Ratanakiri is definitely one of the more “out there” destinations in Cambodia. The province’s name is derived from two Sanskrit words: Ratna which stands for gems and Giri which stands for mountains, items much in demand and the cause of much demise. Located in the far northeast of the Kingdom, the province is an adventure to get to but definitely worth the effort. From Ratanakiri, you are within striking distance of Vietnam, Laos and some of the other more adventurous parts of Cambodia. It is also one of the few places you can see tribal villages.
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Ratanakiri | Frontier Province
Banlung or Lumphat
Banlung is the provincial capital, but it used to be Lumphat. The reason for that depends on who you talk to; read on to find out why. As ever in Cambodia there is always an interesting story to unfold.
Phnom Penh to Ratanakiri | A Bumpy Journey
Many buses head to the provincial capital of Banlung. However, it is a bone-rattling 13-hour ride on some of Cambodia’s worst roads. If you are thinking about a visit, you might consider breaking up the journey with stops in the picturesque town of Kratie (pronounced Kra-chay) and Stung Treng. While both towns are situated on the Mekong, Stung Treng is at the confluence of the Mekong and Sesan rivers. There is a ferry that crosses the Mekong at Stung Treng, but there is also a bridge, both of which link to Preah Vihear Province on the other side of the Mekong.
There are the mini-buses that plough the Phnom Penh-Banlung road. However, be prepared to be squeezed into a bus with 30 people, baggage, and farm animals. There is also another way, but I will mention that later.
If you decide to complete the journey in one go then you will have to start early and the journey finishes in the evening. However, don’t worry, you will be greeted in Banlung by hotel touts and Tuk Tuk drivers who will get you to a hotel. The hotels around the lake in the centre of town are perfect. You should also organise your own motorcycle as it makes it much easier getting around to all the different places.
What makes these hotels fantastic is breakfast. Nothing quite like looking out over a lake while sitting in a restaurant eating fruit and warm baguettes and drinking brewed coffee.
Banlung is a smallish place. It seems to serve more like a truck stop on the Vietnam-Cambodia transport route. Nonetheless, it is pleasant to cruise around the town taking in the ambience. However, most of what is on offer is outside the town.
Waterfalls and Ghosts
One of the first places you might like to drift to is Boeng Yeak Loam, or Yak Lom Lake. This is about five kilometres to the south of town. You can walk there, but a bicycle is a good alternative. Once you get there, grab one of the lakeside decks and enjoy a dip in the cool water. The lake is set in the jungle, and it is possible to use walking trails to wander through its cool shade. But beware of a spirit that is said to live in the lake.
In fact, water is a big feature of the province. There are many waterfalls that can be visited. It would be best to grab a motorcycle to see these places. Many of the waterfalls are great places for swimming. Your hotel should be able to tell you how to get to any waterfall, and some hotels even have a map. Some waterfalls to visit include Ka Chanh Waterfall, which is about six kilometres southeast of Ban Lung; Ka Tieng Waterfall, which is about an hour out of town; Cha Ong Waterfall, which is about two kilometres west of town; and Ou Sensranoh Waterfall, which is situated nine kilometres south of town. Just make sure you check with locals if the waterfall is working, as some dry up in the dry season.
Ratanakiri | Heart of Darkness
Ratanakiri Province also has a bit of a nefarious past. Down the road is Lumphat, on the banks of the Srepok river, and it used to be a Khmer Rouge stronghold and provincial capital. The Ho Chi-Minh Trail also ran through the province. As a result, the town and countryside were heavily bombed by the US. There are many bomb craters in the area and some have even become ponds. There are still some buildings in town pockmarked with shrapnel, bullet holes and rocket fire. Unexploded bombs still litter the area, so be careful where you step and keep on the well-beaten track.
It is claimed that the Srepok River was used as the model for the river on which Captain Willard and his jolly crew went to meet their destiny with Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now. Go there and see what you think; if you haven’t seen the movie, we suggest you should.
Veal Run Plan
Another place to consider seeing is Veal Rum Plan, or Stone Field. It is located 14 kilometres north of Banlung. Here, there are stones covering the entire surface of the place. Dense stone outgrowths are around here. This place has an unusual appeal which fascinates visitors. Stone Field is a bizarre space in the forest, covered almost entirely by stone. The area is a circular area of flat stone. It is thought the area is the remains of cooled lava. As with many places in Cambodia, there is a legend associated with the Veal Rum Plan. According to the legend, Veal Rum was a young boy who had a tragic accident here. While trying to retrieve his kite, he fell from a tree onto a black volcanic rock. His spirit lives on, offering a protective blanket to the plateau and surrounding trees.
While this is not a complete list of “what to do” in Ratanakiri, it will certainly whet your appetite for more.
When you leave Ratanakiri and if your plan is to go to Vietnam then you will need to have a visa. It is only about 70 kilometres to the border, and there are different types of transport to get there. If you go to Laos, you can pick up a visa on the border, just take plenty of small denominations of US dollars and some passport-sized photos. The border guards will ask for photos and charge you if you don’t have any. There are also the “taxes” the guards hit you with. Don’t protest, as there are no places to stay on the border.
Now the other to-and-from Ratanakiri route is the recently upgraded road through the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. By going this way, you can also pop into Mondulkiri Province. From Banlung, go to Lumphat and over the bridge that crosses the Srepok River. Then take the road through the rainforest, formally known as the “Highway of Death” – don’t let that scare you – which has been upgraded. But if you choose this way then be quick; the sanctuary is one of Cambodia’s rapidly disappearing forests.