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Up on Cambodia's northeast plateau, the scorched red earth of Ratanakiri province is instantly recognisable. Bordered to the north by Laos and Vietnam to the east, anyone with time on their hands will do well to make it to this alluring backwater. Ratanakiri literally translates from Sanskrit as the 'Place of gems and mountains.'

Typically 'off the beaten track', the region has been 'discovered' step by step since the 1990s and is steadily proving to be a popular destination. The majority of the residents of this rural, rugged province are an ethnic minority collectively know as 'Chunchiet'.

A dusty Ban Lung is the capital of the province. It's a charming little hub that is particularly attractive to those seeking the regions ethnic groups and abundant wildlife. Once away from here, however, you won't be seeing too many tourists.

The Hill Tribes and Ethnic Groups of Ratanakiri

The old cultures of Ratanakiri believe in spirits, deriving from their animist beliefs. Most of the tribes live deep in the jungle and small isolated villages in the hills. Making a living through traditional ways of cultivation such as shifting agriculture and hunting and gathering. They will supplement their diet with fruits and other goods from the surrounding forests.

Overwhelmingly, these groups belong to the Tampuan, Charay and Kreung. Combining to form over 60 per cent of the population. Additionally, other, smaller groups such as the Brao, Kraveth, Kachac, Phnong and Lun bring the total of ethnic groups to more than 75 per cent of Ratanakiri's total population.

Photographing Ratanakiri

Jungle trekking and encountering the local tribespeople is the reason most people wash up in Ratanakiri. The Ratanakiri Cultural Centre (46 Krong Ban Lung) would be a good place to get that ball rolling.

Only an hour walk south-east of Ban Lung is the emerald-hued oasis Yeak Laom. This almost perfectly circular lake has been voted one of the 15 most beautiful crater lakes in the world. Surrounded by forest, a path leads around its circumference and a number of wooden jetties can be used to cool off in its crystal clear water.

Waterfall fans should head out to the falls of Kachanh and Ka Tieng. Both the falls and Yeak Laom can be accessed on foot or pedal power from Ban Lung. For the more adventurous, there are a few more waterfalls out into the open country. The journey will take you through villages that see very few visitors where you'll be the centre of attention. A vehicle will be required to access these. For a truly memorable outing, rent a dirt bike and get...well...dirty.

The Virachey National Park 37 kilometres north-east of Ban Lung is a mountainous jungle that has yet to be fully explored. With an office in the centre of town, the Ministry of Environment is the one to contact regarding access to the park.

Completely Useless Facts about Ratanakiri

  • In the 1960s the Khmer Rouge built its headquarters in the province
  • Excessive bomb dropping in the Vietnam War devastated the region
  • Health indicators in Ratanakiri are extremely poor. A woman's life expectancy is 43 years. A man...39!
  • Home to less than 200,000 residents, Ratanakiri accounts for a little over 1 per cent of Cambodia's total population.

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