We left Phnom Penh on Tuesday and boarded the loser cruiser for Kratie. The trip was supposed to be a solid six hours, which we’d mentally prepared ourselves for. Instead, it turned into an eight hour endurance event more akin to a hop-on hop-off tour of the Cambodian countryside, than the “express” service we were expecting. We must have stopped on ten different occasions never with any idea what the hell was going on – sometimes there was just time to go to the loo, on another occasion we sat and waited while the driver tucked into a five course meal. On the plus side, the bus was half empty (possibly because all the other tourists had decided to save themselves the agony and catch a minivan), so we could spread out and do our best to catch some zzzzs.
It was all worth it when we got to Kratie, because Kratie is beautiful. It’s a lovely, mellow, little town, the main strip of which lies between the central market on one side, and the Mekong on the other. Our guesthouse was an absolute monstrosity (it was slim pickings in town, but having to BYO toilet paper was truly a new low). Its only redeeming feature was the balcony along the entire frontage that looked straight out across the river to the island of Koh Trong. There was nothing quite as fancy as a table, or comfortable chairs to sit in while soaking up the view, but we scrounged up a couple of plastic picnic chairs and some kind of abandoned trolley and settled in every night for gorgeous sunsets and techno music courtesy of the group exercise classes taking place on the promenade.
The main reason tourists visit Kratie is to see the pod of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the Mekong about 20 km north of town. We got amongst the action and caught a tuk tuk to the village of Kampi, where we could catch a boat out into the river to see the dolphins. It’s clearly a cash-cow for the local villagers who charge through the nose for the trip (if only more of the money went into conservation). Notwithstanding that, we’d rather stump up with the cash than make dicks of ourselves like the Aussie man mouthing off in the car park about the fact that his driver hadn’t told him that he’d have to catch a boat to see the dolphins. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what he expected. I’m fairly confident there’s no Seaworld in Kratie so, if he’d bothered to engage his brain for a moment, he probably would have realised that he was going to have to get on a boat at some point if he wanted to see dolphins.
We’d only been on the water for about five minutes when we spotted our first dolphin. The dolphins don’t really look like dolphins that we see at home – apparently they are most closely related to orcas, but they look like belugas with rounded heads and snubby noses. They’re also pretty little. We spent an hour on the water and saw dolphins for almost the entire time. As you’d expect, they’re tricky little buggers to get a photo of, but we tried. Our driver was an incredibly likeable man, and was super respectful of the dolphins – we never got too close to them and he mainly rowed the boat about rather than having to use the engine. It was a really cool experience and another “first” for the trip.
The half hour ride to and from Kampi gave us a glimpse of truly rural Cambodia. Campbell and I both commented that, in a lot of ways, the surroundings reminded us more of rural Rajasthan than of anywhere else we have been in SE Asia. There were cows, pigs, ducks, chickens, dogs and cats on the streets, little kids running about and yelling out “hello” as we passed, a small shop out front of every house selling fruit, cold drinks or smokes and very very basic homes. As with the rest of Cambodia, the houses here tend to be built on stilts – the family sleep in the home itself and the space underneath is used for cooking, storage and sheltering from the sun.
On our second day in Kratie we caught the local ferry across the Mekong to visit the little island of Koh Trong. Koh Trong is one of the most charming places we have visited in SE Asia. There are no cars on the island, so it makes an ideal spot for a bit of cycling. We hired a couple of old school cruisers straight off the ferry and took off on the 9 km loop around the island. The attraction here is the beauty of the island itself – it is truly untouched. There are rice paddies in the middle and orchards and jungles around the perimeter, along with a sprinkling of villages and only a handful of guesthouses and places to eat. There are loads of cows and other animals pottering around, including the enormous snake that we managed to come across (and thankfully scare away) on our bikes. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Koh Trong is the white sandy beaches that fringe the island, which (for a very brief moment) make the Mekong seem like an appealing place for a dip. On the day we visited, the sky was so blue that the reflection almost tricked you into thinking the water in the Mekong was blue as well. Sadly, it was most definitely still the sludgy brown we’d seen in other places.
It was time to hit the road again after three nights in Kratie. We decided to break the trip back to Phnom Penh by staying one night in Kompong Cham. We also decided to skip the four hour bus ride and go for the two hour public minivan ride instead. We knew that this could be a little challenging – when you book your ticket there are large signs saying “there are three seats in each row in the van and it is four people to a row. If you want a seat to yourself you must pay extra”. Luckily, for the first hour we all got a seat to ourself. Things got a whole lot squishier when we stopped at a village and a desperately unwell woman boarded the van, along with four family members who had to assist her to walk and seemed to be the only thing keeping her comfortable/alive. There were a few more pick-ups after that and, before you knew it, there were 20 people in our 12 seater van. Even though we had a woman knocking on death’s door onboard, we stopped another couple of times, so that the other passengers could pick up pineapples and deep-fried crickets. If the trip had been any longer than two hours we would have gone mental, but it was short enough that we found the whole thing highly amusing.
Kampong Cham is the third largest city in Cambodia but, from a tourism perspective, seems to be known for nothing in particular. We’ll enjoy dinner by the Mekong tonight (possibly for the last time of the trip) and then hightail it back to Phnom Penh tomorrow morning. We have nice Christmas accommodation lined up and definitely want to make the most of it!