The Ratanakiri province (north-eastern Cambodia) is heavily forested and replaced with agriculture such as rubber, cashews, and oil palms. About 12 different ethnic minority groups live here; there are signs of new roads, which I guess means progress.
The 2.5-hour drive from Stung Treng to remote Banlung was on a better road than the previous trip, at least this road is sealed. The minibus drops you off at the markets in Banlung.
This town is not really on the Cambodian tourist merry-go-round of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville. Most of the roads here are still dusty red dirt, with only a few sealed roads and most of the locals here are poor. As a result of deforestation, it seems a lot drier and dusty here, so far…
One aspect of this town I really like is that as there’s so little light pollution around, typically, you can see loads of stars in the deep black night sky – gorgeous!
Apart from a couple of Wats in town, the surrounding area offers several worthwhile waterfalls and jungle trekking experiences. You’ll need your own transport or organise a day-tour to see most of the waterfalls. The cheapest way to see the lake, waterfalls, and a few other sites is to hire a scooter (US$6/day).
- Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake – Peaceful Surrounds and very pleasant to walk around this 700,000 year-old volcanic crater lake in the Yeak Laom (Yaklom) Commune Protected Area. Visited on a Sunday so many locals were also visiting but the further you walk around the lake and away from the main entrance, fewer locals are inclined to walk, so you’ll find a quite patch to swim or have a picnic. (The cost has increased to 6,000R entry fee.)
- Katieng Waterfall – 10 metres tall and in the jungle, which allows swimming.
- Kachang Waterfall – (3,000R entry fee) approximately 7 metres in height, this waterfall empties into a large pool in which it is possible to swim.
- Kan Seng Lake – walk north-east of the town’s roundabout a couple of kilometres and you’ll run into this man-made lake. Walk around the lake, which is also about a couple of kilometres and stop off for a drink or meal as there’s many restaurants along the way.
Colonial Lake Palace (Tesh Anlung, Beoung Kansaign Lake) – Good-sized clean room, comfy bed, toiletries, AC, TV with many English channels, reasonably priced, and serviced on request. However, no service, help, or smiles from staff.
Although this hotel is supposed to only be 2 years old, the bathroom ceiling had a half-metre mouldy hole in the ceiling and continuously dripped water onto your head whilst on the toilet, especially as it rained a lot! Wi-fi wasn’t working although there was a strong signal. We were told “the wi-fi is broken and don’t know when it will be fixed. Go to the Backpacker’s Pad and use wi-fi there”, which is owned by the same people. Got the feeling that the wi-fi was intentionally off so that you are pushed to using the restaurant at the Backpacker’s Pad, which is also an avenue for the owner to sell his tours.
- This hotel advertises two rates at reception: 1.Hired out on an hourly basis (maximum of 3 hours) and 2. Overnight rate. Draw your own conclusions on that one!
- Understandably, there’s a list of items you have to pay for if you break things but US$150 for a toilet seat is a bit steep! I paid US$10 as I lost our room key, which was one of the cheapest charges on the list, which included “blood” charges – interesting!
- Bamboo Restaurant (just off Main Street), serves western and local yummy food (mains US$3, shakes US$1, Cambodian beer US$0.75), coffee is good (US$1), atmosphere is relaxed, excellent service, and friendly staff. Owners are pleasant and very helpful! This has the right mix to make things work but most of all, Mr Tommy’s restaurant trains disadvantaged kids in hospitality for 2 years then sets them up on their own; very admirable cause!
- Cafe Alee (#25, Road #78A, Chey Chomneas Village) – Stumbled upon this cafe as the guide book is not updated – everything has moved. Very good coffee and yummy snacks (didn’t try any meals). Good music, many food options on the menu, peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Owners are very nice; staff very good and friendly.
- Central market – great for cheap local freshly made food and weird trinkets – not touristy. Don’t be afraid to try everything (I draw the line at dog, cat, and rat in some Asian countries). But, don’t eat the local wildlife as this only encourages poaching. Sticky rice in lovely little woven baskets is also available, which I love. Keep your eye out for street stalls with glass cabinets selling semi-precious gems, north of this market. You need to know the difference between cut glass and real stones before buying – barter hard.
Bought the Neak Krorhorm Transportation bus tickets from Banlung to Kâmpóng Cham (US$10 includes hotel tuk-tuk pick-up) at the bus station without any dramas. The tuk-tuk was supposed to pick up from the hotel around 08:00 but was about 15 minutes late.
Tip: At the time of writing, the Canadia Bank ATM’s did not charge a withdrawal fee.
Kâmpóng Cham Province
Although the third largest city in Cambodia, Kâmpóng Cham runs at a quiet pace and away from the maddening crowd. You won’t be hassled walking around this city, which is more of a stop-off to break up the journey to Siem Reap. This city has always been an important trade and transportation hub.
People in Kâmpóng Cham are ethnic Khmer. However, the province’s town includes a sizeable Cham minority, an excessively high number of Muslims and Christians; and of Chinese origin.
The bus from Banlung took about 7 hours on mostly good roads, and stopped only occasionally…for a Cambodian bus. You travel on Highway 7 back to just south of Stung Treng, before heading south and onto Kampong Cham.
The landscape for the whole 7 hours is stark and very dry from deforestation; it’s very sad to see so many hours without trees in a country!
Take a stroll along the riverfront (Sihanouk Street), which is pleasant, good for people watching and taking photos. You can enjoy a bustling river scene in the mornings. Along the way, seek the ever-elusive well-advertised French Colonial architecture – good luck finding some!
Stop for an icy Anchor (locally-brewed) beer or a refreshing and freshly made pineapple, avocado, or mango juice (choices are almost endless); or a scrumptious Khmer meal.
The locals are very friendly, welcoming, and always smile. Walk along the main road of this small city and it won’t be long before you strike up a conversation with a tuk-tuk driver eager to share his experiences and knowledge of Cambodia. Take the time to stop as you’ll gain much insight from a conversation with a local. Hang around long enough and once the ‘tourist’ chat is over, politics and local resentment starts filtering through, especially bitterness towards the government corruption and how only a select few reap foreign aid money.
Along Preah Monivong Boulevard, you can’t but help notice two massive opulent mansions a couple of blocks from each other. The story is that they’re owned by government council guys made rich from money that should have gone to building roads and infrastructure. Apparently, one home has a huge amount of gold in its foundations…myth or legend?
Tip: Mr Buth Gideon (firstname.lastname@example.org) owns his own tuk-tuk, speaks English, and seemed very pleasant. Although we didn’t go with him as already had a tour booked, he charges US$20 for a day tour of the usual sights.
Leap Mong Kol Hotel – (Kampuchea Krom Street) – okay room on the 3rd floor with a fan but still very hot. The bathroom could have been cleaner but staff was super friendly and very helpful.
Smile Restaurant (No.6, Street 7, Riverside 12 Village) – offers delicious Khmer and Western food at reasonable prices. I’ve become addicted to the national ‘Amok’ dish, which typically is curried snake fish baked/steamed in banana leaves; pure melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness! In true Khmer accommodating style, they’ve changed their dish to accommodate tourists, with fish now replaced with a choice of chicken or beef. Stick with the traditional fish dish; you’ll share my addiction in no time!
This is a NGO restaurant run by BSDA (Buddhism for Social Development Action in Kampong Cham) providing an environment for orphans and vulnerable children to learn service and cooking skills, whilst producing the most scrumptious of meals.
Leaving Kampong Cham
Bought the Neak Krorhorm Transportation bus (US$7.50) to Siem Reap from the actual office on Preah Monivong Boulevard, which is supposed to be an easy bus run…