MY VISIT TO YEAK LAOM LAKE (RATANAKIRI)
I first heard of Yeak Laom lake from an old Khmer man over a coffee in the streets of Phnom Penh. He visited when he was only a child, when the old road to reach it was muddy and slow. The Yeak Laom lake, he said, is ‘the gem of Ratanakiri’. He described a mystical volcanic crater lake with ancient forest, intriguing ethnic minority culture, and Tampuan spirits to watch over the place. Sounds enticing right? I jumped at the chance to take a journey to the far North East of Cambodia, with my heart and soul keen for some nature. I travelled by bus to Banlung, Ratanakiri province, to see for myself what the fuss was about.
After an overnight in the centre of Banlung I hired a well-loved mountain bike and opted to cycle to Yeak Laom. Despite some hill climbs, the ride out there is pleasant and took around twenty minutes. Turning right off the main highway, I passed by farmlands and small houses. I waved at smiling children and breathed in fresh air typical of Ratanakiri province.
Yeak Laom Lake – stunning nature and cultural immersion
When you arrive at Yeak Laom Lake the entrance is guarded by a gallant Tampuan figure. The statue is a symbol of Tampuan culture and the local community. Cycling through the gate, my eyes were transfixed upwards. A dramatic, one hundred meters tall tree stood proud and strong, the same impression as of the Tampuan figure.
After purchasing my $2 USD entry ticket from a group of smiling Yeak Laom staff, I parked my bicycle down the road. Looking around me, I was already surrounded by green jungle. Upwards, birds flew and every now and again a butterfly fluttered past. I headed to the lake down a set of steps. On my way passing by local sellers with an offering of fresh fruit, honeycomb and cold drinks.
The ‘gem’ of Ratanakiri
At my first sight of Yeak Laom lake, there was no doubt in my mind why so many locals and travellers visit. The lake is a unique colour – a natural, vibrant emerald. Standing on the wooden dock on the edge of the lake the view is stunning. As sunlight hits the lake, it shimmers. I sat for a moment to feast my eyes on the green jungle and relax in what is a truly beautiful place.
It is not until you dip your toes into the water of Yeak Laom lake that you can you see how clear and clean it is. A walk around the edge of the lake takes you past four wooden platforms. There are also additional places to sit and rest closer into the forest. I chose platform four to swim, the furthest from the entrance and I had it all to myself. I stripped down to my bathers, took a few tentative steps to the water’s edge and dived in. I swam tentatively out to the middle of the lake before returning to the wooden platform. I spent the morning relaxing at the dock: speaking with locals and watching as children bravely jumping from nearby trees in the water. I was falling under Yeak Laom’s spell!
Tampuan culture through the eyes of local people
Having heard of the cultural importance of Yeak Laom lake for the Tampuan community, I pre-booked a half-day Tampuan cultural tour. I wanted to see more of the rural villages, meet some local people and learn more about Tampuan culture. At 11.45am, I was met by Saroeun at the lake’s ticket office. Sarouen is ethnically Tampuan and lives with her family in a nearby village and helps with community tourism in the Yeak Laom tribal villages. At the age of nineteen, she speaks three languages: Tampuan, Khmer and English. Together we rode for ten minutes along red, dusty, dirt roads to a nearby village called Phnom. First stop was lunch.
I was greeted by a smiling Tampuan family at the front of their wooden house, elevated on stilts. I was warmly introduced to the whole family (when I say all, I mean all ten members!). Together we sat down on the wooden floorboards for lunch. I tasted traditional Tampuan food: steamed rice with ‘shlor prong’, eggplant, wild herbs and pork cooked in bamboo over a fire, absolutely delicious…I was seriously impressed! After lunch, the family showed me traditional musical instruments and a crossbow handmade from a mixture of woods.
Before I knew it, the mother of the house had wrapped me up in traditional Tampuan clothing. ‘Sampot’ is a woven textile in bright reds, blues and white for women and black and white for men. A younger daughter giggled at me as I posed for photos with my hosts, all of us dressed in these stunning materials. It was heart-warming to see a family so proud of their culture. I waved goodbye as Saroeun and continued the tour elsewhere.
Hands-on traditional textile weaving
At a neighbour’s house, I was introduced to Bird, a strong and wise Tampuan woman in her fifties. Bird showed me her handmade traditional textiles, made on wooden looms. Sitting with Bird under her house, I watched her manoeuvre what seemed like seven different wooden instruments to create these traditional weavings. This skill, I was told, is passed down from mothers to daughters. Today it is still extremely significant for Tampuan women culturally and economically.
I had a go myself. Bird, crouched behind me and guided my hands as I threaded a roll of string back and forth between many, many threads. Although I wasn’t a superstar weaver on my first go I did gain a greater appreciation for these women’s work afterwards. Small scarves take three days to make, whilst larger sampot can take up to two weeks to make depending on the design. The women currently sell their weaving at Yeak Laom lake to tourists which helps bring more income for the family. I left with Saroeun by bicycle as we headed to the last stop on the tour – rice wine.
Producing rice wine with Tampuan people
In a village only five minutes from Yeak Laom, I met Pern, who guided me through the rice wine making process. Rice wine, he told me, is pretty significant for Tampuan people. It is used regularly for sacrifices to Tampuan spirits, and to bring good fortune, health and quality harvest during rice season. I helped Pern boil the rice husk and squeeze out the excess water before steaming over the fire again. I asked him many questions about Tampuan culture and learnt a lot about what is still practised in the community today. Many people in the village wandered past as we were working. Saroeun told me that they had heard there was a ‘barang’ in the village, a light-hearted, colloquial name for a foreigner left over from French colonial times.
To finish the rice wine process we needed more time (it required some more time to dry). Rest assured, Pern had prepared some for me to taste. For those unfamiliar with rice wine, it isn’t what you’d usually expect as wine. It is an amber liquid with a fermented smell, and sweet on the tongue. Pern offered me tea also, and we sat and sipped it while he talked more about Tampuan spiritual beliefs. I thanked Pern for the experience. Saroeun and I headed back to Yeak Laom lake to the finish of our tour.
The sun had begun to sit lower in the sky by the time we made it back to Yeak Laom. Saroeun bid me farewell at the office, thanking me for taking the time to visit her community. My heart was full with the smiles of the Tampuan families I had met that day, my belly full of delicious food, and my head full of the knowledge of a unique, indigenous culture.
I decided on one last dip in the crystal, clear lake to wash off the significant layer of dust that I had acquired on my face and body. Watching the sunset over Yeak Laom lake did not disappoint, a perfect way to end what was a rewarding day with local people and authentic cultural experiences at Yeak Laom. I wish I had more time, as it would have been amazing to be able to spend more time with these people at their homestay.