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
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
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.)