On at typical day, 43-year-old Ngin Bean goes to work at the rubber plantation on his old but reliable motorbike. On some occasions though, Bean takes his bike off the beaten track to the hidden lakes of Yeak Aom and Yeak Kra.
About 5km from the residential village of Norng Hai, in Seda commune, Lumphat district, in Ratanakkiri province, and concealed by a dense forest, lay the picturesque sight of the Yeak Aom-Yeak Kra lakes or twin lakes, as the locals call them.
“Sometimes, I bring tourists to the area. They’re mostly foreigners. More people visit the place between March and April because the road is more accessible then. Barang people love swimming, trekking and hammock camping in the jungle,” says Bean.
“Barang” is a local lingo that tour guides use to refer to Westerners.
He says that due to the remote and nearly inaccessible road conditions, villagers rarely see local tourists visit the twin lakes.
Er Ber, the village chief who oversees over 200 Tumpoun families, admits that travelling to the lake site could be a challenge, especially for local tourists who prefer to travel comfortably.
“Khmer tourists only visit the place occasionally, especially during Chinese New Year and Khmer New Year. They gather for lunch under the trees and swim in the lakes. Yeak Aom Lake is usually the preferred one for swimming due to its clear blue water,” Bean says.
Despite its scenic beauty, the twin lakes remain unknown to people because of the less-than-idyllic paths and inaction from local authorities.
To drive home the point, The Post asked people from the province’s capital Banlung and Lumphat district if they were familiar with the lakes. They weren’t.
Tourists can choose to travel from either Bakeo or Lumphat districts, each covering 40km, to the Lumkod Lake, and then continue journeying another 10km to Norng Hai village.
After this, they can hire motorbikes or walk to the twin lakes. Since there’s no clear trail, the tourists would usually need to hire one of the villagers to act as a guide.
The director of Ratanakkiri’s tourism department Nhet Pitou said, “It’s really hard to reach [the lakes] that’s why we haven’t promoted the site yet. If we promote it now as a tourist destination, it would seem like we’d be lying to the tourists.”
Pitou said the main responsibility lies on the provincial Department of Environment, which is currently gathering support to make the twin lakes officially recognised as a natural resource conservation area.
“Now, the Ministry of Environment has started working [for the site] to be listed as a natural resource conservation area. Therefore, every developmental action will be led by the provincial Department of Environment.
“It will be just like how the Yeak Loam Lake and Lumkod Lake were designated into ‘multiple-use protected areas’,” says Pitou.
While waiting for its redesignation as a protected zone, he says any kind of development, including road constructions, would have to wait.
However, according to the director of Ratanakkiri’s Department of Environment Phon Khemrin, “that is not the responsibility of [the department]. It was the provincial governor who submitted a petition for the area to be recognised as a natural resource conservation area”.
As for classifying the area as an eco-tourism zone, Khemrin says the final decision would be contingent on the impact and benefit that it would bring to the community.
“If the area could be developed into something beneficial to the community, with the least possible disruption to the ecology, we will consider its redesignation.
“After being classified as a protected area, we may consider electing it as a potential eco-tourism zone that could help generate better income opportunities for the villagers. In fact, this was what we did for the Lumkod Lake and the villagers living around it,” Khemrin notes.
However, aside from the twin lakes being classified as a protected zone, the villagers and tourists would also need access roads for all seasons.
Pitou says: “We have asked the local authorities and the Provincial Department of Rural Development to help renovate the 5km road. We’re waiting for its response.
“We can only inform them of issues and propose necessary actions. It’s the Department of Environment, along with other authorities, who can actually work on the renovation and maintenance of the road.”
Village chief Er Ber, whose son profits from renting his motorbike, says that during the dry season, tourists can travel by this mode of transportation or SUVs to Yeak Aom-Yeak Kra Lakes, making Khmer New Year the peak season for them.
Bean adds, “If we have proper roads, tourists can travel any time they want to visit. Aside from working at the farm, we can also make a living by transporting and guiding tourists.”
For those who want to visit Yeak Aom-Yeak Kra Lakes, you can contact Nhin Bean at 0976320020 to be your local guide at an affordable rate of $20 a day.