Fewer than 100 of the lovely Irrawaddy dolphins are now thought to inhabit a 190-kilometre stretch of the Mekong, running between Kampi, just north of Kratie, all the way up to Laos. Around 25 of these live off of Kampi, an attractive village extending along the river. Considered sacred by Khmer and Lao people, they are also a valuable source of income for communities along the Mekong. But the relationship is far from usually mutually beneficial.
Many dolphins drown after getting caught in fishing gear — specific types of which have now been banned and are monitored with patrols up and down the river — and pollution is a continuing threat, as toxic chemicals, including DDT, PCB and mercury from mining upriver, have reportedly laid waste to their immune systems. Illegal fishing, however, remains an issue, including blast fishing where fishermen use explosives that kill everything within the blast radius. Meanwhile, plans for yet another dam further up the Mekong, in Laos, have also raised concerns about the use of explosives to blast out the rock to create the dam. Some fear that the sound waves will finally kill off what remains of the entire population.
In 2009, the World Wildlife Fund produced a damning report on the pollution levels in the Mekong, and the impact they were having on the vulnerable population, including the deaths of 88 dolphins between 2003 and 2009. The report provoked a furious response from the government, which denied that pollution was an issue.
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. You can either hop in a boat — $9 for one person, or $7 each for three or more — or watch from the riverbanks, for which you will be charged the same.
The boatman will take you out a couple of hundred metres, then cut the engine and within minutes you’ll be counting crests as the pods set about catching dinner. The best time to visit is late afternoon, which is their usual feeding, and thus most active, time. It’s also cooler and lovelier along the river. The experience usually takes about an hour or so.
A couple of kilometres beyond there, you have a beautiful riverside picnic setting, and beyond again is the town of Sambor (about 35 kilometres from Kratie), where you can find the 100-pillar pagoda and a small centre dedicated to turtle conservation within the grounds.
Any motodop will take you there. You can also get there under your own steam — by motorbike, bicycle or car hire ($5, $2, $12 per day respectively). It’s a very straightforward route — 20 minutes by motorbike, 45 by bicycle. Just keep riding straight and you’ll know you’re there when you pass the big dolphin statue on the side of the road.
Drop into Sambok Pagoda on the way back for a stunning sunset view. The staircase that leads up is flanked by a giant guardian statue, but the real attractions are the friendly nuns and the good views. At the apex you’ll find two hilltops — the smaller of the two is Phnom Bro (Brother Mountain) and the other, higher hill is Phnom Srei (Sister Mountain). Do not put your bags down or — like very silly us — you’ll end up getting into a scrap with one of the local monkeys when they try to nick them.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 21st April, 2016.