Cambodia, Destination

Ratanakiri Province: The Hidden Gem of Cambodia


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, complete with maps and more information about travel to Ratanakiri. All photos are Creative Commons, Non-Commercial Attribution. Copyright, Ethan Crowley 2013.

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5 thoughts on “Ratanakiri Province: The Hidden Gem of Cambodia

  1. My husband and I traveled to Cambodia in 2008 from Kyoto where he had a solo photography exhibit. It was one of the most memorable weeks we had. The people are beautiful, warm, friendly and then some. Since our travels, we help to raise money for the Angkor Hospital for Children. Alone our donated photo prints have raised a few thousand dollars at an annual photography auction that Kenro Izu and Friends Without A Border holds in NYC.
    We hope to return to Cambodia and spend more time with the people.
    Thank you for sharing your photos and blogs.

    1. Thanks for the comment! You are so right, Cambodian people are amazingly kind, welcoming, and warm. And considering their history, they’re incredibly resilient as well.

      By the way, your photography is stunning.

  2. Ruth Marshall says:

    What lovely pictures and descriptions of your country! I am Bonnie Ruth Farmer’s mother and am coming in June to visit. I wish I had read this before so I could have planned a visit in the right season but know I will enjoy it no matter what. Your comments help give insight which help to see your people through one who understands them and will help me as I come. Thank you as this helps me to view them through your eyes. Can’t wait to meet some of these dear people whom my children are longing to reach for our Lord.

  3. Melanie Webb says:

    Hi there Ethan. Don’t know if you remember me when I lived there as volunteer teacher 1995-1997 but what great photography. It brought me completely back to the beauty of Ratanakiri and the atmosphere you have managed to capture in your photos. Are you still making peanut butter, by the way……!!!!!!

  4. W Clarke says:

    I’ve just returned (end of January) from a trip to Ratanakiri, and I can confirm it is everything that Ethan describes. The gemstone market in the region is vibrant, and exploring the gemstone markets is a lot of fun even for the novice. I am at best an “amateur” when it comes to gems, but I tend to agree with Ethan that the quality is good and prices reasonable in the local markets. There is no need for hard bargaining although, if you’re making a multiple purchase, dealers will usually give a modest price break. Incredibly, behind the counters displaying finished and mounted stones, you will usually see stones being cut and polished, jewelry findings being modeled and cast, and gems being mounted into finished pieces. Its all happening right there. I also took a trip into the hills to see the difficult and dangerous mining first hand; what a thrill to purchase raw stones directly from the miners just as they come from the ground!

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