Ethnic minorities, elephants, waterfalls and jungle combine to make this one of the most popular provinces in the northeast of Cambodia. Many of the inhabitants come from minority groups known as Khmer Leu (Upper Khmer), including Kreung, Tompuon and Jarai. These tribes each have their own distinct language and customs, although today they dress as most other poor Cambodians and lack the colourful clothing seen in Thailand and Vietnm. This could be a blessing in disguise, as it may spare the tourist onslaught seen in northern Thailand. There is also a large Lao population through out the province and multiple languages will be heard in village such as Voen Sai.
The province played its part in Cambodia’s contemporary tragedy, serving as a base for the Khmer Rouge leadership during much of the 1960s. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary fled here in 1963 and established headquarter in Ta Veng in the north of the province.
Gem mining and tourism form the lifeblood of the province. There is good quality zircon minded in several parts of the province and the prices are low compared to the west (Ratanakiri actually translates as ‘hill of the precious stones’. However, in the long run, tourism is the future thanks to the abundant natural attractions the province has been blessed with. Boeung Yeak Lom, a volcanic lake, is outstanding, but in time the massive Virachay National Park may prove popular too.
Roads in Ratanakiri are not as impressive as the sights – dry season means chewing on dust, we season means sloshing about in mud; take your pick. Boats are a popular means of transport for scenic trips, but the province is too isolated to make river travel into Stung Treng a realistic option.