Cambodia is an amazing country; Cambodians are incredible people– resilient, creative, full of optimism and resource. The Angkor Temples are breathtaking, some of the most amazing sights anyone can ever see! Cambodia definitely lives up to it’s name as the “Kingdom of Wonder.”
Of all the Cambodian provinces, though, Ratanakiri is the jewel-in-the-crown. Ratanakiri is the real Cambodia; full of kind, honest, hardworking farmers who survive off of what the weather gives them any given year, be it rice, cashews, coffee, cassava, or rubber.
Ratanakiri is beautiful. Natural crater lakes, pristine waterfalls, and remote villages untouched by tourism. Even the name is beautiful; it’s made up from two Cambodians words, Ratanak, (which means jewels), and Kiri, (mountains). Quite literally, it means “the land of Mountains and Jewels.”
The local crater lake, called Yak Loum, is gorgeous. It’s almost perfectly round, surrounded by forrests filled with parrots, mynahs and monkeys. I reccomend buying a hammock at the market, and wiling away an afternoon at Yakloum, in peaceful solitude.
For me, Ratanakiri is home. I grew up here back in the 90’s, back when Cambodia was just emerging from 3 decades of war. Back then, Ratankiri was pristine, untouched, with vast tracts of virgin forrest. I grew up exploring the countryside with my Khmer and Hilltribe friends, playing barefoot soccer and swimming in the crater lakes.
My parents were linguists, missionaries, and humanitarians, coming alongside the ethnic minority hilltribes, helping them maintain their culture and dignity amidst the inevitable assault that good roads and new technology bring. They worked in healthcare, helped train local church leaders, and developed an writing system to secure the future of the hilltribes’ languages.
Now, 10 years later, I’m back in Ratankiri, making training films in Hilltribe languages. My wife teaches English to minority children.
As a Ratanakiri native, I’ve compiled a few insider tips gleaned from years of living here. These can make-or-break your trip to Ratanakiri:
1: Pick your season!
I know that most trips fall into a pre-arranged time slot based on one’s vacation from work, but if at all possible, come to Ratanakiri during the transition of the seasons. Here are the four times to visit, in order from worst to best.
If you visit from Feburary to April, at the height of dry season, Ratanakiri will be furnace, and if you’re lucky enough to get an unseasonal rain, it will a free sauna. The countryside will be parched, and the fields burnt black and readied for planting. The air will be gray and dusty. It’s not a pretty time of year! If you want to see high desert, go to Australia. I’m not discouraging you, just bequeathing real expectations.
If you visit from July to September, the countryside will be cool, green, and lush. The streams and lakes will be overflowing their banks, and the rice fields will be waist high. But there’s also the possibility that you could go a week and not see the sun. This is the zenith of rainy season. Your picnic could be rained on every day, maybe all day.
If you visit in May and June, you’ll split the difference. The monsoons won’t be in full force yet, but the province should be green, and the air will be clear. It’ll be hot as anything, but at least you’ll probably get a cooling rain some evenings, and some amazingly gorgeous sunsets.
Now for the holy grail of schedules: November through January. The air is clear, the hills are still green, it’s cool and crisp, with nights that drop into the low teens (Celsius). You won’t have to worry about rain, either. This is the time to visit!
2. Rent a motorbike and explore!
Ratanakiri is probably the best place in Cambodia to explore on a motorcycle. There’s little traffic and tons to explore. You can tool around for days, exploring remote riverine towns and stopping in minority villages that rarely see foreign faces. You could even strap some food, water and a hammock on the back of your bike and go for your own trek through the villages– it’s safe, especially in minority villages.
Some cautions: wear a helmet! Not wearing one risks a ticket from a traffic cop, or worse, a concussion. Expect some dust in dry season, and some slick surfaces during the monsoons.
3. Don’t haggle over prices, please!
Ratanakiri is not a well-traveled place. Rural Cambodians are not aggressive, mean-spirited people. These two facts mean that you will rarely be asked to pay a “foreigner price” when making a purchase.
In fact, most shop-owners in Ratanakiri will actually sell an item at a loss, rather than risk a showdown with a pushy, aggressively bartering tourist. Often tourists come to Ratanakiri from Vietnam (a bastion of rip-offs and aggressive sales tactics), and end up making themselves a stench to the locals, arguing intensely over a dollar…. a dollar! Even the poorest Western tourist makes more than most here will ever see; so pay the extra buck. Ratanakiri shopowners are not out get you, and nearly all are fair and upstanding.
Ethan Crowley is a filmmaker who lives in Ratanakiri Cambodia. The truly adventerous can find his daily photoblog on all things Cambodian at www.ethancrowley.com, complete with maps and more information about travel to Ratanakiri. All photos are Creative Commons, Non-Commercial Attribution. Copyright, Ethan Crowley 2013.