‘Weren’t you worried about the lake creatures?’, my colleague asked after hearing about my recent trip north. My laugh gave way to an awkward silence as I paused and had the slightly desperate thought, ‘should I have worried about the lake creatures?’
Every November in provinces all over Cambodia, the directional change of the Tonle Sap River is celebrated with boat races, fireworks, light displays and other noisy & delicious festivities.
This big event calls for a three-day national holiday and so, some friends and I decided to take the opportunity to head north and explore the still somewhat remote province of Ratanakiri. Bicycling, waterfall chasing, exploring and good food were in order. The most beautiful places in Cambodia often aren’t flashy or particularly well advertised, and we wanted to see what gems were tucked away in this far off jungle province.
We decided to brave the night bus (how bad could it be?) to make the most of the time we had. If you’ve ever wanted to contemplate your own mortality in a tiny compartment in the bottom of a bus while cuddled up next to a friend, I would highly recommend this form of transport.
After 11 long and bumpy hours (only one of us slept and it wasn’t me) we arrived in Banlung, Ratanakiri. On the way to our lodge, our tuk tuk driver proudly pointed out the new ‘psar tomnurp’, a supermarket, the first of its kind in the town.
While Banlung itself wasn’t quite the mysterious green jungle town I’d been expecting, it was beautiful in its own way. Just a few kilometres out of town the bitumen roads gave way to the red dirt Ratanakiri is famous for and long stretches of the colourful tracks we cycled were overlooked by rubber plantations.
On our second day we set off in search of a quiet spot to swim and laze away the morning. After being promised a leisurely bicycle ride through the countryside, my advice for those looking to do the same is to never trust someone who cycles for fun when they tell you, ‘we’ll all just take it easy.’
Yeak Laom - Giant’s Lake
Despite my unhappy legs, our destination, Yeak Laom, is now firmly at the top of my list of favourite places in Cambodia. A stunning, emerald pool set in the midst of a dense forest, Yeak Laom or ‘Giant’s Lake’ rests in a 4,000 year old volcano crater.
We took the small path that leads around the lake and ended up at a wooden swimming platform that we had to ourselves for most of the morning. In stark contrast to the constant noise of traffic, evening karaoke and wedding music in Cambodia’s capital, the calm waters and quiet surrounds were a rare treat.
Yeak Laom legends
Legend says that there are creatures that live in the waters of Yeak Laom lake, although the stories and about who or what dwells within differ.
As a site sacred to the local indigenous people groups, many believe that the lake and the forests that surround it are home to spirits. Others say that fantastic creatures have made their home in the waters.
Stories aside, it’s easy to understand how the depths of the lake and prohibition on fishing could conjure up qualms of fish and other natural fresh water inhabitants growing unchecked to intimidating sizes.
Of course, I only heard these stories after my trip. In hindsight that was probably a good thing, or I may have spent a little more time while swimming, thinking about whether that was a nibble on my toes or not.
So, should I have worried about the lake creatures? Not this trip at least, although if I return to Yeak Laom in the future I might be a little more hesitant to swim out so far.
A return to adventure
After one or two relaxing, ‘do nothing’ holiday weekends at the beach this year, this trip to Ratanakiri felt like a return to my holiday roots. I loved the adventure of travelling somewhere completely new and unknown. I revelled in that feeling you get when you fall into bed after a full day of swimming, walking and cycling. I even appreciated the comic discomfort and unpredictability of our night bus journeys.
Ratanakiri gave me vivid sunsets, funny moments with friends and an incredible day at the lake, but it also reminded me of the beauty and fun of travelling a little off the beaten track and I’m thankful for that.
Anna Waite hails from Australia but lives and works in south east asia. She enjoys travel, good coffee and getting to hang out with awesome people from around the world.