Banlung, the hidden gem of Cambodia

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It was Friday the 13th when we cross the border separating Laos from Cambodia. For some people this particular day brings bad luck so we decided to think unlike the others, that it would bring good luck. We decided to hitchhike from the 4000 islands in the south of Laos to whatever city we could reach before dark in Cambodia, aiming at eventually hitting Phnom Penh since we wanted to skip the north of Cambodia to save time (wait for our upcoming article about how we crossed the border). We actually reached a city in Cambodia around 12pm, that city was Stung Treng, the first big city in the north.

cambodia map
A: Stung Treng, B: Banlung

Stung Treng is an “important” hub in the north of Cambodia, from there you can reach pretty much any city in the country or at least the big ones and even get a bus to Laos. The problem about Stung Treng is that there is nothing really to keep you there, it’s quite dirty and it’s not pretty, which are not our main concerns but it lacks activities. So after our first Cambodian meal at the market of rice noodles with a delicious yellowish meat-like sauce served with fresh vegetables and oddly enough flowers to add in if desired for a lovely 75 cents a positive change from Laos’ higher prices. We then tried to figure out where to go next. We remembered reading about this town called Ban Lung, in Ratanakiri Province, in the northeast, famous for its ancient and beautiful crater lake, many waterfalls, and few tourists. Looking at the map it seemed fairly close to Stung Treng but knowing it was one of the most remote areas of Cambodia we decided not to hitchhike but to take a bus there. And what a great decision we made! We would soon discover one of the highlights of our trip!

banlung city center
Welcome to Banlung City!

So we took a minibus, which was apparently the only way to get to Banlung and paid $5 for the 3 hours ride, we were surprised the price was still the same as it was in 2009...yes we have an old version of Lonely Planet...Let’s be honest, the city of Ban Lung itself is no more charming than Stung Treng is, the driver dropped us off at the market in the center of town, it’s dusty and the buildings are not aging nicely, but hey we don’t travel in South East Asia for the beauty of the architecture. We then proceeded with the painful step of finding cheap accommodation after a long and tiring day. Realizing that guesthouses where about $6 anywhere near the market we then decided to follow the advice of our old friend Lonely Planet, maybe because we where exhausted. We arrived at Tribal Guesthouse, a few minutes from the market and got a decent room, a bit away from the noisy and dusty center, for $5, a dollar saved is another meal, entrance fee, or bus ride!

Banlung market
The bustling market of Banlung
The following day we wanted to go to Yeak Laom Lake, so we set our alarms for 6 am in order to be there before the sun is at its fiercest. Yeak Laom Lake is the main tourist attraction of Banlung and probably the whole Ratanakiri province, other attractions being treks in the “not-fully-explored” jungle full of rare flora and fauna as well as other undiscovered delights, not accessible to the average traveler, and unfortunately for us, even less for the cheap traveler. Yeak Laom Lake is a volcanic crater formed some 4000 years ago and is also a center piece in the beliefs of the indigenous people of this region. The funny fact about the lake is that it’s shaped in a perfect circle and if you add on top of that all the legends derived from the local’s religion, some say a spirit lives in the lake, it is truly a magical place.

banlung market breakfast
Breakfast with the locals
The lake is located around 4km east of the city and it’s reachable by any motorized vehicle or by foot, it is actually a nice walk. After a good breakfast at the market we headed to the lake about an hour’s walk from town. The first part of the trip is somewhat unpleasant as you have to follow the big road 78 but the last 2km are nice and shaded with only a few motorbikes in the horizon. Once there we had to pay $1.50 to get in, which is written on a big blue sign, while it may seem “expensive” for some budget travelers, it is worth every penny.

wooden decks yeak laom lake
Jumping off the decks is a lot of fun
Once inside it was only 8:30 am, we walked down the stairs leading to the lake and a wooden deck where we could admire the beautiful scenery, with only one other Cambodian couple there. The lake is surrounded by a lush dark green jungle and you can hear all the birds chirping and singing continuously, there are also parrots and other exotic birds. We then tried to find a nice place to swim as the first deck is surrounded by little shops and doesn’t give any impression of privacy. Going counter-clockwise around the lake we found another wooden deck, completely secluded surrounded by beautiful trees provided a slight shade around the deck. There we took off our clothes and dipped our pale bodies in the water, we didn’t have the occasion to swim for quite some time. Jumping off the deck was a lot of fun and we really had the impression the lake was ours...until of course the first local family, a dad with his three kids came plunging in beside us at around 10:30 am.

decks around yeak laom
One of the four decks around the lake

jungle in yeak laom lake
The jungle surrounding the lake
Around 12 pm, our private spot was not private anymore, as kids, old folks and foreigners went on and off successively, either mesmerized by the view or just here to swim too. We then continued the walk counter-clockwise and realized there are four decks in total around the lake and even with all the people inside the two last ones are never used so we decided to take a rest there. When it was time to leave, we decided to finish the circle and at some point the “well-paved” way stops brutally and turns into a small jungle path. That’s the most fun part of the park, we didn’t see anybody else circling around the lake, but we passed through the jungle, had close encounters with huge lizards and small yellow snakes and near the end we even passed through a bamboo forest, it was always a nice rush of adrenaline anytime we heard something crawling next to our feet.

lizard in jungle
Those guys crawl all over the place
Hi there !

Back at the entrance, we then walked back to Banlung, with big smiles, nice pictures and for sure, unforgettable memories of our trip there even if we missed the waterfalls, another attraction of the town.


  1. So, I guess there were no horrible parasites that enter your body through your skin or body orifices. This is what I fear when I am swimming in the tropics. But having a nice swim tops off the perfect day for me.

    1. The water in the lake was so clear and so fresh we didn't even think about parasites, seeing local kids swimming in the lake made us confident I guess. I think if the water was brown and warm we wouldn't have gone inside it.

    2. Thanks for your comment by the way, do you know one of those places infected by parasites ? Just in case we go there...