Popular Ratanakiri Province (ខេត្តរតនគិរី) is making a name for itself as a diverse region of outstanding natural beauty that provides a remote home for a mosaic of minority peoples. The Jarai, Tompuon, 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 Veun Sai.
Adrenaline activities are abundant. Swim in clear volcanic lakes, shower under waterfalls, or trek in the vast Virachey National Park – it’s all here. Tourism is taking off even as lowland politicians and generals plunder the place. 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 rate, being replaced by rubber plantations and cashew-nut farms. Hopefully 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 means ‘hill of the precious stones’. There is good-quality zircon mined in several parts of the province, as well as other semiprecious stones. Just don’t get suckered into a dream deal, as gem scams are as old as the hills themselves.
Roads in Ratanakiri are not as impressive as the sights. In the dry season, prepare to do battle with the dust of ‘red-earth Ratanakiri’, which will leave you with orange skin and ginger hair. The roads look like a papaya shake during the wet season. The ideal time to explore is November, after the rains have stopped and before the dust begins to swirl.