Banlung, although a small town, is the capital of Ratanakiri Province in Eastern Cambodia.
This part of the country is heavily forested, giving way to plantation agriculture (rubber, cashews and oil palms) and home to 12 different ethnic minority groups, giving the province a sort of "edge of civilization" feel to it. The town is growing though, new roads are being built and some things change quite quickly.
Banlung has an airfield within the town, but all commercial airlines have stopped servicing Ratanakiri. The only flights were with Mission Aviation Fellowship, in an 8 seater, but these stopped at the end of 2009. Medivacs and charters are available from Helicopters Cambodia.
At Phnom Penh Airport a US$6 departure tax may be levied. Currently the Ban Lung runway is still a gravel strip, but there are plans to extend it and build a concrete runway, which would make it more likely to attract a new carrier and make cancellations in the wet season less frequent.
The road between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng is not very good. The road between the Stung Treng junction and Banlung is fully sealed.
It is possible to get buses to Banlung from/to:
- Phnom Penh - Doing this in a single day is now reliable, with 4 'big' buses (Sorya, Rithmony, Hy Long, GST; R39,000/$9.70) and numerous minivans (R40,000/$10) servicing the route regularly, departing from 6 - 7:30am. The minivans are faster but the free pickup and dropoff can add 2-3 hours to the 8 hour trip.
- Kratie - Two options currently (2012-04):
- Shared minibus. Leaves around 8am, takes 5-6 hours. Costs $8. Beware that they seat 4 people in each row of 3 seats, so it can be packed.
- Phnom Penh Soraya Transport  bus. Leaves 12:30pm. Takes 5-7 hours. Costs $8. Buses are often late.
- Stung Treng - 2 hours, later departures.
- Laos- It is possible to buy a ticket to Four Thousand Islands in Laos from Banlung. These are not direct buses; you must take three buses, switching at Stung Treng and at the border, and then a boat to your final destination. Costs $14-18. Despite what you may be told at the Lao Embassy in Phnom Penh, Laos visas have been available on arrival at the border since about October 2009.
By private taxi
A more expensive option than bus, taking a private taxi from Phnom Penh to Banlung is possible, for about US$120. It's a 5-6 hour drive to the junction near Stung Treng, then 2-4 hours to Banlung, plus meal breaks. Some taxi drivers in Phnom Penh specialize in this trip. Your hotel/guesthouse will probably be able to help you out.
- Vietnam. The border crossing O Yadaw (Cambodia) to Pleiku (Gia Lai Province) and Quy Nhon (Viet Nam) has been opened to foreign travellers. Vietnam visas are not available at the border but Cambodia visas are. From Pleiku town, take a public van (2 hours) or taxi (1 hour and 30 min) to the border. The Cambodia post is isolated with no regular transport. The immigration police may help find a taxi; bargain - up to $80 for a whole car or $30 for a motorbike with driver. 70 km; 2 1/2 hours. Highway #78 has been completed and is now one of the the best roads in Cambodia.
A popular way to travel to Banlung used to involve taking a ferry first to Stung Treng (or Kratie). As of June 2009 these ferries were not running.
The best way to get around Ratanakiri is by motorcycle, either by renting one and then driving it yourself, or by hiring one of the ubiquitous motodop drivers hanging all around town. Be mindful of the fact that almost no one outside the town will speak English, so it may be a good idea to hire a guide to go with you to some of the villages. Also, going alone into the indigenous villages may offend them at times of taboo, when they close the village and hold ceremonies to please the spirits.
- You can possibly rent bicycles near the roundabout. Sometimes they are sold out, and one shop is quite stern about taking passports as a desposit. It is better instead to go do Bona's (?) just southeast of the roundabout. They have motorbikes and bicycles, and Mr. Bona is a friendly, English-speaking owner. Banlung Balcony (formerly Lakeview Lodge) also has mountain bikes for rent.
- For motorbike rentals, there is a shop on the highway just west of the roundabout, the Ratanak Hotel, a shop near Tribal Hotel, or most Guest Houses. Readily available are the smaller 125cc semi-step through bikes for about US$5-7/day, these are the types that you will be seeing every Khmer driving. If you'd prefer a bigger bike, they will be able to track down a 250cc bike for US$10/day.
- You can also rent trucks or 4 wheel drive vehicles if you'd like, but the cost (US$30-50/day) is often quite prohibitive to drive yourself. However, renting a car with a driver is usually helpful. This rent can be organized by various hotels and restaurants, and at Parrot tours. For bigger groups Dutch Co & Co and Terres Rouges lodge rent a Landcruiser with driver/guide which can carry up to 8 persons; a bit more expensive.
