Banlung is the provincial capital of Ratanakiri Province located in the northeastern corner of Cambodia. It is very mountainous with thick jungle, and is home to 12 different indigenous 'Khmer Loeu' ethnic groups. It is like a lost-world, and is almost like stepping back in time. Banlung City is where most visitors start from for excursions and treks to the jungle, ethnic villages, waterfalls, gem mines, and the Yeak Laom volcanic lake. Banlung is not a large city, and is somewhat small, but it does have some hotels, and there is some unique shopping to be had.
The way to get around in Banlung is by motorcycle taxi (motodup), or you can rent a motorcycle or bicycle. However, hires are usually only for the area in and around Banlung. Moto drivers with a passable level of English can also act as guides. There are also motos from the airport into town.
Please note that as of this writing there are no banks or ATMs in Ratanakiri, and credit cards are not accepted. Most hotels will exchange money, and will accept traveler's checks. There are moneychangers along the road to Phsar Banlung.
Internet here is slow and expensive, but it is available, and it does work ok for e-mail and accessing web pages. As an example of how expensive it is, the Tribal Hotel has Internet for $5/hour!!
International phone calls are $1.30 to $1.70 per minute. You can also buy an international access card in $5, $10, & $20 denominations, and you can use it to make international calls at the phone shop or from fixed-line phones at most hotels.
For a unique shopping experience in Banlung, you can shop for semi-precious gem stones and Khmer Loeu handicrafts and artifacts. These handicrafts are not your usual souvenirs, and were made as much for local use as for tourist souvenirs. You can buy back-strap baskets, fabrics,
gourd vessels, gongs and much more. There are a few souvenir shops in town, and in and around the main local market, Phsar Banlung. This local market is much like other local markets offering the usual items such as soft drinks, water, beer, liquor, toiletries, snacks, etc.
A note on gemstones: Ratanakiri is known for the mining of semi-precious gems (amethyst, zircon, peridot and obsidian). They are cut and polished in Banlung and sold as unset stones. There are gem cutting and retail shops on the main road, in the market area, and near the central monument. The gems may look tempting in the display cases, but as with buying gems anywhere, you really need to know what you are doing before you buy.
If you plan to go adventuring on you own, hiring a moto or even driving yourself short distances to
nearby locations is not much of a problem. But for more distant destinations, such as to Khmer Loeu villages, gemstone mines, or into the jungle; going off on your own is NOT advisable. There are many trips and tours available, and it is always wise to avail yourself of a knowledge and experienced guide.
There are 3-hour rides and 1 day elephant treks to waterfalls, Khmer Loeu villages and to Yeak Laom Lake. These can be arranged through your guesthouse, hotel, or travel agent.
Gem Mining: Ratanakiri is a gem mining area, and 36 km from Banlung are the Bokeo mines where miners work extracting zircon. Some of what is mined is cut and sold in the many gem shops in Banlung. On the way to the mine you can see rubber and coffee plantations, and visit the Sean Lae (seven step) Waterfalls.
Hill Tribe Villages:
There are an estimated 60,000 'Khmer Loeu' people living in Ratanakiri. The term Khmer Loeu is used to refer to 12 different ethnic groups, and include the Tampuan,
Krueng, Kavet, Kachok, Charay, Prouv, Phnoung and the Lan. These groups live in the mountains, and still follow many of their old traditions. They practice slash and burn agriculture, have animist religions, wear traditional clothes, and build traditional houses. Customized tours and trekking to these villages can be arranged. However, to fully appreciate the culture and traditions of these people, it is advised that you visit more than one tribal village. It may take from 2 to 4 days to see several different ethnic groups. It is recommended to visit the Tampuan, Charay and Krueng villages to see their distinctive way of life, traditional farming techniques and unique houses.
Phnom Svay & Reclining Buddha: Wat Rahtanharahm is at the foot of mount Eisey Patamak about 1 km east of the town. To get to the reclining Buddha, take the road past the wat and up the mountain. The large reclining Buddha is resting just below the crest of the mountain, and from there you get a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.
Phsar Banlung: Early in the morning many hill tribe people bring their vegetables, fruit and forest products to the local market (Phsar Banlung). They come with traditional "back strap" baskets full of their products to sell. This can be a unique photographic opportunity. However, you need to get there early because by 10am most of them have packed up and gone home.
Waterfalls: Waterfalls abound in Ratanakiri, and of course they are at their best during the rainy season when there is more water. Most waterfall tours
of the area include Cha Ong Falls, an 18 meter high waterfall in the jungle. There is space behind the falls, and you can walk behind the water. 2,000 Riel entry fee. Kan Chang Falls are approx. 7 meters high and fairly wide. There is a pool large enough for swimming at the bottom of the falls. 2,000 Riel entry fee. The 10 meter high Ka Tieng Falls are in a jungle setting. When you travel out to the falls you will pass through the very picturesque countryside.
Virachey National Park: This is only one of two ASEAN Heritage Parks in Cambodia. It is 37km northeast of Banlung. It is on the border with Laos and Vietnam, and overlaps parts of Ratanakiri and Stung Treng Provinces. It is very mountainous with dense jungle, and some areas of the park have not been completely explored. It covers 3,325 sq km, and is the largest national park in Cambodia. It joins with other protected areas in Laos and Vietnam, and together they make one of the largest protected forest areas in Asia. The park is inhabited by many ethnic minority peoples. Even though it was established to protect the plants and animals there, the park is under serious threat from illegal logging.
Adventure treks to the park are available for serious trekkers. They visit places rarely seen by tourists, such as Phnom Veal Thom, a spectacular mountain grassland deep inside the park. Trekking through the forest for several days is quite challenging, and you will need to be in good shape. However, you will be rewarded with magnificent scenery, the chance to see exotic wildlife, and to experience virgin forest.
Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake: This 700,000 year old volcanic crater lake is in the Yeak Laom Commune Protected Area, and is 5km from Banlung. The lake and the area around it is sacred to many of the Khmer Loeu groups, and it is connected to local myths and legends. The lake is 800 meters across and 47 meters deep, and there is 2.5 km hiking trail around the lake. There are some boat docks on the lake, and it is a popular swimming and picnicking spot. The Yeak Laom Cultural and Environmental Center on the trail around the lake, has displays of Khmer Loeu handicrafts. The entrance fee to the lake area is 4,000 Riel.