A charming, cheerful little town on the Mekong, Kratie is best known for its dolphins, in particular the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. Roughly 80 of the dwindling population of these dolphins make their home off the village of Kampi, 20 kilometres north of Kratie. The swirling waters here are considered one of the best places in the world to catch sight of this critically endangered creature.
But Kratie is worth a drop-by for more than just these sacred dolphins. It makes an excellent base for exploring the river and surrounding areas, including the enviably pretty Koh Trong, a three-kilometre long island facing the town’s riverfront. We’re going to utterly abuse the word “lovely” here, because it really is. One of the prettiest places we’ve seen in Cambodia, with clean, lush villages surrounded by palms and banana trees that you can explore on a nine-kilometre cycle trail, where you’ll find floating villages, a long beach made of sand waves, some of the largest mango trees we’ve ever seen, stunning views across the Mekong, and plenty of warm smiles. Throw in a stop for a coconut or two, and we think you may have found paradise.
Kratie itself too has enough colonial architecture to reward wanderers, as well as a good handful of welcoming guesthouses, and a smattering of decent restaurants that have grown up to meet the steadily growing number of tourists. The surrounding villages live up to fantasies of lush, riverside Cambodia, with green paddy and beautifully polished stilted wooden homes shaded by thick palms.
Going south is the small riverside town of Chhlong, once home to a busy colonial outpost whose shabby vestiges can be found, including the lovely Le Relais Hotel, which has been closed for the last five years, though workmen were beavering away in the grounds when we visited in April 2016, so who knows.
The journey to Sambor is especially lovely for its tree-lined lanes and picturesque villages, but we were even more struck by the ride down to Chhlong whose route is lined by tall-stilted homes standing proud in fields that will no doubt be flooded in less arid times of the year. On the way back, you can drop in to the Roko Kandal pagoda, one of the smallest and loveliest in the country.
If you want to explore further, you can do so with a guide or tour operator, or under your own steam. There are boat trips, hiking, cycle trips, homestays, camping, fishing, birdwatching and kayaking to be done. Many guesthouses run their own tours, but there are other operators in town that are worth checking out.
Cambodia Rural Development Tours is a long-running and very highly regarded initiative that directs all of its profits back to supporting the communities they work in and with. Thus, the more you explore and discover, the more you do to help the people you encounter along the way. The Mekong Discovery Trail project was a joint initiative between the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, the UN World Tourism Organisation and the Dutch Development Organisation, SNV. Funding for the project ran out in 2012, but Cambodia Mekong Trail aims to continue the legacy.
Kayaking fans should head to Sorya Kayaking Adventures, which is now under Aussie ownership.
Cambodia Rural Development Tours: Street 3 (inside Le Tonle Guesthouse), Kratie; T: (099) 834 353; www.crdtours.org
Cambodia Mekong Trail: T: (011) 433 836; www.cambodiamekongtrail.com.
Sorya Kayaking Adventures: #426, St. 6; T: (090) 241 148; www.soryakayaking.com.
Kratie town is centred on the market, just above which is the bus station, where you’ll most likely be dropped off. The market itself is small, lively as all markets are, yet we loved the atmosphere here, which is cheery, light and easygoing. Cambodian pop songs played over the banter and bartering at a respectable level, which was a whole new experience for us. Indeed, it may just have been a glitch, but we found Kratie to be one of the quieter towns we’ve visited in Cambodia. If you’ve been here for a while, you’ll appreciate what that means.
As most Cambodian towns are, it’s built on a grid system, which means it’s effectively impossible to get lost, as long as you have the most basic sense of direction. To the west of the market on any one of the streets you care to choose, you’ll come to the riverside road (Street 6) which follows the Mekong and looks out on to the island of Koh Trong. This is also where some of the best sunsets across that mighty river can be found, as well as most of the Western-oriented accommodation.
There is a Canadia Bank along here too, and Acleda has a branch, on Street 2, on the second block back from the river. Both have international ATMs.
Shopping options are fairly limited. The Sammaki Market in the centre of town has plenty of fresh food, clothes, toiletries and fabrics. There is a decent-sized supermarket near the Mekong Dolphin Hotel on the riverside — Sunny Mart, and two smaller options at the north and south ends of town, at the Total petrol station on the big roundabout on the road north to Kampi, and also at DT Mart on Street 10. For souvenirs, Jasmine Boat has some scarves and baskets, while the boutique at Le Bungalow has a wider range of scarves, jewellery, fabrics, scents and more.
Numerous pharmacies are dotted around the market area. The provincial hospital is on the road south out of the city, but for anything more than for the most basic treatments, you’ll need to get to Phnom Penh, or for more serious problems, Bangkok.
The post office is on Street 13, just off the riverside, but again we’d recommend holding off until you get back to Phnom Penh if you’d like to up the chances of your dispatches reaching their intended destinations.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 12th November, 2016.