- Most guesthouses will arrange guides and these seem to get good reviews generally. A number of shopfront tour shops have sprung up since early 2009. See the "Do" section for details of guides.
Banlung is situated near several spectacular natural attractions, including waterfalls, lakes and natural parks, and has hill tribe villages.
- Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake. A 700,000 year old volcanic crater lake in the Yeak Laom (Yaklom) Commune Protected Area. The lake itself, as well as the surrounding areas, are considered sacred by the local tribal minorities, and many a legend abound about this lake. There are docks on the lake, and swimming and picnicking are options here. There is also a hiking trail which winds around the lake. Along the trail there is a visitors centre displaying some objects and folklore of the local hill tribes. 4,000 riel (US$1).
- Wat Rahtanharahm. Located about 1 kilometre out of town at the base of Eisey Patamak Mountain. Past the Wat and up the hill about half a kilometre is a large reclining Buddha with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
- Waterfalls. There are several local waterfalls, and they are best seen during the rainy season when the water volume is at its highest and the vegetation is lush and green. Cha Ong is the most toured waterfall in the area, and is 18 metres high. The rock area behind the waterfall has been eroded away over the centuries by the waterfall, thus allowing you to walk behind the fall. Kan Chang is another fall, this one approximately 7 metres in height. It empties into a large pool in which it is possible to swim. Ka Tieng is a third waterfall, this one 10 metres tall, in the jungle which also allows swimming. Further out from town are Ou'Sean Lair Waterfall (about 26 km SE) with 4 tiers, Ou'Sensranoh Waterfall (about 9 km SE and 18m high), Veal Rum Plan stone field (about 14 km N) and another crater lake (about 35km SE) Each of these charge a 2,000 riel entry fee in addition to whatever you shell out to get there in the first place..
- Rubber Plantations. On the way to the waterfalls, there are a few large rubber plantations.
- Mining Tour. As you might have figured out from all the gem dealers in town, Banlung and the Ratanakiri province is a significant gem mining area. Miners work in the Bokeo mines about 36km from the town extracting the gems which sometimes end up for sale in Banlung's market. For more information on a tour, ask your guesthouse.
- Virachey National Park, (37km northeast of town and borders [[Laos]] and [[Vietnam]]). It's chock full of jungle and mountains, and hasn't been completely explored yet. In the wet season, not all areas of the park are accessible. The Ministry of Environment (Biodiversity and Protected Areas Management Project) offers jungle treks into the park, guided by a park ranger and community guide. Their office is located near the center of Banlung.
- Go on a rafting trip or jungle trek, visit a hilltribe cemetery, 7 steps waterfall and mining villages with a local guide. These can be tailored to your taste but can be expensive for only one or two people. There are a number of new storefront places in town.
Tourist map of the area around Banlung
- Sona, Parrot Tours , another guide and Sophat, the owner of Lakeview Lodge, all get good reviews from travellers. Sitha at Parrot is reliable and is happy to recommend other guides; his shop is at the corner near A'dam restaurant. The family run places which guide you themselves may be cheaper than one that hires guides, but very cheap may mean a sleepless night shivering in a damp hammock. Generally they are local people and will often get you an impromptu invitation to a party or meal in a village. Be wary of guides from outside the province as there has been complaints of poor treatment of clients.
- 'Dutch Co & Co' adventurous ecotourism offer treks, kayaking and trips, information on border crossings to Laos and Vietnam and free maps of Banlung town and surrounds. Besides English, the manager speaks good German and of course Dutch. They donate supplies and medical attention to the indigenous people in remote areas, and support an education project in cooperation with Krou Yeung Center.
- Virachey National Park ( page) arranges treks in the park; they are not cheap but are generally the only treks that actually enter the park (most avoid paying park fees by trekking "to" the park but not "in" the park). The manager has done exchange trips to South America and is said to do a good job.
- Take a dirtbike ride along 'The Death Highway' ox cart tracks to Sen Monorom, now quite possible in a day, or two by mountain bike, in dry season
- Respect the locals. Ethnic minorities are animist and many taboos exist. At certain times (e.g. village sacrifice ceremonies), outsiders are prohibited to enter the village. Look out for some signs (such as fresh tree leaves hanging in front of the village gate or house). Taking pictures of people or places in hill tribe villages can break a taboo or disturb the spirits so get permission - you may be fined if you don't. If you are unsure about local traditions, do not enter villages without a knowledgeable guide.
