Banlung and Ratanakiri: a travel guide
Banlung is a city located in the Northern part of Cambodia, in the province of Ratanakiri. Ratanakiri is a very remote and sparsely populated region. The area is known for its beautiful natural scenery, waterfalls, lakes, and forests, as well as its rich cultural heritage, with several ethnic minority groups living in the area.
As I was travelling from Cambodia to Laos I decided to make a stop in Banlung to explore the area of Ratanakiri. Although it was a little bit of a detour and an adventurous journey to get to Banlung, I am glad I did. The scenery here is completely different from the southern part of the country or from the area around the Mekong river.
Why visit Banlung and Ratanakiri
Banlung is a typical provincial town that has an isolated feel to it. It is also known as ‘dey krahorm’, which means red earth, because of the dark red earth that covers the mud roads in the area. The main reason to visit Banlung is also not the town itself, but its spectacular surroundings. Ratanakiri has stunning natural beauty and is home to vast forests.
Like many other areas in Cambodia, Banlung and Ratanikiri have been affected by deforestation. That said, many areas of the jungle in Banlung remain intact, and efforts are being made to protect and preserve the natural environment.
The region has a rich biodiversity, making it a great spot for bird watching and wildlife spotting. It is the only place in Cambodia where there are still tigers and bears in the forest. Although you will need a lot of luck to see them. I did not see any large animals, but nevertheless really enjoyed being in the jungle.
In Banlung you can arrange jungle tours as well as other outdoor adventure activities like trekking and kayaking. Nature is the biggest draw in Ratanakiri, but there are also cultural reasons to visit Banlung. The area is home to several ethnic minority groups, including the Jarai, Tampoun, and Kreung people. These hill tribes still follow unique cultural traditions.
Banlung is a long journey from either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. It’s an off the beaten path destination with only a handful of other tourists. After spending 4 days in Banlung including a 2 day jungle trek I can say that the long journey on bumpy roads was totally worth it. Before I was doubting to go to Mondulkiri or Ratanakiri, but I am glad that I went to see both.
Things to do in Banlung and Ratanakiri
Onre of the main things to do in Banlung is exploring the waterfalls in the area. Cha Ong waterfall is the tallest and most popular waterfall in the vicinity of Banlung. Kachang and Katieng waterfalls are also worthwhile to visit.
There are more waterfalls in the area, but they are further away from Banlung. The waterfalls above are easy to reach. I rented a bicycle to cycle to all three of them which took me a full morning.
You could also rent a tuk tuk or taxi, but when you cycle you can at the same time enjoy the nice scenery outside of Banlung. You will cycle through farm fields and rubber plantations on dusty roads with the hills in the background. This is when you understand why the village is famous for its red earth.
Boeng Yeak Laom lake
After the waterfalls I continued my bicycle journey to the Boeng Yeak Laom lake. The Yeak Loam lake is a volcanic crater lake that is surrounded by lush forests. Only 5 kilometers from Banlung, it is a popular destination for both local and foreign tourists. As a result there are souvenir shops and a visitor center.
Most people come to swim in the lake and there are wooden boards with steps to facilitate this. You can also hike around the perimeter on a shaded 3 kilometer walking path. I do recommend walking through the forest as well. You will see lots of birds and butterflies.
For the local indigenous people the lake is sacred and home to powerful spirits. Although you can swim, you are not allowed to argue or gamble around the lake. Currently, the Tampueng people manage and protect the lake.
Tribal villages of Banlung
Ratanakiri is home to several ethnic minorities, including the Jarai, Tampuen, and Kreung. Sometimes they are also called the hill tribes of Cambodia. Although their way of life is changing rapidly they still adhere to some of their cultural traditions.
The Kreung people are famous for their love huts. Once girls reach puberty at the age of 14 or 15 they get their own hut. There they can spend the night with someone of the opposite sex. The idea is that they can meet different men, get to know them and then decide which one they really want to marry.
The Tampuan people and the Jarai people do not have love huts, but they do have a matrilineal system of marriage, with the family name and inheritance passing through the mother’s side of the family. The Jarai people are also famous for their grave statues and elaborate homes for the deceased.
North of Banlung is the Voen Sai river where you will find a number of tribal villages. I do not suggest that you simply head off on your own to visit these villages. It is important to go with a guide that can introduce you to the communities. Try to check if it is a responsible tour operator and respect the local culture. Be especially sensitive about taking pictures.
Virachey Jungle Trekking
Virachey National Park is one of the most biodiverse areas in Cambodia, and it is home to a wide range of plant and animal species, including Asian elephants, gibbons, tigers, and sun bears
The park offers many opportunities for trekking and outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, and bird watching. One of the highlights of my stay in Banlung was my jungle trek to Virachey. You can’t go on your own into the national park, but there are many trekking tours that you can arrange in Banlung.
Most 1 or 2 day tours actually stay on the outer fringes. I went for a 2 day tour that involved 2 days of trekking and staying overnight in the jungle in hammocks. It was a wonderful experience and although I didn’t see an elephant or tiger I did enjoy the large number of butterflies and birds that I saw.
Banlung and Ratanakiri travel tips
Where to sleep in Banlung
Banlung has a number of small scale hotels and homestay options. All of them can arrange trekking tours into the jungle. Rathanek Thep Ritea Homestay is a bit on the outskirts of town. Although still within walking distance of the center, it feels like you are in nature.
Where to eat in Banlung
Banlung is also a good place to try Cambodian food and there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. The market is a great place for street food or fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ratanakiri has some local specialities that are worth trying. Num Kachay are dumplings made with pork, chives, and mushrooms, and are a popular snack or breakfast. Red Tree Ants with Beef is another specialty dish of the Ratanakiri region, made with local red tree ants, beef, and spices.
How to get to Banlung
There are several bus companies that operate daily services from Phnom Penh to Banlung, with a journey time of around 10-12 hours. The bus journey can be quite bumpy. It’s best to take a night bus to make the most of your time.
There are also bus connections with Kratie and Stung Treng. Kratie is a good place to experience the Mekong river and makes for a convenient stop to break up the long journey between Phnom Penh and Banlung. From Stung Treng you can cross the border into Laos and visit the 4000 islands.
When to visit Banlung
The dry season in Banlung typically runs from November to April, and this is generally considered the best time to visit, as the weather is sunny and dry with relatively low humidity. The dry season is also the best time for outdoor activities, such as trekking and exploring the many waterfalls in the region.
The wet season runs from May to October, and during this time the region experiences high levels of rainfall and humidity. However, the wet season can also be a beautiful time to visit, as the landscape is lush and green, and the waterfalls are at their most dramatic. This can be a good time to visit for bird watching, as you can see many migratory species during this time.
It’s worth noting that the roads in and around Banlung can become difficult to navigate during the wet season, and some of the more remote areas may be inaccessible due to flooding.
What to bring
Sturdy shoes: Proffesional hiking boots are not necessary. However, you will walk along muddy paths that require a good pair of shoes. I would recommend closed shoes that are water proof.
Sunscreen: It is easy to underestimate the strength of the sun when you walk in the shade of the jungle. Bring a hat and sunscreen to protect you.
Anti Mosquito repellent: There are a lot of mosquitoes and although dengue and malaria are rare there are occasional outbreaks. Wear long sleeve pants and use mosquito repellent.
Water purification system: Bring enough water with you. There is no need to add to the plastic waste problem. You can fill up your own bottle with water from the river. However, do use some kind of water purification system. Giardia and other microbes are very common
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