Cambodia has a very large number of public holidays (see the full list here). This weekend just gone was the water festival which means the whole country took Monday and Tuesday off. The events in Phnom Penh have overshadowed what was for us a lovely trip further North and East to the province of Ratanakiri (literally gemstone mountains) and its capital, Ban Lung.
Two of the group who arrived at the same time as us, Janet & David, have been posted to this small town which is a full day's travel from Phnom Penh, but less than two hours from Vietnam. They recommended that we stay at traveller hot spot, Tree Tops, which was a good choice and incredibly peaceful after the sleepless nights we've been having in Kratie. Here's the view from our private bungalow...
Tree Tops by name...
After the long morning journey to get there and a low key afternoon in the town, we woke up on day one and hired a troop of motorcycle taxis (a.k.a. 'motodops') to take us round some of the local sights. As Ratanakiri is more mountainous than where we are based, this meant the morning was dedicated to waterfalls.
The journey down to the first fall was a perilous affair with spiders everywhere.
I scored this one 6.5 out of 10. It was quite tall with reasonable flow of water but was let down by the lack of swimming opportunities and poor light for photography.
Some of the nature was quite impressive though, this brightly coloured fungus caught my eye.
The photo doesn't do justice to the size of these monster ants, I didn't find out if they bite though.
Gilly and waterfalls, what more could I ask for?
Some of our travel companions, on the left Maria from Madrid and on the right Dharlis from Kratie. This smaller waterfall was at the top of the tall one, a great spot for a picnic.
Gilly was swinging on this vine despite past experience in tropical countries on swings...
Here I am looking impressed just after arriving at the second fall, a solid 8 out of 10 as you can see below.
How about that? Powerful flow, nice jungle setting and volcanic rocks around the pool to sit on.
This is the view downstream, it reminded us both of the Gorges d'Heric in France.
Frolicking in the water, after some encouragement from another foreigner who took the plunge first. In the red is Quennie from the Philippines who is also based in Kratie with VSO. (NB. Modesty dictates that Cambodians, especially women, swim fully clothed, hence the swimsuit of these three.)
This is the top of the falls with some nice yellow flowers. We also saw some elephant tracks but sadly not the beast that made them.
9 out of 10, these were brilliant. Multiple falls, rocks to climb on, a couple of small jumps/dives and a spectacular jungle setting. Perfect for cooling off after some hard driving on tough mountain roads.
Clambering around, Gilly cooling off. I fell in shortly after this photo was taken and the locals found that hilarious - is there anywhere in the world that people don't laugh at others falling over?
Eventually I made it and thoroughly enjoyed my jump in of the 13cm cliff.
In Ratanakiri there are still a number of forest-dwelling indigenous tribes. This is an example of one of their traditional houses but their way of life is under threat from deforestation and other forms of encroachment onto their homelands.
Here are a couple of boys in their traditional dress. Don't be fooled by their innocent looks though, they tried to scam Gilly out of 25cents by pretending that they didn't have change for her [50cent] note.
Lunchtime, and my choice of a white shirt for the day was ill-advised. Ratanakiri is also renowned for its red dusty roads and I acquired quite a bit of this getting thrown up by lorries, minibuses and other motorbikes.
Gilly's choice of black trousers didn't help her much either...
For the afternoon we headed to a volcanic lake which is sacred to the indigenous tribes and which is also the subject of protracted negotiation to ensure that they retain land rights to the area. Contrary to most of the country we've seen so far there was a strong emphasis on maintaining the cleanliness of the place and signs like this were posted all around.
The lake itself is a perfect circle with jungle surrounding it. The water was very clear and near the edge was a brilliant turquoise colour. We overheard someone saying that in the middle it is 70m deep.
You can walk all the way around on a path, which we did.
I got talking to a couple of monks who quickly whipped out a camera and wanted a photo with me, the dirt covered 'barang' (foreigner). The monks all have mobile phones and we've even seen a couple tapping away on their laptops - somehow it's not what you expect.
At four points around the lake are these jetties that you can go swimming off. Gilly and I went out to the middle and back a couple of times, the water gets very deep and a bit cooler very quickly after you leave the edge. The Cambodians don't go very far at all and most were wearing life jackets, they don't have the same emphasis on learning to swim as we do back home.
So day one was great, lots of freshwater swimming, my favourite, and a nice feeling of physical tiredness which we haven't really had due to the lack of regular exercise since we arrived.
On day two we hired our own motorbikes and teamed up with Janet & David to travel down the main road towards Vietnam. It really was like something out of a film, cruising along the open road, the wind ruffling our clothes and taking in the scenery of jungle and rubber plantations. Although I couldn't photograph them, I did manage to run over a snake (about 2-3 metres long) on the way going and we also saw a huge bird of prey circling on the way back.
The end destination for the trip were these gem mines which without local knowledge we never would have known about or found. They are located on this surreal, almost lunar, landscape which, on closer inspection, is technically man made.
Dotted all over are these holes, about 50cm across and 10-15m deep. These are dug by the miners searching for Zircon (typically blue).
Pretty scary, they go down using a series of holes made in the side as an improvised ladder.
These rickety winches are used to send up buckets of earth which has been dug out at the bottom of the mine. These are sifted through at the top in search of the precious stones. While we were there we saw the winch also being used to send down a cup of iced coffee to the man labouring below...
On the way back to town we stopped at the local market and found these which you can't buy in Kratie. A small prize to anyone who can guess what it's for (or suggest the funniest use!).
The day ended on the porch of our bungalow, Gilly doing some language practise and me chilling out in the hammock.
And then, when the sun went down, there were two!