a hospital - a dilapidated building on the edge of town near a lake. I stopped at the lake where several boys were fishing. One boy caught a small fish, seemingly too small to do anything with, but he proceeded to run the fish through a stringer that he made from a blade of grass, clearly intending to make that fish a part of his evening meal.

The following morning I returned to the Banlung market. Just when I arrived, a man collapsed, haying some kind of seizure that seemed moderately serious. Several men came to help, permitting me to see local emergency medicine at work. They began by pounding on his back and neck, while twisting his neck and shoulders around (an exorcism?) until a van took him away, presumably for more medical attention - of what nature I do not know. Having seen the provincial hospital I'm not sure I want to know.

I finished the morning off by exploring a few of the other streets of Banlung, there are only about six or eight of them. Emerging from a house were five young women counting a fairly hefty sum of US dollars. Upon seeing the lone western male they quite readily suggested that I add my wad to theirs.

And with that last reality check, I soon boarded the small prop airplane with all of three other passengers and returned to Phnom Penh.

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continue to Second Visit

continue to Third Visit

continue to Practical Information on Ratanakiri

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