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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Exploring the northeast on a shoestring

Exploring the northeast on a shoestring

Intrepid budget traveler Iain Spooner explores the simple delights of the


The northeast has hardly been touched by tourism and a visit can

lead you to some of the friendliest and most interesting people in Cambodia.

The region is not as inaccessible as it may seem, with a little

perseverance and a smile you can find yourself sleeping in remote villages with

minority tribes, swimming in crystal clear rivers and lakes and experiencing a

whole new side to Cambodia - a country that is much more diverse than you could

begin to imagine.

Getting there


There are twice weekly flights by Kampuchea Airlines to Banlung the

provincial capital of Ratanakiri, for $60 one way. There are also twice weekly

flights to Stung Treng for $45 one way.

However the cheapest and most

interesting way to get to the northeast from Phnom Penh is by boat and road. I

found the best way is to take a shared taxi from the central market to Kompong

Cham. It's about a three hour ride on a reasonable road and costs not more than

6,000 riel. To charter your own taxi costs around $20.

From Kompong Cham you take a boat to Kratie. The boat leaves in the morning

and you can sleep on the boat the night before. It is a pleasant eight hour trip

up the Mekong River. String up your hammock and relax. It's a safe passage and

costs 10,000 riel.

In Kratie there is a hotel waiting for you right by

the river where a basic but clean double room costs $5 a night. When I and my

friend arrived the place was fairly empty and it may be possible to bargain for

a discount.

It is possible to get a berth on a cargo boat from Kratie to

the next major town upriver Stung Treng, but they only leave around once a week

on irregular days. Now though, with the rains raising the river level, there may

be more boats making the trip. Just ask around the docks.

The dirt road

from Kratie to Stung Treng had a reputation for banditry but is now well

protected during the daytime by government troops slung in their hammocks every

five km or so collecting tariffs of cigarettes and riel from taxi


A four wheel drive taxi is essential for the trip to Stung Treng

and it will cost you about $6 and takes six to eight hours. This is also where

the adventure can begin. My traveling partner and I shunned the taxi option and

went up the road with a convoy of six old Soviet monster trucks loaded with Jet

cigarettes and two trucks carrying gasoline. About twenty soldiers sat on the

trucks to guard the cargo.

It was a two-day trip of mid-jungle breakdowns

and unexplained pit stops. At one point we were rumbling through the darkness at

1 am. I was sitting between two young soldiers on the roof of the cab. In the

darkness someone started to pop off shots at us. The soldiers jumped down into

the grass and I was ordered not to move. I felt like a sitting duck up there.

Then above my head another soldier let of a couple of rounds into the dark

fields and we drove on to a nearby army base. We spent the night there and had a

good laugh with the troops in the morning. Finally arriving in Stung Treng after

two days, our fare came to two pack of cigarettes.

There is nothing much

to see in Stung Treng. The solitary guest house on the river costs $5 a night.

For the final leg of the trip to Labansiak shared taxis leave from a riverside

by the police station stand. You should arrive at 6 am to secure a seat. The

fare again is $6 or if you are a broke fool like myself you can hitch a ride on

a truck. Be warned, it can make Sumatra bus journeys, which are notoriously bad,

seem like air, conditioned tarmac cruises. I felt like I had been beaten all

over by the time I arrived (actually I had), but hey, it only cost me



The actual name of Ratanakiri's provincial capital is Lobansiak but it is

better known to locals as Banlung, which is the name of the district. On the

surface it appears that there is nothing to see here but it is actually a

friendly and interesting little town. Banlung is sparse on accommodation. In

fact we only found one guest house, a pleasant enough place, clean and quiet. As

you come out of the market turn left at the monument and follow the main road,

its on the right hand side. A sign simply reads "Rooms for rent". A room with a

double bed will cost you $5.

Banlung is an ideal base for expeditions out

into the country and as there are few interconnecting roads outside the town you

will find yourself returning each time you want to strike out in a new

direction. The market is a great place to stock up on hiking food. Dried fish

and bananas, toffee-coated peanuts, tinned sardines, fresh fruit and all kinds

of good things to eat are available. All are needed when staying with the local

tribes and taking hikes.

A 3-km walk from the center of town brings you

to the beautiful Yeak Lorm Lake. The water is deep and crystal clear. The only

construction is a large wooden, platform with thatch roof and diving board. It

is a lovely spot to spend an afternoon.

