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Lake of spirits and history

IN the dry season, the northeastern province of Ratanakiri is known not for it's

water, but for it's dust.

It is as distinctive as it is ubiquitous - sanguine volcanic soil the hue of bullfight

sand, laid out by the volcano which blew a crater into this basalt basin 700,000

years ago, giving Ratanakiri it's character, its color and, paradoxically, it's watering

hole.

Today that crater is home to a serene lake called Yeak Laom, the centerpiece of the

province's new eco-tourist industry and a fascinating destination for both enthusiasts

of natural and un-natural history.

Nature trails wind along the lakeside beneath towering white trunks feathered with

orchids. The biota is diverse, and many trees are marked with both their Khmer and

Linnean names. Underfoot, the path is littered with the fantastical seeds of the

competing flora; two and four-winged helicopters, little featherweight box kite seeds

of diaphanous silky cellulose, rabbit-eared trapezoidal seed-bombs, and hard twisted

cases like leather peas.

Children will be intrigued by the sensitive ferns, the finger-like leaves of which

fold slowly into themselves when touched. Even the most casual of strollers will

see the funnel webs of spiders, the passing of poisonous snakes, the interlacing

wrists of iron-rooted vines.

Numerous smaller trails, worn through the hills by generations of Tampuan hill tribe

people, intersect with the main park path. The 5,063 hectares of protected grounds

surrounding Yeak Laom are home to five Tampuan villages, containing over 300 families.

Often park visitors encounter these native people, walking with their distinctive

basket backpacks and curved machetes, gathering in the rich forest.

The lake is also home to spirits. According to academic reports, one Tampuan elder

reported witnessing a female hand offering a jar of palm wine from the lake center.

Another man, smoking wild tobacco growing oddly from the lakeside, found himself

confused, the once-familiar trails turned suddenly strange. It is rumored that these

same lake spirits pull at swimmers in Yeak Laom.

"My divers have been in lots of fresh water but they all say that this lake

is really strange," says Jeff Clark, whose mining company regularly searches

the province's waterways for minerals.

"It's like a thin syrup, the opposite of salt water, harder to float in".

Clark speculates that dissolved gas may be responsible for the phenomenon. "The

volcano's sure gone, but the Vulcan roots might not be dead" he said, adding

that when Mount Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines, the waters of Yeak Laom lake

went suddenly milky, as though connected.

The lakeside is also the site of some fascinating un-natural history.

Nestled subtly among the trees are helicopter pads and a massive machine gun nest,

remains of a bunker for Vietnamese troops. The same trails which wind picturesquely

around the serene lake's 1.5 kilometers also provide a view to the remains of King

Sihanouk's former provincial residence, now ruins of concrete and twisted rebar.

On a recent walk through the park, Ma Nu Fon, of the Ratanakiri Department of Tourism,

bent to write"1970" in the dirt by the ruins. "American planes"

he said, adding that the 48-meter deep lake still held unexploded shells.

More recent years have seen different sorts of popular use for the lake, as a place

to wash clothes and even cars. According to Ken Reibe, provincial director of the

IDRC, which runs the park in partnership with the provincial authorities, the lake

was also home to a popular karaoke brothel.

"In 1995, Funcinpec representatives suggested that the province might use the

site for a Royal lakeside house," he explains. "They emptied the full-service

bar and started renovating it for the King".

However, it soon became apparent that Funcinpec expected the province government

to pick up the bill for the King's new residence. The province, widely considered

to be a CPP stronghold, declined to do so and the plan fell through.

Today, the former sin and song center is a cultural center, where visitors can examine

the gongs, baskets, and other items of the hill people. The surrounding grounds have

been declared a protected area, and the lake fenced off to stop people washing motos

or cars in it.

Riebe says that both the province and King Sihanouk, who retains Royal title to the

lakeside, are pleased. "It's a good compromise, and a good base for eco-tourism

in Ratanakiri".

Eco-tourism is a new concept here, and Yeak Loam Lake is a park in its infancy. The

paint has barely dried on the vivid signs nailed to trees depicting the consequences

of environmental carelessness with the nightmarish eye of a Breugal painting: a raging

inferno from carelessly-tossed cigarettes, picnic grounds overwhelmed with trash,

and even the violent consequences of gluttonous holiday drinking.

But the real threats to the park need no such signs. The air in Ratanakiri is gray

with the ash of the fires which burn continuously from the clearing of swidden plots,

and massive logging concessions now threaten to denude even protected conservation

lands. These forces, visible everywhere in Ratanakiri, paradoxically make Yeak Laom

lake an ideal eco-tourist destination, providing an education in both the forces

which threaten the environment and the beauty which makes it worth preserving.

(Yeak Laom will feature in a photographic exhibition about Cambodian protected

areas and National Parks, at Olympic Stadium on the afternoon of June 5, World Environment

Day. For further information contact Noelle O'Brien at the Cambodian Environmental

Management Program, telephone 426-894.)

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