Say Kratie to any Khmer and they'll think dolphins -- in particular Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. Around 20 kilometres north of Kratie, at the village of Kampi, the swirling waters of the Mekong are considered one of the best places in the world to see the critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin.
Dolphins aside, Kratie province is also known for its pleasing riverside scenery and pretty villages and paddy. Nearly all who choose to stay here do so in the same-named provincial capital of Kratie -- an almost charming town with enough colonial architecture and tree-lined streets to warrant getting the camera out, a bunch of welcoming guesthouses and hotels and even a bar -- quite a novelty in these parts. The surrounding villages will live up to fantasies of lush, riverside Cambodia, with green paddy and beautifully polished stilted wooden homes shaded by thick palms.
Moreso than Stung Treng to the north, if you're planning on blasting through from Phnom Penh to Don Dhet in 4,000 islands, if you've got the time, you'll be glad to have at least had an overnight stay here.
Fewer than 80 dolphins (a VOA report in June 2009 put the total at 76) remain in the river -- primarily along a near 200 kilometre stretch of the Mekong River in northern Cambodia heading towards the Lao frontier. About 25 of these dolphins reside primarily in the area near Kampi, and while there are ongoing and comprehensive conservation projects underway, dolphin mortality remains high. A report by the WWF said the lower part of the Mekong River has become so polluted and contaminated that as many as 88 dolphins have died since 2003. Toxic substances such as the DDT pesticide that is used in agriculture and PCB that WWF Cambodia believes is from mining in Laos (particularly copper and gold mining in Savannakhet province) do not help the situation.
A common misconception is that the dolphins can be seen from Kratie town; this is not the case. The dolphins hang out at Kampi, some 20 kilometres north along the river road. Any motodop will be more than happy to take you there. Other ways to get to Kampi include motorbike hire ($6 per day), bicycle hire ($2 per day) and car hire ($15 per day). Once you arrive at the dolphin pool, it costs $9 for one person to rent an entire boat or $7 per person with three or more people. The boat ride lasts for an hour or two and the driver should be flexible on bringing you back once you've had your fill. A number of dolphins are still in the area and on prior visits we saw about 10, several of which swam quite close to the boat. Note that the organisers will not let you watch from the mainland -- and have in fact built a wall to obscure the view. If you want to see the dolphins, even if you don't want to use the boat, you still have to pay for it. Yes, idiotic.
It takes about 30 minutes each way to Kampi, and we recommend going in the late afternoon when it's cooler and you can pair your trip with a stop at the nearby Sambok Mountain pagoda to watch the sunset. A giant (like those who mythically built Angkor Wat) guards the staircase to the temple. At the top, there's a small pagoda on Phnom Bro (Brother Mountain) and another, higher hill connected by staircase, called Phnom Srei (Sister Mountain). Oddly, the male monks live on the sister hill and the nun's pagoda is on brother hill. We found the nuns to be warm and chatty with female solo travellers who spoke only basic Khmer.
Koh Trong, located across the river from Kratie's town centre, is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. We learned the hard way that bicycles are available on the island and you do not need to rent one in town and haul it down to the river before boarding the ferry. The ferry costs 1,000 riel per person (bicycles are free). A nine-kilometre trail circles the entire island, and while it's a bumpy ride, it's beautiful, lush and unspoilt, with a few villages, grazing cows and smiling kids around the perimeter and fluorescent paddy in the centre. We've never had more fun trying to get lost and never felt like we'd accessed authentic Cambodia quite so easily. You can watch the sunset from the island's western banks, but be sure to arrange transport back ahead of time since the last scheduled ferry leaves promptly at 18:30. Accommodation is available on Koh Trong -- there are two homestays and one more upmarket resort.
Many other towns and villages make pleasant day trips from Kratie. Among them is Chhlong, about an hour and a half south by motorbike. A morning trip with a motodop should cost you about $13. The town itself was both once a bustling port for French and Chinese traders, and the beautiful, decaying colonial architecture lining the riverfront attests to this. There's also a famous stilted home with 100 stilts. It isn't particularly impressive but the family who lives there is welcoming and likes to share stories from the "Pol Pot time". Villagers were evicted from the town during the Khmer Rouge's rule, and they occupied most of the town's buildings.
Inside Le Relais Hotel on the edge of town is a former prison where skulls of Khmer Rouge detainees remain. There's not much here, although if you're interested in Cambodian history and have a driver who doesn't mind facilitating conversation with the locals it can be a very worthwhile sidetrip. There's also a hilltop pagoda that is surrounded by war-era pillboxes and a police base that are both work a look on your way out of town.
Aside from the dolphins, there's ample opportunity for boat trips, village walks and general exploring. Many of the guesthouses in Kratie have more information on things to see and do in the area. In our experience, the area surrounding Kratie is particularly lush, with beautiful stilted homes, and some of the friendliest people we've met throughout Cambodia.
A few NGOs organise home stays in several of these villages as well as in Koh Trong -- they can be contacted through their web sites if you plan ahead, and the Cambodian Rural Development Team has a small kiosk on the grounds of Le Bungalow in Kratie town.
Cambodian Rural Development Team: (023) 357 230 ; www.crdt.org.kh ; No. 695 Street 2, Kratie
Cambodia Community Development: (012) 674 800 ; info @ crdt.org.kh (for island homestays).