Entertainment in Banlung caters

to local tastes but do not let that put you off. There are lots of video cafes

serving good coffee with Chinese movies. If you give them a chance they can be

really entertaining, especially the black magic soap operas with English

subtitles. I found those very addictive.

The real fun though is behind

the market. There you will find the cardboard shanty town. A mix of Vietnamese

and Khmer traders living in houses made out of scrap. Gambling starts at

sundown. They play a traditional dice game with various animals painted on the

faces of wooden blocks. One of our party, which by now had swelled to four, won

$4 here. Nobody minds if you just watch though. Even the smallest children

gamble and it gets quite exciting as the evening goes on.

In this area

you will also find the wonderful Mas-Sagiac Gio massage shack. The walls are

made entirely from Jet cigarette cardboard boxes. Here you can enjoy a great

massage for 3,000 riel including a huge joint rolled in used school arithmetic

notebook paper. Both are ideal after a long hike and it is the only place in

town to get ganja incidentally. Ratanakiri is dry so bring your own. The people

here are friendly and we even spent the night at an old women's house after

drinking some of her homemade whisky with the local lads.

There is

plenty of good food in town. To the right of the main entrance to the market

look for a small restaurant with big stainless steel pots outside for good rice

dishes. The food on the street and in the market is of a good variety and

quality, better than Phnom Penh in fact.

Visiting the


If you are only in the area for a short time then your best bet is to rent a

motorcycle. Prices are around $7 a day. You can rent from the guest house or ask

around the market area. A motorcycle will also take you out to the Zirconium

mines near Bokeo or the gold mines about 30 km south of Oyadev.

A quick

and easy place to visit is Versae by the Tonle San. You can take a bus early in

the morning for about 5,000 riel. (In general riel are more commonly used than

in Phnom Penh). Check the price with the driver. Versae is a tranquil little

place. The river is shallow but refreshing and there is a scattering of villages

along the bank where you can see some of the local Jarai tribes people. Across

the river is a Chinese village. You can spend the night in your hammock strung

up in one of the market stalls and take the bus back the next day. Food and

coffee are available.

To see the more untouched villages you must push

out a bit further. We decided we would walk and hitch. This is best accomplished

in groups of not more than two. A free ride often comes in the form of a

motorcycle or even a bicycle so be prepared to split up for a while. Bring

plenty of water and purification tablets, although boiled water will be offered

to you along the way. We had no problems with the water we drank.

We took

the road that heads to Vietnam until it splits after about 25 km. The road to

the left leads to the Tonle San river, about another 25 km further on. At the

junction you can see the remains of old mineral mines. They look just like

wells, tunneled deep into the earth. A hike down the river road will take you

past a number of Jarai villages. You can stop off and look or spend the night at

any of them. Each village has a large central house for visitors, traders or

people who do not have a home of their own. You will be welcomed quite matter of


Remember though that these people are very poor. They will offer

you rice but that's about it. Now is the time to break out those provisions or

you can buy a chicken and they will cook it for you. The people wear no

traditional costume as in Thailand but all carry a wicker basket for collecting

fruit and wood from the jungle which they sell in the market. The young women

have a costume of sorts, it consists of a black lace bra and plenty of make up.

It looks most surreal amongst the primitive surroundings. There has been little

study of these tribes. They are most famous for the sweet rice whisky they drink

with grass straws from clay jugs. The drinking sessions are wild and you will be

obliged to take part. Remember though that you are a pioneer for future

travelers so act politely and patiently.

At the end of the road is the

small Khmer village, Phum Pakop. We spent three days here and met the warmest,

friendliest people.

Every afternoon and evening they would bring us food as if it was the most

natural thing in the world to have four foreigners sleeping in one of their

market stalls. If you cross the small bridge here and walk about five km you

will arrive at an errie burnt out landscape. Here the huts are far apart and the

trees all burnt for charcoal. Again you will be welcomed into the shade of their

simple bamboo and thatch houeses. It is a spooky place with strange shriveled

pumpkins hung up to dry and primitive drawings on tree stumps. The people invite

you in and then go about their domestic business like you are not even there.

Very strange.

Of course there are many roads in Ratanakiri to explore. Be

warned though, the walking is hard and the landscape barren and


There is no quick and easy way out. You have to be fit and

patient. There are no club sandwiches and French fries here, it is fish and rice

all the way. But so far this is what has helped keep the area unspoilt by

commercial tourism. How long it will stay untarnished is anybody's guess.



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