Bordering Laos and Vietnam in the far northeast corner of Cambodia, the province of Rattanakiri used to abound in lush jungle though these days you’ll have to make a huge effort to see it as it’s mostly been cleared to make way for plantations of rubber and cashew. But it’s still an attractive province, worth the trip for its vistas of misty mountains, meandering rivers and gushing waterfalls. The town of Banlung, located pretty much in the centre of the province, is the only base for exploring the area, and with recent improvements in infrastructure has become a popular tourist destination. There are organized treks into the Virachey National Park, but for visiting sights close to Banlung such as Yeak Laom lake and local waterfalls, it’s easy to rent a motorbike or hire a moto. Three or four days are enough to explore the area, though bear in mind if you’re travelling from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap it’ll take a day to get there and a day to get back, and many find the laidback atmosphere so attractive that they end up hanging around for a week or more. As befits a province whose name means “gemstone mountain”, traditional gem-mining still persists here, a difficult and dangerous activity; miners drag soil to the surface from deep holes where it is painstakingly sifted for the gems you see in every Cambodian market.
One of the attractions closest to Banlung is Yeak Laom, a magical lake set in the crater of an extinct volcano, fringed with bamboo thickets and jungle. The northern part of the province is covered by the largest protected area in Cambodia, Virachey National Park, within which many endangered species are thought to shelter. Access to the park is difficult unless you go with an organized tour, which you’ll need to do to see any genuine jungle. On a day-trip from Banlung to Voen Sai, a small town on the edge of the park, it’s possible to visit nearby Chinese, Lao and chunchiet villages. The journey from Banlung south to Lumphat is very different, the countryside consisting of rice fields, tiny streams and scrubby forest. Around here traditional gem-mining still persists.Read More
The small town of BANLUNG sprang to prominence in 1979, when it was chosen as the new provincial capital, replacing Voen Sai. Set out along wide red-dirt roads, it’s reminiscent of a Wild West town in both looks and atmosphere, and although there are no particular sights of interest in town, you could enjoyably base yourself here for a few days while exploring the area and perhaps going on trek.
The town’s market is a modern concrete building on a rubbish-strewn patch of land south of the Independence Monument. It is most colourful in the early morning, when the chunchiet women walk many kilometres to town, khapa laden with produce, to set up shop on the surrounding land. Chatting among themselves while customers gather round, the women puff on bamboo pipes or large cigars made from tobacco rolled up in leaves. The fruit and vegetables they display neatly on the ground are cheap (strangely, you’ll be charged substantially more to buy the same items in chunchiet villages) and often include varieties you don’t find in the lowlands, such as big red bananas. Here you can also check out the forest food that they collect: strange-looking flowers and roots are sold for a few hundred riel.
North of the centre, the tranquil lake of Boeung Kansaing is a nice spot in the late afternoon when the sun sets over the hill behind it; it’s quite accessible now thanks to a new paved walkway around the edge. There are also good views, especially at sunrise and sunset, from Phnom Svay, where you’ll get panoramic vistas over the rolling countryside. The hill lies about 1km west of the airport crossroads off the Stung Treng road, from where a track runs behind Wat Eisay Patamak up to the hilltop. The wat’s impressive reclining Buddha replaces one destroyed by the Khmer Rouge and faces north towards the misty hills of Voen Sai.
- Around Banlung
Gem mining in Rattanakiri
Gem mining in Rattanakiri
Gem mining is primitive and dangerous; miners dig a circular hole about a metre in diameter and as deep as 10m, without any internal supports or reinforcement, and with only candles for light. As the miner goes deeper, the earth is hauled to the surface in a wicker basket using a variety of low-tech winches made of bamboo and rope. A series of small steps are dug in the wall so that the miner can climb out. The main gemstone found in the area is semiprecious zircon, which looks like brown glass in its raw state but turns pale blue when heated. Also found in Rattanakiri are yellowish-green peridot, pale purple amethyst, clear quartz and shiny black onyx.
The sites where gems are mined in Rattanakiri province change regularly, so it’s best to check in Banlung before setting out to look for them. Most activity currently centres around Chum Rum Bai Srok, in Bokeo district. There’s not much to see – once you’ve seen one mining pit, you’ve seen them all – but the 35-kilometre trip from Banlung is interesting for the scenery, the awfulness of the track and for the sheer exhilaration of having made it. The gem-mining camp is difficult to find without a guide (around $15–20 per day; ask at your guesthouse) or a good command of Khmer. South of Ka Chhang, the road soon turns into a narrow churned-up track that winds up and down valleys and forks off left and right through encroaching jungle, until it deteriorates into an even narrower rutted path. If it starts to rain, the track can become impassable and visitors have had to spend the night in the site’s blue-tarpaulin-covered shacks.