Banlung's market, Phsar Banlung, is a typical Cambodian market selling the same merchandise as other markets. At early many Khmer Loeu people come to the market from their villages to sell fruits, vegetables and forest products. In addition to offering a good shopping opportunity it is a very photogenic, although permission should be sought.
Acleda (pronounced "A.C. leader") is the only bank in Banlung, and as of July 2010 it has an ATM which accepts Visa but not Cirrus or Mastercard facilities. Since guesthouses in town that cash travellers' cheques charge high commissions and ATMs are unreliable visitors are advised to carry sufficient cash both for the visit and for travel onto the next destination. (Note: the Acleda charge for overseas cards is $US2, and although many Cambodian banks in Phnom Penh don't charge, ANZ Royal charge $4.)
Canadia Bank have just (Jun 2012) opened a branch with a 24-hr ATM (that takes all cards) on the street on the west side of the market.
Eat responsibly in Banlung and don't encourage poaching by eating the local wildlife.
There's not much to differentiate Banlung cuisine from other Cambodian towns. All but three restaurants are owned and run by Cambodians. Aside from restaurants located in guesthouses, there are several eateries that serve western food.
All of these serve a variety of Cambodian and Western food and drinks, the staff are very friendly and dishes start at around US$1.50 or R6000:
- A'Dam, east of the market (turn right just before Tribal Lodge, look for the sign on the corner) is the cheapest of these, with a relaxed pub-like feel, and has a pool table, big screen television, filling meals and draft beer. Especially convivial on Friday nights when the expats gather - just go and introduce yourself!
- Gecko House, also east of the market (on the left past Tribal Lodge), has a more upmarket ambience. Owned by the brother of A'dam's host, there's good food at competitive prices, some Thai dishes, pizza and draft beer. Popular meeting place for lunches and small group dinners, and Wifi.
- Banlung Balcony Restaurant is located at the guesthouse of the same name (formerly Lakeview Lodge) on Boeung Kasieng and not only has a wide selection of Asian and Western food for travellers (including vegetarian) but also an extensive, MSG-free, Khmer menu, including local ethnic minority dishes and forest meats. Open for meals between 7am and 10pm - later for drinks, there is a full bar (including cocktails), a full-sized snooker table, free WiFi, and large-screen TV with 100s of DVDs to choose from.
- Sal's is tucked away a block south from the highway, west of the airport and about 1200 metres from the market on a rough clay track, in an elevated wooden building. The menu has a couple of English and Mexican specialities (like Shepherd's Pie, chilli con carne and fish wraps) and pizza. The menu is sorted by waiting time, important as the slow service is legendary (no Khmers ever eat there twice) - impatient diners can call 012 284 377 to pre-order the pizza.
- Star, Treetops and Tribal Guesthouses all have in-house eateries. Treetops has Wifi.
- Hommy Laos north of the roundabout has Wifi but not much grasp of the menu.
- Nature Cafe has, sadly, closed. American Restaurant is long gone.
There are a growing number of Khmer restaurants in town:
- Heading east from the intersection in front of the market (bus stop corner): on the right are a couple of good soup restaurants, the first Tanam popular for breakfasts, the second Soup 63 with a great view, down the second street left is another Khmer place, while further out on the left are three Khmer eateries (Red Cow, Green House, the last named in Khmer only ) that have gone beyond plastic chairs and strip lights to a more pleasant decor.
- South of the bank around a few bends Beef and Chips does good beef and home style chips.
There are a couple of more upmarket Western style restaurants, both located at foreign-owned hotels.
- Le Jovial Jarai in Terres Rouges Lodge by Kan Siang lake is arguably the finest restaurant in town, famous for its garden setting and music. It serves a variety of Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, and Western dishes and has a full bar, white jacketed waiter and table linen. Prices average $4.50 per main with more expensive imported steaks etc.
- Norden Lodge on Yeak Lom Road also has some classy eats including Scandinavian specialties such as Salmon Salad at around $5.
South of the roundabout are four shops selling beer, wine and spirits, all a bit more expensive than more accessible places like Phnom Penh. The range of wines is modest, buffs would do well to bring a stock.
All the restaurants and most hotels and lodges have bar service, with A'Dam and Gecko offering draft beer.
East of the market is the Apocalypse bar, with quiet atmosphere and western music.
- Bar at the Motel Phnom Yaklom, Banlung, Ratanakiri (call for a ride.), ☎ 0978160345, . The restaurant at the Motel Phnom Yaklom is starting to attract travellers for sunset drinks. It's on top of a hill and has beautiful views all day, but especially sunset. Call them and they'll drive you up the hill for free from your guesthouse and drive you back.
