Ratanakiri is Cambodia’s most remote province, wedged into the far north-east of the country between the Laos and Vietnamese borders and left isolated from the rest of the country by bad unsurfaced roads. It’s a beautiful region of thick (though sadly rapidly shrinking) jungle, rivers and waterfalls, and of bright red soil that now – in the dry season – left everything coated in a layer of red dust. It took us a slow, bumpy ten hour bus journey to get there from Phnom Penh, but once there we had a fantastic time exploring some of rural Cambodia.
A short bicycle ride outside Ban Lung, the sleepy provincial capital, is Boeng Yeak Lom, a secluded and perfectly circular bright blue lake set inside an extinct volcanic crater. The area is managed by the local community who’ve thankfully refused to allow any buildings within site of the lake so it remains wonderfully quiet, with the upper slopes of the crater densely covered in trees that run all the way to the water. A handful of wooden piers jut out into the lake, providing easy access to the water and lovely sunbathing spots, and we spent two lovely afternoons going for long swims in the warm and crystal clear water, enjoying the tranquillity of the setting.
Another day we set out by bicycle to explore some of the countryside around town. All the way we followed dusty tracks and so came back happy, tired, and entirely covered in the red dust. We ate a picnic lunch and swam at a secluded pool beneath a pretty waterfall, before going for an elephant ride through the jungle. We sat on a small platform on the elephant’s back while the mahout sat on its neck and signalled which way it should walk by pushing on the backs of its ears (though it seemed that the elephant very much dictated our route!). The elephant itself was just as they appear in cartoons, with wonderful floppy ears, coarse wrinkled skin and amazingly long black eye-lashes, and with its slow gait we were rocked on our platform much like being on a small boat.
For four days we went trekking into the jungle north of Ban Lung. We were accompanied by Sarith, our English speaking guide, Sap, a local Kachok man who knew the forest, and Sap’s 19-year old brother-in-law Sara who was hoping to train to become a guide. (It was slightly unsettling to realise that we were closer in age to Sap, a father of eight and grandfather or two who’d served as a child soldier under the Khmer Rouge, than we were to Sara who seemed so much more of our generation.) All three were unfailingly friendly and good company, and spending a few days with them helped give us a small insight into what life must be life amongst the indigenous minorities in this area of Cambodia.
The trek took us from Sap’s village (itself a couple of hours by road and boat from Ban Lung) first through dry paddy fields and scrubby secondary forest used by villagers for their shifting cultivation and then on into the more beautiful primary forest. The vegetation varied from dense thickets that looked (and sometimes felt) completely impenetrable, to more open areas of large, smooth trunked trees. We walked for about six hours a day, with Sap picking, and at times hacking, a route for us through the vegetation. It was enjoyable but tough going and we quickly became coated in sweat and covered in plant debris and small insects that dropped onto us.
Each night we camped near a river, providing water for cooking and a place for us to swim and wash off the sweat and dirt of the day. Our food was a diet of rice and vegetables supplemented by fish that Sarith and Sara caught, and by various fruit and leaves collected along the way. We were continually impressed by the speed all three of our companions could get a fire going, and by Sap’s skill at fashioning implements from bamboo: a pestel and mortar to prepare food, a pot to cook it in, a rack to grill fish, a spatula to stir food, chopsticks to eat with, as well as playthings like a working toy gun. At night we slept in hammocks, which proved far more comfortable than we’d feared, and from where we could listen to the frogs croaking and other sounds of the jungle and watch the stars and moon above us.
The final night we stayed in Sap’s village. There, as elsewhere in Ratanakiri, all the houses were entirely built of wood set on stilts to protect them from snakes, insects and the wet season rains, as well as providing a shady storage area underneath the house. The village was set in a beautiful clearing surrounded on three sides by jungle and on the fourth by a wide river. That evening we were privileged to be invited to a celebration at the house of one of Sap’s sons, who was shortly going to move back to Sap’s house. We arrived to find about 20 children sitting watching karaoke videos in mesmerised silence – perhaps we wondered, because almost no one in the village spoke or read Khmer and so were unable to read or sing the lyrics. Shortly after the generator was switched off, the children sent to bed, and the adults gathered around a large ceramic jar of weak rice. To bless the occasion it was necessary for them to summon the spirits of their ancestors, and to do this they held bamboo straws and chanted for several minutes, after which people took turns to drink in pairs from the jar using long bamboo straws, while the others present talked quietly sitting in the semi-darkness.
We broke our journey back to Phnom Penh by stopping for a couple of days in Kratie, a small town on the banks of the Mekong. Famous within Cambodia for producing krolan (sticky rice and beans, served inside bamboo) and nehm (raw spiced river fish) which are sold around the country, the town’s main draw for tourists are the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins which can often be spotted nearby. The dolphins live in four deep water pools between Kratie and the Laos border, but in the past decade as a consequence of pollution, fishing and loss of habitat, numbers have fallen from around 1000 to just 70, making them one of the most endangered mammals on Earth. We spent several enjoyable hours cycling some of the quiet roads along the banks of the Mekong, including exploring an island still without cars where the main form of transport seemed to be ox-cart, and took a small rowing boat out into the river to look for the dolphins, and felt very fortunate and privileged to spend an hour watching several of these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.