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.