Intro to Kratie, Cambodia
Kratie may be the capital of the province of the same name, but it feels like a very small town. Set along the Mekong River in eastern Cambodia, Kratie seems quiet compared to larger, more touristed cities like Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and even Battambang. Sadly, in its history, Kratie has seen an excessive amount of fighting and bombing both during Cambodia’s Civil War and during foreign incursions, including by the US during the Vietnam War. Craters from bombings are still visible through the countryside, and ridding the countryside of mines is an important initiative, as the dangers of undetonated devices is still a very real problem. Visitors who do come to the region are drawn by its natural beauty, quiet, off the beaten path riverside villages, and the chance to see the rare Irawaddy dolphin. Wat Sray Sahn-tah-rah-boh, the town’s wat is also a highlight. Kratie is accessed most commonly by bus. To the north is Stung Treng (about 3 hours), to the south, Kampong Cham (2 hours or so–we arrived from this direction, and the road was good). There are also buses from Phnom Penh, and shared minivans from these cities and some others. Below are our highlights:
North of Kratie town, at a bend in the Mekong River near some rapids, a small group of rare, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins make their home. Hunted and killed by fishermen in the past, these creatures are justifiably shy. We set out from town in a tuk tuk for the 40 minute journey (it’s not far, but the ride is slow and bumpy) to where the boats take off at Kampi. Along the way, you’ll pass stilted houses set apart from each other by stretches of rice paddy and river. The sun was getting low as the driver motored out to the middle of the river and cut the engine. We’d float for a while, until he started up the engine again to keep us from drifting too far. The dolphins are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Finally, we were lucky enough to spot dolphins gracefully gliding through the green water. The Irrawaddy looked quite different from the pink freshwater Amazon River Dolphin (Boto) we had seen in Venezuela. The Irrawaddy is easily identifiable by its bulbous forehead and short nose. Its closest relative is the orca, but they look more like a small beluga whale! The Irrawaddy is also not truly a freshwater species, but an oceanic dolphin that lives in brackish water near river mouths and estuaries. This population, however, has established itself in the freshwater Mekong. The Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project (CMDCP), a collaborative effort between WWF, the Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) and the Fisheries Administration is working to protect the species through education, research and responsible ecotourism, among other efforts. It was so peaceful being out on the river at this time of day, the silence only interrupted by our own voices every time a dolphin broke the surface.
Koh Trong Island
The picturesque islands in the middle of the Mekong are at the mercy of the ever-rising and falling river. Not many are populated, but Koh Trong island has regular boat service, and is a great place to spend the day, or more. Bicycles are available to rent, and it’s only about 10 kilometers to get around the whole island. Along the way, there are a few white, sandy beaches, local homes and gardens, rice paddies and glimpses at rural Cambodian life at every turn. The route is part of the Mekong Discovery Trail, a network of ecotourism trails in the northeast of Cambodia, the least populated and most natural part of the river. The trail, developed cooperatively with local villages, NGOs, the private sector and local authorities, covers 180 kilometers from Kratie up to the border with Laos. On our ride, we stopped for a snack at one of the small viewing areas by the river, with benches and a small shack. Children ran out to greet us whenever we slowed down, wanting to say hello. While we waited for the boat back to Kratie, a young girl of about 7 proudly showed off her English, and got through the whole alphabet without a hitch!
The Night Market
Life in all of Kratie Province is focused on the Mekong River. The market is set up on the sidewalk and road overlooking the river. It really starts to get going in the late afternoon to early evening. There are countless snack and drink stands serving up all kinds of local delicacies. It’s a great place to people-watch and grab a bite. The sunsets over the Mekong are absolutely beautiful. On the other side of the street are some French Colonial style buildings mixed in with some more traditional Khmer style. Most of the backpacker lodging options are found in this stretch of the road. The local market was back from the riverside road at its west end. It had a big, covered portion and many smaller stalls and vendors in the surrounding area. When we visited in November of 2011, the market was still struggling to get back on its feet after a big fire destroyed a large portion of it in June. From a photo we saw from earlier this year, it looks as though progress has been made! A big, new market building has been built, so that the many local residents and farmers/vendors from the countryside will continue to be able to make their livelihood selling here.
Sunsets on the Mekong
This has to be a highlight of its own. Some of the most beautiful sunsets in our memory are those we enjoyed over the Mekong River. The colors, the reflections, and here in Kratie the quiet and peace are unforgettable.
Where We Stayed
Heng Heng II Hotel had clean rooms with a private bathroom for about $7 a night. Views of the river from the front balcony. Staff was helpful, and they can help booking bus tickets or setting up local excursions.
Make a Difference
Northeastern Cambodia is one of the most remote and impoverished regions in the country. Visiting here and supporting the local economy has a big impact. Travel slow and take the time to explore, and you will certainly be rewarded.
- The Cambodian Rural Development Team can arrange homestays and tours through their partner, CRD Tours. This NGO works “to improve food security incomes and living standards of poor rural communities in support of environmental conservation in Cambodia.” They are a great resource, and can help you get things organized for your visit.