There are several hotels, bungalow lodges and numerous guesthouses in and around town.
- Banlung Balcony Guesthouse and Restaurant on Boeung Kan Siang road was formerly the Lake View Lodge but was taken over and renovated in Jan 2012 by the same people who run the Balcony Guesthouse in Kratie. Some rooms have air con, cable TV, and hot water; there is also a mixed 4-bed dorm and rooms with shared bathroom. Camping sites are also available around the large tree-filled property. Tents/Dorm $2; rooms $4-10. Overlooking the lake, in the attached bar/restuarant is a small TV lounge with comfortable chairs in which to just read, watch the sunset or the large-screen TV with over 100 DVDs. The friendly staff are also always willing to take play you on the full-sized snooker table (for a Coke of course!).
- Tree Top Lodge at the end of the A'dam Restaurant road is an unusual design with stilt-house bungalows connected by elevated walkways for $12-$16. Opened by old tourism hand "Mr T", it has nice views and a typical eatery that is a shade more expensive than its peers (beer $1 - 1.25).
- Lakeside Chheng Lok Hotel (012 957 422) is a new style hotel overlooking Kan Siang lake, featuring fan and air con rooms, hot water, and cable TV, plus some bungalows in the tired garden. Lake view rooms are priced $5 more than road view. US$5-10-15-20. The view across the water from the restaurant is its one real good feature.
- Sovann Kiri Hotel 012 654 373 is a new style hotel on the highway as you enter town, before the airport, featuring fan and air con rooms, hot water, fridge and cable TV. US$5-15.
- Ratanak Hotel, (075) 974 033, is a 32 room hotel with fans and air conditioning, and a good restaurant downstairs serving a wide variety of Eastern and Western food. Just east of the roundabout. US$5-10.
- Kim Morakat Hotel 012 322 292 is near the roundabout, opposite the Ratanak and has rooms in better condition. US$5-10.
- Star Hotel a block north of the road into town is an old standby.
- Mitta Pheap Guest House on the main north-south road is well regarded by Cambodian business travellers.
- Yaklom Hill Lodge, located a few km outside of Banlung, is a nature lovers dream, with individual cottages dotted on a jungle hillside and 3 viewing platforms offering great views of the surrounding hills. Not for lovers of creature comforts tho, this is an ecolodge: cottages have a small fan and 2 small lights powered by a solar cell system; ac power and hot water for showering is available 6-9PM (if the generator works). Good food (Khmer/Lao/Thai), breakfast is included. Friendly staff, tours/guides can be organized. US$15 for a double/twin cottage. 
- The (in)famous Tribal Hotel (011 912 322/075 974074) has a range of rooms with some costing more than most, one option being a US$50 per night wooden house! The standard rooms have nice decor, with fans, air conditioning, and cable TV. The standard rooms go for a more moderate US$15-20 and there are basic rooms for around $5.
- Borann Lodge next to A'dam 012 959 363, is the latest addition to the town's options. This multistory villa turned into a small hotel will suit those who love timber panelling and being central; the rooms are large and well kitted out (fridge, a/c, hot shower) for $15 or a bit smaller for $10.
- Norden Lodge, around 5km from the centre on the Yaklom Lake road, is more upmarket than most with European decor and priced at around $20 for bungalows. The restaurant serves good local and Western food.
- Terres Rouge is the town's top starred experience, boasting a large post-colonial villa style guesthouse, a group of bungalow "suites", a large pool and spa/massage facility and the town's best eatery set in sprawling tropical gardens overlooking the "town lake". It is decorated with memorabilia reflecting the founders French Paratrooper past, and at $35-60 it is in a price range all its own too, but if you are honeymooning... 
- Motel Phnom Yaklom, Banlung, Ratanakiri, . sits on top of a hill near Yaklom Lake. Has beautiful views all around especially sunset. They have bungalows and air-conditioned hotel rooms. It's kinda out of the way, but it's near the lake and they have free transportation to the lake and to town so it's not so bad. Their bungalows are now only $10 a night, same as other places but much nicer.  $10-30.
There have been some muggings around Banlung, and some gang robberies targetting isolated farms. You need to take care like any similar place.
In February 2009, a French tourist was shot during an attempted robbery after they got lost looking for Cha Ong Waterfall outside Banlung. It emphasises that you should not resist if targetted.
- Stung Treng - The town most tourists pass through on the way to Laos.
- Kratie - An extremely pleasant riverside town which is a nice place to break the long journey to Phnom Penh.
|This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!