Cambodian Safari Part I: River Dolphins in Kratie

July 2014

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The Mekong

A couple of weeks ago I finally got the chance to explore a part of Cambodia I have wanted to visit for years: the north-east. We headed first to Kratie, and then went east to Mondulkiri province (next week I will post about the Mondulkiri leg of the trip). Aside from wanting to get out of the city and see more of Cambodia’s beautiful and varied countryside, I was eager to spot a couple of rare species in the (almost) wild: elephants in Mondulkiri, and river dolphins in Kratie.

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Tarantulas

The tiny town of Kratie (in the province of the same name) sits right on the banks of the Mekong River, about 340 kilometres from Phnom Penh. At the moment Sorya Bus Company seems to be the only mode of public transport available between the two provinces (I think it’s possible to hire a private car, but that can be expensive). To put it mildly, Sorya is not my favourite company. The bus is slow (when we went to Kampot with Sorya – a distance of about 150 kilometres – it took 5 hours) and stops frequently to pick up and drop off passengers and freight. Our journey to Kratie ended up taking 9 hours (almost as long as my flight from Phnom Penh to Melbourne) and was punctuated by a stop in Kampong Cham province (we were greeted by a crawling silver bowl of black tarantulas waiting to be roasted), the smell of spilled prahok (fermented fish paste), and two hours of broken air conditioning.

Kratie itself is sleepy and charming (with frequent reminders of French colonialism in the forms of architecture and breakfast crepes) but the river is what immediately caught my attention. The Mekong (especially in the wet season) is impressively large – a wide, brown expanse of water that stretches from one green bank to the other. The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest in the world.

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Le Tonle Guesthouse

We weren’t sure what to expect from accommodation in Kratie (there isn’t a lot of info online), and ended up staying in a few different places. By far the best was Le Tonle Guesthouse, a ten minute walk from the centre of town. Le Tonle is a Tourism Training Centre set up to provide vocational opportunities for young people in Cambodia’s north-east. The guesthouse is a converted Khmer wooden house, and the rooms (there are only four of them, so book early!) are lovely. There are two shared bathrooms (not at all a problem since there were only four couples staying at the guesthouse) and both were very clean and beautifully designed. The staff were very friendly, and the service (in both the guesthouse and the restaurant) was excellent. We paid $18 for a room with air conditioning, and the food was very reasonably priced ($1 for a coffee, $2 for a banana pancake). We wished we could have stayed here longer, but they were booked out for the rest of our Kratie trip.

On our second night we ended up at the Heng Heng II Guesthouse on the riverfront. Rooms are cheap and basic, but very sterile, and the staff were either apathetic or absent.

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Rajabori Villas, Koh Trong

For our last night in Kratie we ventured over to Koh Trong – a small island on the Mekong – to stay at Rajabori Villas. Koh Trong is just a ten minute boat ride from the Kratie dock (opposite the Santepheap Hotel). The public boat costs 1000 riel (25 cents) per person and is something of an adventure in itself; the tiny vessel is loaded up with people, animals, food, and even motorbikes. From the boat it is a $1 moto ride to Rajabori along a skinny footpath (there are no cars on the island) lined with small houses, kids, chickens, and (in the rainy season) a lot of mud. Rajabori’s villas are large and beautiful (and the most expensive accommodation of our trip, at $58 a night), and reminded me of the sort of dark-wood colonial houses of a Rudyard Kipling story. There is a pool, and our villa had a gorgeous claw-foot bathtub. However, there is no Wi-Fi or air-conditioning, and when we were there the electricity wasn’t turned on until around 5pm. But if you’re looking for way to escape the wider world for a while, Rajabori is perfect.

On our second morning in Kratie we headed 16 kilometres (about 20 minutes) out of town to Kampi to see the dolphins. The waiter at the Red Sun Falling restaurant on the main road put us in touch with his brother, a tuk-tuk driver who drove us out along the bumpy village road (an $8 return trip). We trundled past wooden houses, dogs, turkeys, smoking brick-kilns, kids packed 3-to-a-moto, and stalls of a special type of sticky rice (krolan). The ticket office was empty when we reached it; I called the number on the window and got an instrumental version of “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting For You”. After a moment a man wearing a POLICE cap led us down a muddy trickle of a track to the river, where we climbed into a fishing boat with a smiling driver and puttered out into the Mekong. We chugged along at speed for about forty-five minutes, through whirling currents and past half-submerged trees. Finally, we reached the ‘dolphin pool’ (I still don’t know why – in the whole wide river – the dolphins choose to hang out here), and our driver turned off the motor and moored us to a scraggly tree.

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On the way to the ‘dolphin pool’

The Irrawaddy dolphins (listed as a vulnerable species by the WWF) are found in a 118 mile stretch of the Mekong River between Cambodia and Laos. It is estimated that there are only around 90 river dolphins left in this area. The animals are at risk because of accidental capture in fishing nets, and increased damming of the Mekong. Irrawaddy dolphins (unlike saltwater dolphins) have slightly rounded, bulging foreheads and short beaks. They can grow up to 3 metres long, and weigh up to 150 kilograms.

The dolphins didn’t come too close, but they weren’t shy, either. They rose out of the brown water every minute or so, their bodies smooth and grey, with small blow-holes in the tops of their heads. Their mouths curved up, so it looked like they were smiling. Their eyes were like little pockets, their noses small and snubbed. They made a puffing noise each time they surfaced, making it easy to spot them. They didn’t surface for long, but they did so often. There were perhaps ten dolphins in all – though it was hard to keep count. Mothers and babies swam together, puffed together, surfaced together, perfectly synchronised. We sat on the front of the boat for maybe half an hour or longer (it was one of those moments when time seemed to stop), taking in the stillness and quiet of the river, our heads zipping back and forth each time a dolphin puffed and dived. It was a wonderful privilege to witness freshwater dolphins rising and falling and puffing, in the great open silence of the Mekong.

Other Kratie tips …

-There is an Acleda ATM about 700metres from the market (useful if you have a Cambodian bank account, but I’m not sure if it takes international cards).

-Dining options are fairly limited, but we had a delicious vegetarian curry and beef Lok Lac at Tokae (behind the river, near the market), and Red Sun Falling has a good breakfast menu (and a small bookshop).   

-The boat to the Kampi dolphin pool cost us $9 per person.

Next week – Cambodian Safari Part II: Elephants in Mondulkiri    

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