Ratanakiri (or Ratanak Kiri) known as the “Mountain of Jewels” for all the gemstones dug out of the ground, is arguably Cambodia's most isolated and lawless province, tucked away on the borders with Laos and Vietnam. Sure there are other places that fit one or other of those descriptors like; Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey to the north on the border with Thailand, where little happens aside from the odd border dispute with the much larger Thailand over a hilltop temple, but Cambodia's northeasterly most province is in a league of its own.
It should be rich, you know like the Democratic Republic of Congo, with gems and tropical timber worth a fortune, but war, corruption, murder, smuggling, slavery, ineptitude and weak governance puts a stop to all that.
The province, one of the country’s largest by area, certainly has a reputation for some less than savoury actions. Recently the controversial governor of the province’s prison, an officer embroiled in an inmate sex scandal and accused of culpability in the escape of five other inmates was promoted, to the chagrin of some and the surprise of nobody.
Banlung is the provincial capital and about as far from Phnom Penh as you can get and still be in Cambodia, just 500kms by some routes. There’s an airport no one uses, save for a few aid flights. The roads have improved slightly, and so has the transport. Further road transport improvements are now courtesy of China Aid; a sign of the times. A journey that used to take 11 or so hours can now be done in under eight, though this may come with some cost. Tickets prices are cheap, about $12, though curiously some passengers don’t pay until the destination and then claim poverty.
Cambodia has seen an influx of minivans. The result is tired, often overworked drivers in new vans doing higher speeds on roads built for Third World traffic. Expect a spike in reported road deaths in the near future. At one point I considered getting out of my transport, a late-model Ford Transit with turbo-intercooler, given the speeds at which the driver insisted on maintaining despite lumbering truck traffic and grazing, wandering livestock. Rain and the onset of nightfall failed to curb his lust for pedal to the metal.
Laws in the province are often poorly enforced, or completely ignored. Despite there being a ban in place on timber exports to save Cambodia's forests, much of what’s left of them being in Ratanakiri, Vietnam imported $142 million worth of timber from Cambodia, much of it already processed wood, in just six months in 2017. According to Vietnamese custom’s data, some 35,000 cubic metres crossed the border in June this year alone. The ban had been imposed early in 2016 in a tacit admission that much of the timber leaving Cambodia for Vietnam was being logged and shipped out illegally.
Often this occurs with connivance with Cambodian authorities. Last December, reporters from the English-language Cambodia Daily found a military border unit in the area buying luxury grade logs from locals and selling it to visitors from Vietnam.
In Mondulkiri province, to the south of Ratanakiri and which also borders Vietnam, 11 top officials have been caught up in a government investigation into allegations that local authorities were taking bribes to let Vietnamese loggers smuggle timber through official checkpoints.
Ratanakiri is bordered by the Annamite Range which divides coastal Vietnam from the Mekong Basin, and which as they reach almost 3,000m, can be called a mountain range. The Annamite Cordillera and other names contains several plateaux crosses three countries; Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and comes from the Chinese An-Nam, meaning to “pacify the south” if those countries ever needed reminding of Chinese want for invasion.
The local hill tribes people, the majority of the population, have barely been left unmolested going back to the times of the mighty Khmer Empire. Exploited as slaves by neighboring empires a practice only ceased with French colonial intervention, one of their few progressive contributions. The area saw the genesis of the Khmer Rouge with whom some locals forged a collaboration for a time. Huge internal displacement occurred during the American War due to the massive bombing campaign wrought by the US Air Force – you can see the effect of this on a large map in the Café Alee, one of the best eateries I’ve visited.
Prince Sihanouk may be considered in a favourable light by lowland Khmers but his brutal crackdown on the highland region in the late 1960s included the use of tanks and soldiers. Some Khmer Leou, mainly the Brau peoples, forged alliances with the Viet Minh during this period, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ with the result apparently, that many now bear the surname Ho, after Ho Chi Minh.
Banlung’s market place, Phsar Banlung, is a bustling hive of activity. There’s an outdoor section, an area for motorbike parking, and the large covered indoor section lined with vendors selling everything from gold and gemstones, to school books, replica football kits, food, and the assorted paraphernalia for Buddhist worship. The latter includes a range of yellow candles for sale for donation to monks. The largest of which fetches upwards of $50 and are the size of artillery shells. One gold merchant was so adorned with his product he had enough bling to rival a West Coast rapper.
