Surrounded by unspoilt forest, the clear turquoise waters of Yeak Laom lake (daily dawn–dusk; 4000 riel), 800m across and up to 50m deep, are warm and inviting. There are wooden platforms for bathing, and the three-kilometre track around the lake perimeter makes for a tranquil little hike. The setting is mesmerizing: stands of bamboo rim the lake, lush ferns sprout from fallen trees, the reflections of clouds skim across the lake’s surface, and in the late afternoon an ethereal mist can be seen rising off the water. It’s no wonder that visitors often make several return trips.
The area is regarded as sacred by the Tampoun, who manage it for the benefit of their community, and chunchiet culture is showcased at the Cultural and Environment Centre, 300m anticlockwise round the lake from the entrance steps, which has different styles of khapa, textiles, ceramics and other everyday paraphernalia (although unfortunately the room is dimly lit). The small craft stall next door sells locally produced textiles, the money from sales going directly to the community.
To reach Yeak Laom, head east out of Banlung, turn south east at the Hill Tribe Monument; dropping down the hill you reach the lake after 1.5km. The round trip by moto costs around $5, including waiting time. Watch out for your stuff – there have been thefts from bags left on the bank while visitors are swimming.
If gardens are your thing, Thida Phnom Resort (1000 riel) is a formal garden set on the hillside just northeast of Yeak Laom lake – after the rains the hill is afire with blossom. A couple of lame, and fairly tame, Sarus cranes wander in and out of the shrubs and hedges, while chunchiet women do their weaving near-by; in a shed near the ticket booth an enormous tree root has been intricately carved with images of birds and beasts of the forest. To reach the gardens, which purport to be the biggest (and possibly only) in Cambodia, turn east just before entering Yeak Laom protected area; the turning to the gardens is about 500m up the road.