banlung town, Ratanakkiri province – A mere trickle of tourists have visited this northeastern province to take in Cambodia’s natural treasures. Yet government officials say they hope “eco-tourism” will thrive here in the country’s newly achieved era of stability.
Now that three decades of war are over, Cambodia is striving to court foreign tourists to even its most far-flung locales.
For instance, in 2001, Cambodia is expected to receive 200,000 Chinese tourists, who Thong Khon, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Tourism, said should have the option to travel here.
Since the end of 1999, more than 400 tourists have traveled to Cambodia’s northwest, according to Thong Khon, marking an estimated 40 percent increase over 1998.
But while urban renewal is on the rise, rural infrastructure remains unrestored.
Thong Khon said to boost rural eco-tourism, flights must be increased and, most importantly, roads improved from other, more popular regions in Cambodia.
“After tourists come to see Angkor Wat, they should come to northeastern Cambodia to experience nature,” he said.
It is possible to travel overland from Phnom Penh to here, via Kompong Cham and Kratie, and turning off before Stung Treng. But the road is extremely rough and hilly.
Overland travel from Stung Treng to this provincial capital can be hazardous during the rainy season—taking up to nine hours.
And roads here as recently as last year were a popular place for bandits. But local officials now say the bandits have cleared out and that soldiers no longer take bribes along the road.
Thong Khon said the government is also seeking financial support to build a new airport here that includes a better runway, a terminal and a waiting room.
One traveler here, after backpacking through several provinces, he said he prefers the trees and mountains of this untouched region to any other.
“Here, there are vast landscapes; we can see real nature,” said the traveler. He said the cool and crystal-clear water of Yeak Lorm lake and the waterfalls outside Banlung town could serve as a respite from the dusty highway during the dry season. But he warned that the province, in particular the hill-tribe communities that live here, will be exploited if development goes too far. Twelve different ethnic minorities of hill tribes live in this province.
Thong Khon said organized tours of hill-tribe communities are being planned, but the first priority is improving the roads to the varying communities.
“This is such a good place for a holiday,” the traveler said. “It is so unspoiled. We can enjoy it for a long time.”