One shop near the market sold bass woofers and other assorted speakers powerful enough to fire up in any karaoke bar or shake the chassis of any vehicle. For our listening pleasure, and everyone else’s, we were treated to Charlie Rich, ‘Behind Closed Doors’ the full English version; a song considered too bluesy for country, and too country for much else.
As tourist numbers slowly increase so do the number of eco-tourism ventures. The Tree Top Lodge near the main town was worthy of the name. At the open air restaurant the owners reported last year’s visitor numbers so good they built more bungalows; only to suffer the vagaries of the tourist market and numbers drop well off this year. Some of the bungalows were not yet finished and there were only two other guests, a couple from California, who rather surprisingly, were visiting just Ratanakiri and its southern neighbour, being keen on walking. They both had that wonderful curiosity Americans have, matched only by inward looking ignorance and, in some cases, a Reader’s Digest mentality. He was an engineer designing nuclear reactors he told me, “though without the nuclear part”. It was all to run on hydrogen or helium. From his morning coffee he was viewing the computers in his California lab on his laptop in “almost” real time. A million miles from Banlung as they would say.
Tree Top’s popularity wasn’t helped by the crew of builders next door, with a penchant for heavy metal music, usually in Khmer, and always very loud. The owner explained that they had asked them to turn them music down as some guests complained and others up and left, but so far the builders keep on banging.
There are a few things to do in Banlung, best done by hiring a motorbike, or step-through scooter. Usually these are automatic but if you can’t ride a manual you can soon learn. “Mister Tree” offered his manual for $6 but said he would need it back that night. Usually bike rentals are 24-hour but our main man insisted on charging for another day come breakfast – a bit of a rip-off.
Just outside Banlung about 5kms off the main road is Yeak Loam, Cambodia's only volcanic lake. Visitors don’t get to see it from the air but if you ever did it’s about as perfectly round as 4000 year-old nature can get. Foreigners pay at the car park a small entrance fee. Like many a volcanic crater it’s deep, almost 50m. Locals use it as a swimming hole and as not many Cambodians can swim the local authorities have provided lifejackets. The idyllic, forest-ringed spot was a favourite of Norodom Sihanouk who maintained a villa there, which the Khmer Rouge, not being on the best of terms with royalty, razed to the ground. The town has other natural attractions such as another lake in town and waterfalls, about 20kms away over a dirt road so it’s up to you if you wish to try out a rental road bike on off-road conditions. Like many such natural attractions in Asia, the locals have turned them into a cottage industry with stalls, and charges for viewing what nature has provided for free.
The original capital of Ratanakiri was Lumphat, about an hour from town and on the road to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri. Lumphat was obliterated by the USA and the capital was moved to its new location. Old Lumphat’s main feature is a roundabout—which must have been made of sturdier materials than pretty much everything else, as the bombing failed to level it.
The Mines Advisory Group or MAG, has carefully colour-coded US attempts to bomb Ratanakiri to oblivion through GIS mapping at the aforementioned Café Alee, which makes for sobering viewing and is best studied after eating. Aid missions are thick on the ground in the province. One North American from Watercare was having lunch with two Khmer colleagues and was obviously new to the country. “Which part of Cambodia is Kampuchea?” he asked. “All of it” they said, “oh right” he replied “gothcha”.
From Ratanakiri you can cross into Vietnam en route to the city of Pleiku, though you’ll need a visa issued first in Phnom Penh, and you may have to queue and wait with all that smuggled timber. Or north into Laos, provided the Cambodians and Laotians aren’t in any dispute about road building near the border. From Cambodia Laos is about the only country you officially have to bribe your way into, provided the local authorities can raise enough interest to collect your dollar, riel, or the appropriately named local currency, the kip. Laos has a deserved reputation as pretty laid back, which gives them something in common with Ratanakiri.
You should visit Ratanakiri before tourism ruins it and the forests are levelled, though by merely visiting you’re probably contributing to both.