Say “Kratie!” to any Khmer (or any Khmer fisherman who happens to fish near Kratie) and they’ll probably say, “Dolphins!” Well, not really, but if you happened to come across an English-speaking Khmer fisherman who happened to fish in the waters north of Kratie they might say that, but as most fishermen you meet in Cambodia probably don’t speak English nor fish near Kratie, you’ll just have to take our word for it.
We say this because Kratie is famous in its own little way for a few pods of Irrawaddy dolphins that frolic between the fishing nets in the waters to its north (and also in a couple of locations closer to the Lao border). But, like many things in Cambodia, while Kratie is best known for these watery beasties, there are plenty of other things to do.
A few years ago, the well-intentioned Mekong Discovery Trail produced a series of brochures highlighting activities in Kratie and neighbouring Stung Treng province to the north. The material is available across town, professionally produced and looking great, but it would be fair to say they were more than a little bit ambitious in their expectation of just what your average traveller to Kratie or Stung Treng would be willing, or able to afford, to do.
So if you are tempted to embark on a 100-kilometre bicycle ride to a pile of Khmer period rocks and a weaving village in the middle of nowhere on an unsignposted island reached via a boat driven by an unknown boat guy, which departs from an unsignposted boat landing down an unsignposted track off a secondary road, then the more extended trips on the maps should be right up your alley. If, however, you want to keep things in the category of “stuff I can do with Mum in an afternoon”, read on.
Straight across the river from Kratie town is Koh Trong. It’s one of those bucolic, semi-timeless Cambodian destinations. Filled with sugar palms, paddy, market gardens and plenty of pretty Khmer-style wooden houses, it’s a delight to either ride or walk around. It’s dead easy. Get the boat across the river, walk up to the top of where the boat lands and you’ll see, on your right, a bicycle hire shop. Hire a bicycle, then ride around the island. See, that was easy!
At the southern tip of the island, you’ll find a small pagoda and on the southwest bank a small floating Vietnamese village. At the northern tip you’ll find a relatively upmarket resort, and about halfway north and halfway south along the east coast trail, you’ll find two homestays. The northern one is by far the better one — try it out — and one night should be sufficient for most.
See the dolphins
Seeing the dolphins, truth be told, is a bit of a scam. A few pods of them swim along the river, from Kampi all the way up to the Lao border, but it is at Kampi that you’re most likely to see them. Most likely to see them, that is, if you’re willing to pay to go out on a boat. While you can see them from the shore, you can’t because those doing the charging have built a wall that obscures the river from the parking area and they won’t let you pass — even if you don’t want to go on a boat — without paying the fee.
The result is that those who don’t want to interrupt the dolphin’s habitat by just watching from the land still have to pay for a boat. While we realise that the whole scheme is about more than us getting on a boat, surely a better approach would have been to have a two-tiered system for those who want to get on a boat and those who don’t. Anyway, that’s the dolphins.
A little south of the dolphins is a hilltop pagoda that offers great view over the surrounds (though you can’t see the dolphins from here, just in case you were wondering…) and there are also some great sin murals near the summit. While it’s not worth riding all the way from Kratie to here just to see the murals and the view, if you are in the area on a dolphin watching expedition, why not stop by?
Picnic at Kampi rapids
A few kilometres to the north of the dolphins lies Kampi rapids, where you can picnic in a series of platforms over the rapids and, should you wish, go for a swim. It’s a very scenic spot, with a bunch of tourist knick-knack shops at the top (and a $1 admission for foreign-looking tourists) and it makes for an easy, slow afternoon. What we’d recommend though is going a little further, just across the big bridge, where you’ll see a restaurant on your left — it has better food, colder drinks and solid view over the entire area — though you won’t be able to put your tootsies in the river. Also, no $1 admission.
Explore Kratie town
Every man and his dog is keen to rent you a bicycle in Kratie. You can ride to the dolphins, the temple and the picnic place, you can lug it down 54,987 stairs to the boat to Koh Trong, push it through all the sand, then um, ride past the bike hire shop. Hint: hire your bike on Koh Trong.
Or you can just take a bit of a ride around town. The area to the immediate north and south of town are the most interesting — and pretty. Try it in early morning or late afternoon for the best pics.
Regular buses depart through the morning from Phnom Penh in the south and Stung Treng to the north. The trip from Phnom Penh takes six to seven hours and from Stung Treng around three.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 6th March, 2015.