In north east of Cambodia, on the road leading further east to Vietnam, sits Banlung. Capital of the province of Ratanakiri, Banlung is no more than a small dusty town, lost amongst rubber fields and what little remains of its forests. Not looking much like a capital, it is only by roaming its streets that you will encounter old official buildings reminding you that it is. This Cambodian “Far-West” town is situated 750km north-east of Phnom Pehn and getting there can be an epic journey. It has to be done in two steps: Phnom Pehn – Kratie, Kratie – Banlung.
The 78 Kounmom Road is almost the only road leading to Banlung – and Vietnam – and it is in fact nothing more than a dirt track. Along the road, the bus is either crossing creaky narrow wooden bridges overhanging wild rivers or struggling in deep muddy puddles. I heard so many stories of buses stuck in the mud for hours during the rainy season, waiting to be helped out by some passing truck. But major construction work is taking place nowadays in order to open up the region, and the more I head north the more the scenery changes into a mix of forest, plantations and massive works. From Kratie, an old bus drags me over this 250km bumpy dusty wet track for almost 7 hours and at last leaves me in one of the poorest places in Cambodia…
It is late and I have no idea where I’m going to sleep. But I have no worries about finding a hotel; a swarm of motodop drivers falls upon the passengers getting off the bus. They get a small reward from hotels if they can find customers, and are very hard at work! I am of course the perfect “prey”, being the only foreigner around. I only need to make my choice in the middle of these numerous offers, and it is not long before I am unpacking in my humble room. The hotel is settled in front of a small lake and is absolutely deserted, except if I count the millions of midges fluttering around or strewn on the floor.
The greatest way to visit the area is definitely to rent a motorbike. Unlike places like Siem Reap – where foreigners are banned from motorcycling – I can get a 100cc automatic motorcycle for a few Riels, and I manage to get a discount negotiating for a whole week.
As I hit the road in the sun, I am about to discover that the real surprise of Ratanakiri is not in its landscape or in its wildlife, but in its people and the life they live. The first thing literally hitting me in the face when I drive across the place is the red dust. Everything is red: the roads and the plants growing next to it, the cars and the trucks, the houses… Even the people are covered in this stubborn red dust. The earth itself seems to have faded on absolutely everything. Riding my motorbike I am turning red myself.
On Banlung and of its surrounding area
All around Banlung are situated many rubber plantations; rubber is indeed the main income of the region – along with the wood exploitation. As I stop my motorcycle to walk amongst the rubber trees and watch the people working, I can hear the litany of the children calling “hello” to attract my attention. My red camouflage doesn’t seem to work and I am spotted from afar… The workers scratch a gash opened in the tree with a tooth brush attached to a very long stick and the pouring thick rubber is then collected in a bowl as it slowly drips along the trunk. I am admiring the dexterity of the rubber workers while massive trucks now and again drive past the road, belching their black fumes, overloaded with cut-down trees and people sitting on top.
The pristine forest of the region – or more precisely what sadly remains of it – is dramatically endangered. Logging and exploiting the wood causes its slow but ensured disappearance and the concept of sustainability is definitely unknown around here. I feel it as I ride along the red tracks, crossing massive deforested areas, being replanted mainly in aligned rubber trees. I experience a strange sensation as well as I am noticing that I can’t really hear any birds singing… The natural habitat of many wild species has now drastically shrunk, and only a few protected natural parks (like Virachey National Park, 30km further North) try to provide a shelter for them. But even these wild life sanctuaries are now subject to illegal logging and poaching. From the sky, the province may start looking like a giant patchwork of fields.
But is it only a matter seen in Ratanakiri? Isn’t the whole of Cambodia experiencing this phenomenon, with its poor population trying to survive on any resource? I clearly witness it here, more than anywhere else in the country.
Discovering the people
Even if Ratanakiri’s landscape is threatened, riding through it is a major discovery to me. I feel lost on these tracks, and I ride for hours with sometimes only a few other motorbikes crossing my path. The succession of rubber fields and wild forest is punctuated by the fortuitous encounter of a group of houses. Small villages are dispatched all over the region, regrouping 10 to 20 families of a minority ethnic group. Tompuon, Chunchiet, Kreung or Chinese – all these groups live in remote places, only subsisting on plantations and farming. Here and there, water buffalos linger in muddy puddles, and pigs and chickens are running in front of the motorcycle as I drive past them.
Children go on calling their “hello” and people wave at me to greet me as I am proudly riding my roaring mount. Now and again, people invite me to stop and share a refreshing beer, sugar cane juice or even a small meal in the shade of their stilted houses. Communication is based on miming, showing pictures on my camera and laughing as the alcohol quickly goes to our heads in the extreme heat. Some people have nearly nothing, but share it.
A memory of Ratanakiri
After a few days roaming around Banlung, my skin has taken the red colour of the dust. My clothes are reddened as well, and no laundry will help them retrieving their original colours. But further than my skin and my clothes, my mind is branded by Ratanakiri and its pictures. I was expecting a kind of wilderness experience… I got a very deep human one. And this is what travelling is about; always experiencing and embracing the unexpected.