Ratanakiri Province overview
Found in the far north-east of Cambodia, bordering both Laos and Vietnam, Ratanakiri Province is a region of towering mountains, lush tropical forests and traditional lifestyles led by Cambodia’s large indigenous population here.
Bamboo rafting on Tonle Srepok.
An area of immense natural beauty, Ratanakiri Province is a place to visit for those who enjoy outdoor pursuits and traditional cultures. With Virachey National Park to the north and Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary to the south, this province has an abundance of nature and outdoor space to make the most of. Red dusty roads give the feeling of intrepid exploration. While there are small towns in Ratanakiri Province, more of the locals live in villages, working on the land and living a traditional way of life. There is a large population of Khmer Loeu living in Ratanakiri Province, which is the collective name given to indigenous groups who live in Cambodia’s highlands.
Providing an outstanding insight into Cambodia’s cultural and natural highlights, a visit to Ratanakiri Province does not disappoint.
See and Do
Virachey National Park is one of the most important areas for conservation in south east Asia. Covering an area of 3,325 km2, this is only one of two national parks in Cambodia that is also protected by the ASEAN Heritage Parks organisation. Despite the threat of illegal logging, Virachey National Park remains to be a huge expanse of largely unexplored space. The geography ranges from thick jungle, mountain forests and evergreen lowlands, to upland savannah and bamboo thickets. For those who want a truly original off-the-beaten-track adventure in Cambodia, it is possible to embark on eco-friendly treks in the park, with all funds generated ploughed back into the local indigenous communities. Most popular are eight-day trek journeys into the Phnom Veal Thom grasslands, known for its abundant wildlife ranging from gibbons to wild pigs. Along the way, accommodation is provided in a mixture of hammocks and homestays in Brau village.
Jungle camping in Ratanakiri.
Almost precisely in the centre of Ratanakiri Province near Ban Lung is Yeak Laom Lake, an absolutely stunning circular lake found in the crater of a 4,000 year old volcano. This almost perfectly round lake surrounded by lush jungle is a postcard-perfect place to visit. The deep waters of almost 50 metres are said to make the water exceptionally clean too. There are a number of wooden piers around the lake that visitors use as jump-off points for swimming. The lake is managed by a local indigenous community and a visitor centre gives some insights into the local indigenous communities in the area.
Birds’ eye view of Yaklom Crater Lake.
As well as this volcanic natural wonder, the province’s main town of Ban Lung is also surrounded by a number of other natural sites worth visiting. Chaa Ong is a 25 metre high waterfall surrounded by jungle, and it’s possible to paddle in the waters below the falls. Ka Tieng is another waterfall where it’s possible to walk on the rock shelf behind, while Bei Srok is a waterfall that s beautifully over several shelves. Kinchaan is another good waterfall for swimming in the waters below. For those who get the bug for volcano lakes, Ban Lung is home to yet another one: Lumkut Lake. Gorgeous emerald waters and a jungle setting give it a pristine setting, although it’s not quite as easy to reach as Yeak Laom Lake.
Behind Cha Ong Waterfall.
Ban Lung town itself is a small but interesting place to wonder around, with some good-looking restaurants and hotels located around two lakes on the edge of town: Kam San Lake
and Kan Seng Lake
Another area of rich wildlife and vegetation is the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary
in the southernmost part of Ratanakiri Province. Not widely visited by travellers in Cambodia yet, embarking on one of the few eco-tours that do come here mean it’s an even more special experience. There’s an immense diversity of wildlife to be found in the 2,225 km2 park, including tigers, elephants, bears, buffalos and red-headed vultures, while the natural environment ranges from mountains to forests. Local rangers are able to take visitors on tours of the park, which can include camping for up to a week and getting a helping hand from an elephant and handler.
Culture and Arts
Ratanakiri Province is a sparsely populated region of Cambodia, home to just 1% of the country’s population. As such, much of the culture and tradition of the province is found on a small and very local scale. This makes uncovering the cultural and artistic gems of the region all the more exciting when you do discover them.
Tribal girls bringing their shopping baskets to the market.
Near Yeak Laom Lake
, it is possible to take a tour with an indigenous guide to villages of the Tompuon people. Visitors often see local crafts and traditions in action, including basking weaving, animist traditions and local dance.
As well as all its other natural wonders, Ratanakiri Province is also a well-known gem mining location. In fact, the name Ratanakiri comes from the Sanskrit words ‘Ratna’ and Giri’, which combined mean ‘mountain of gems’. Precious stones such as blue zircon, amethyst, peridot and black opal are mined in the region. Bokheo is one locality where a lot of gem mining takes place and it’s sometimes possible to go along and watch gem miners in action. Gemstones can be purchased in shops and markets across the province, but look out for scams!
Bor Keo gem mining, what the province is best known for locally.
The market in Banlung
is a place to shop for crafts, hand-made clothes and souvenirs. Unlike markets in the towns that are more popular with international travellers, Banlung’s market is not at all touristy. The authentic feeling of soaking up the culture here is as good as the rare finds to be found on the stalls.
Festivals and Events
As a region in Cambodia with a large population of ethnic minorities, most festivals and events in Ratanakiri Province take place on a small scale in villages. The various cultures of each ethnic tribe dictate what these traditions are. The best way to experience this is to visit an ethnic village or organise a homestay via a local ethical organisation.
Locals participating in a buffalo offering ceremony.
Sacrificial festivals are common among the mostly indigenous population of Ratanakiri Province. Most ethnic tribes practice these traditions during March or April each year, coinciding with the time of year when fields are chosen and prepared for the planting season ahead.
Food and Drink
The traditional foods of Ratanakiri Province centre on what is grown or readily available to source here. The diet of indigenous tribes is largely focused on rice and fish, while fruits grown in the province are widely eaten, including bananas, mangoes, papayas and jackfruit.
If you manage to take a guided tour to an indigenous village, or even stay overnight in a homestay, you’ll enjoy some traditional provincial foods, which usually includes fish steamed in bamboo, rice, vegetables and a healthy tipple of rice wine.
Kralan, a type of sticky rice grilled in bamboo tubes.
The options for dining out in Ratanakiri Province mainly centre on the town of Banlung, where there are some good options for trying a range of cuisines. Café Alee
is a popular choice, serving a range of Khmer and western foods, and a range of drinks into the small hours of the morning. The restaurant is socially conscious too, as they run a scholarship programme for the education of local indigenous children.
For the traditional Cambodian fish of banh chav, head to Rith Any Banh Chav. Banh chav is an egg pancake wrapped in lettuce, filled with meat, shrimps, bean sprouts and local vegetables. Another local staple is noodle soup, and Ta Nam is one of the most popular spots in Banlung to get it.
Nom Thnaot, made from palms.
There are some pretty dining options surrounding Kan Seng Lake
on the edge of town too. For low-key coconut milkshakes and noodles, Coconut Shake Restaurant
is the place to go. Chanang Blue Moon
and Pteas Bay Khmer
are also worth a visit for a mixture of Cambodian and international flavours.
For evenings out, Buffalo Cowboys
is a place to have a drink and listen to live music, while Apple Club
is a nightclub popular with both locals and international visitors.