Hidden away in the remote Ratanakiri province in north east Cambodia is the small yet active town of Banlung. We spent a week there a few months ago and would definitely recommend it to those who would like to get off the usual tourist merry-go-round of Siem Reap – Phnom Penh – Sihanoukville – Kampot.
Back in rainy London when we were pouring over pictures online of far flung exotic lands, Banlung stood out as somewhere that we could escape the hordes of tourists and get suitably lost in the jungle. It didn’t let us down in that respect and, even better, we discovered a lot more to the town than just our inner Tarzan and Jane.
So being the helpful little travel bloggers that we are, we’ve distilled for you all the wonderful things we came across into a manageable list of our top 7 things to do in Banlung. But first, some essential orientation information.
How to get to and from Banlung
Most travellers will make their way to Banlung from Phnom Penh – well, that’s what we did anyway. We went to the Sorya bus station near the central market in Phnom Penh the day before departure and bought two tickets for US$15 each. The next morning we set off at 7am on the supposedly 12 hour bus ride. We arrived in Banlung more like 14 hours later, but to be fair, the tardiness was mostly due to stopping every half hour for a family to run outside with their semi-naked child cascading pee all down the bus aisle! The lateness didn’t bother us that much though and those kind of things have to be expected in Cambodia.
The journey itself was an experience. Sitting at the very front of the bus, we had VIP seats to watch the madness of Cambodian driving unfold on dust strewn bumpy roads, like watching Mad Max in some kind of weird 12D virtual reality funride.
The scenery to the left and right of the bus though was a calming respite from the chaos to the front. We watched scenes of rural life play out amidst a hazy, visceral sunset which, at the risk of sounding like a big cheeseball, reassured us that travelling was indeed the best idea ever.
We didn’t get a Sorya bus back to Phnom Penh as our guesthouse gave us the number of an apparently quicker service. It turned out to be a lot quicker given we left Banlung at 6.30am and arrived in Phnom Penh around 4.30pm. The bus was only a minibus and so not as comfortable as a big Sorya bus, and it was a bit more expensive at US$17 per person. It was worth it though as we only had a day and a half in Phnom Penh and so were in a bit of a rush to get back. If you want the number of that service, you can get it from the guys at Balcony Guesthouse (like the big ejit I am, I lost my phone and that number!) – details are below. Oh, and if your Cambodia trip is at an end, the Le Thanh/O Yadao border crossing into Vietnam is around 70 kilometres from Banlung.
Things to do in Banlung
OK, so you have arrived in town, surprisingly in one piece, now what? Well, as promised, here’s our guide on how you can best get your kicks, in no particular order:
1. Sleep, eat and have a drink at Banlung Balcony Guesthouse
We booked with Balcony Guesthouse by email (email@example.com) and got a double room with a fan, shared bathroom with cold water and free pick up from the bus station, all for US$4 per night. Even in Cambodia that is cheap! For a private bathroom and the luxury of hot water you’ll pay a few dollars more. There is no air-con option as far as we are aware.
The pros of staying there are abundant – large, comfortable rooms, beautiful views of a lake and amazing sunsets, a really relaxed and comfortable bar/hang out area with a pool table, dart board, books and easy chairs and a varied, tasty and mostly cheap menu of local and Western dishes and drinks. The staff there are really helpful too, although the Western owners don’t take much of a practical role in the running of the guesthouse. A young Cambodian guy and his even younger assistant are the backbone of the establishment. The older of the two can sometimes be a bit surly but he’s the resident go to guy and gets things done when needed, and the younger guy, Lon, is very friendly and always up for a laugh.
The cons are few and generally inconsequential. Like a lot of other guesthouses in Banlung, it’s a 10/15 minute walk into town which not an issue during the day, although you’ll need a torch at night as Banlung is not well lit after dark. If you are coming back at night, be warned that they can have an arbitrary approach to the lock up time for the main gate – one night about 9.30pm, when the gate should have been open, we had to quickly scale the fence when we thought we were being chased by a couple of large, growling dogs (do watch out for dogs prowling around Banlung by the way)! And finally, the noise in the morning might annoy even the earliest of risers. Dogs and cockrels do like to joist for position as KingDings of early morning decibels and the room we were in didn’t do much to block that out. It is rural Cambodia though, so early mornings all over Banlung will sound like Slipknot covering Old MacDonald.
All that said, the good stuff wins out and we’d defintiely recommend Balcony Guesthouse as a great place to stay.
2. Shop at the central, and very local, market
Most Cambodian towns will have a central market and Banlung has one of the best we’ve come across. It’s got all the weird and wonderful food stuffs and trinkets you could want and is not touristy at all. The vast majority of shoppers are locals and so it has a very authentic feel. But what made it stand out most to us is the array of clothes shops selling new and second-hand merchandise which looks good and, most importantly, actually fits (generally people are a lot smaller in South East Asia than Western countries)! That was a godsend, as we had to get kitted out with trousers and shirts for our trek or else risk the wrath of the thorny vegetation that lurks in the jungle.
3. Jump in Yeak Loam Crater Lake
The Crater Lake is about 5km outside of Banlung and it’s easy to find, just ask for a map at your guesthouse. Best to go on a motorbike as for mere mortals the steep hills on the way can be a slog on a push bike. However you may get there, it’s worth the effort and the US$1.5 entrance fee/US$0.5 parking fee. It is simply one of the most beautiful places we have ever had a swim!
We ventured to the Lake on Chinese New Year when the crowds gather for a big party. It was good craic and we felt like a minor celebrities as we were the only Westerners and everyone had a good oul stare at us. Here’s a clip from the party:
4. Visit the many waterfalls in the surrounding area
You can see below on a tourist map of Banlung (borrowed from wikitravel.org – you should be able to get one from any decent guesthouse in town) the many waterfalls in the area. Naturally wet season in the summer months would be the best time to enjoy these natural beauties so that you can experience their real power. We went to Katieng Waterfall as part of an ill-fated and short-lived elephant trek. Despite that day being the worst of our travels so far (which we’ll explain in our next post), the waterfall itself was impressive even in dry season. That you can climb in behind the waterfall is a real treat, and it’s worth the US$0.5 entrance fee (avoid the elephant guys if you can though).
If you’re all waterfalled out (if that’s even possible!), there’s lots more in the countryside to explore. Eat up the dirt roads to visit the neighbouring towns and villages and there are mountains not too far away for some great scenery. If you’re confident on a motorbike, take the bumpy hour’s ride up to the Tonle San river, it’s stunning – but be prepared to look like a walking red dust ball!
There are lots of tours and tour companies to choose from in Banlung. When deciding which one you want to do, have a good chat with your tour guide about what you want from it and what they offer. We did this with Mr Tommy from Lucky Tours (they’re based at Bamboo Restaurant in town and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org) and decided, with his help, that the remote jungle trek would be best for us. It was, and click here to see why! Although this photo says it all really:
As Banlung does not have much by the way of street lights, on a cloudless night you have an unimpeded view of the beautiful constellations above. My neck was killing me by the end of our time there!
If you’ve any ideas about other things to do in Banlung or have any comments on our ideas, we’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading