Up-and-coming Ratanakiri is making a name for itself as diverse region of outstanding natural beauty that provides a remote home for a mosaic of minority peoples. The Jarai, Tompoun, Brau and Kreung are the Khmer Leu (Upper Khmer) people with their own languages, traditions and customs. There is also a large Lao population throughout the province and multiple languages will be heard in villages such as Voen Sai. Adrenaline activities are plentiful. Swim in clear volcanic lakes, shower under waterfalls, glimpse an elephant or trek in the vast Virachay National Park – it’s all here. Tourism is set to take off, but that is if the lowland politicians and generals don’t plunder the place first.
Ratanakiri is the frontline in the battle for land, and the slash-and-burn minorities are losing out thanks to their tradition of collective ownership. The forest is disappearing at an alarming and accelerating rate, replaced by rubber plantations and cashew-nut farms. It is to be hoped someone wakes up and smells the coffee – there’s plenty of that as well – before it’s too late.
Gem mining is big business in Ratanakiri, hardly surprising given the name actually translates as ‘hill of the precious stones’. There is good quality zircon mined in several parts of the province as well as other semi-precious stones. The prices are low compared with the West, but don’t get suckered into a dream deal, as gem scams are as old as the hills themselves.
Ratanakiri Province played its part in the country’s contemporary tragedy, by serving as a base for the Khmer Rouge leadership during much of the 1960s. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary fled here in 1963 and established headquarters in Ta Veng in the north of the province. Roads in Ratanakiri are not as impressive as the sights: the dry season means chewing on dust; the wet season, sliding about in mud… take your pick. The roads look like carrot soup during the wet season, so the ideal time to explore is December to February. Prepare to do battle with the dust of ‘red earth Ratanakiri’, which will leave you with a fake tan and orange hair. Boats are a popular means of transport for scenic trips, but the province is too isolated to make river travel into Stung Treng a realistic option.