If you find yourself in Cambodia, do me a favor, please go to Ratanakiri. Saying Ratanakiri is amazing would be a vast understatement. The province is unreal, and sadly few outsiders ever visit it. The province is in the Far North East, of the country. You can get there on a bus or plane directly from Phnom Penh. On a bus it is a long and beautiful trip through thick jungle, up steep mountains, and past winding long rivers. Once you arrive in Ratanakiri you will find a place that few in the world know about.
Throughout the very small provincial capital of Banlung you can find locals who will take you on a track through the nearly impenetrable jungle. As you stand outside the jungle your eyes will wander off, they will follow the road and immense jungle as they stretch on and on merging into a wild blackness in the far distance. Then you will go in. The jungle floor sags and bounces like an old bed as you walk on. Your eyes will follow giant roots as thick as an elephant’s leg as they burrow through the earth and rise up to join into ancient trees. These trees, these pillars of the earth, use their immense limbs to hold up a sky of green. At the right angles you can watch as the sun streaks through the green leaves turning them into brilliant glowing blubs of light. After drinking fresh jungle water and eating wild jungle fruit you can return to civilization.
By far, the best place to relax in Ratanakiri is Lake Yeak Loam. Yeak Loam in a 4,000-year-old dormant volcanic crater filled with water. The sun keeps the water warm and the absolute lack of pollution keeps the water clear. On a sunny day you can watch as the hard sunrays pierce the water and stick into the crater’s bottom, some 150 feet, 50 meters below. The lake is just outside of Banlung in the middle of one of the many conservation parks.
If you find yourself in the mood for shopping, Ratanakiri won’t have much, but what it does have will stun you. Anything and everything you find will be hand carved or hand crafted by locals and villagers throughout the province. You can find sacred sculptures of local animals and local gods, you can find jewelry of raw gems, and polished bones, and you can find clothes for your closet or scarves for your wall.
If you don’t know how to ride a motorcycle, Ratanakiri is the place to learn. The roads are paved, mostly, and the traffic is almost nonexistent. I love letting the wind massage my face as I rocket down the road, adventuring through the jungles and relaxing atop of mountain peaks from where the beauty of Ratanakiri is most evident. Atop this world you can watch the clouds break as they smash into jungled mountains like angry waves, as they splash high and as strips of clouds shoot off, spiraling into the sky.
After your motorcycle trip, rent a dirt bike and follow a local map to one of the hundreds of waterfalls. The paths will be hard, unpaved and uneven. Dust will cover your sweat and pain will bite into your muscles. It is all worth it when you arrive in one of the huge rivers that toss themselves off cliffs and crash into the deep clear pools. Here you can bathe, you can swim, you can relax but whatever you do, you will enjoy this one in a life time experience.
Finally before you leave Ratanakiri, visit an indigenous tribe. Since not too many tourists head this way, you won’t find many people who can take you into the tribes but if you look around and ask enough people you will find someone who can take you to a village. Don’t be shy when the villagers come up to you, smile and stare, while this is your vacation, you are as new to them as they are to you. In the villages expect the chief to invite you to his home and expect the locals to perform, not because they have to, but because they want to, they want to show off to you, their strange and exotic visitor. Use this time to learn about their cultures, their ideas, and beliefs, because they will outstand you. From example, some of the cultures are led by women, women choose their partners, women lead their females (although their husband has a voice) and younger girls, who are ready for marriage get their own homes high above the jungle floor, where as their brothers must live at home until a girl invites them to live in her high floating home.
When you are finally done with your once in a lifetime vacation in Ratanakiri, relax and enjoy an avocado shake, they are easy to find and nothing less than mouthwatering.