Small-Town Cambodia along the Mekong
The Mekong River is the main focus of activity in many parts of Cambodia, and exploring the small towns along the river is richly rewarding. The rhythm of life is slow and quiet. The atmosphere is laid back. People tend to be friendly and curious, and much less jaded by tourism. French Colonial architecture intermingles with traditional, wooden, Khmer houses. Wats and markets provide a hub for daily activity. There’s so much more to Cambodia than Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We treasure the time we spent here, and left with a strong desire to return one day.
Kampong Cham is a quiet, riverside town, used by most travelers as an overnight stop when heading to points further northeast. Traveling slow allowed a little more time here, and it turned out to be a pleasant break. One day we rented bikes and head out of town to visit a few temples. Phnom Srey and Phnom Pros (atop Woman Hill and Man Hill) are both about 7k from the city. Legend has it that two teams (one of men and one of women) were in competition to build the highest mountain before sunrise. The women built a big bonfire, causing the men to believe the sun was coming up. The men stopped working, and the women won. Woman Hill is indeed a bit higher than Man Hill. The views from the top of the surrounding countryside and nearby mountains are lovely, and the temple is nice to walk around. There are monkeys around, so we kept a close eye out for them! Closer to town is Nokor Bachey Temple. There’s a modern temple in front, with ruins of a famous mid-11th century temple spread out in back. Though a lot of the site is in ruins, there are several long walls, parts of towers, and some sculptures, and it’s very quiet and peaceful. In the surrounding area are some burial grounds with some impressive tombs and monuments.
The Mekong River is the main focus of activity in this part of the country, and right in front of the hotel a market with food stalls was set up every night. One of our favorite meals, though, was at SMILE Cafe. Run by the local NGO, Buddhism and Society Development Association, (BSDA) it is a “training restaurant for orphans and vulnerable youth” with tasty food and lovely service.
Looking for Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie
A few hours north by bus, Kratie is best known as the place to spot the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. The official boat launch is actually 30 mins or so north of town by tuk tuk or moto, in Kampi Village. We were lucky enough to have the boat almost to ourselves, with just one other traveler. It was late afternoon, and with the help of our boatman we spotted at least six dolphins (though there could have been some we saw twice!). There are apparently less than 80 or so left between here and in Laos. There is a larger population in Bangladesh, but only about 7000 total worldwide. The Irrawaddy is closely related to the killer whale (orca) genetically, and is dark gray with a short nose. The head looked high and rounded. The species is actually oceanic, but lives generally in brackish water, and has established some subgroups (like the ones here in the Mekong) in freshwater. The sunset on the river was one of the prettiest we’ve seen in Cambodia.
Cycling around Koh Trong Island
Another day was spent cycling the 9 kilometer loop around Koh Trong island, in the middle of the Mekong at Kratie. It was totally relaxing, and the scenery was beautiful. A brochure for the island promises “opportunities for visitors to leisurely cycle through traditional Khmer villages, fruit orchards, and rice fields while observing the daily rituals and routines of traditional village life.” That’s exactly what we got, and we didn’t see any other tourists all afternoon. This ride is part of the Mekong Discovery Trail, a “network of safe, ecotourism journeys through some of the most natural and least populated parts of the Mekong” which “encourages people to buy local products to help alleviate poverty along the Mekong River.” You can get here by ferry quite easily for a dollar or two. It seems to run when there are enough people to make it worthwhile. Homestays are available if you want to stay overnight.
All too soon it was time to move on. We humped our backpacks over to the bus station and started looking for snacks as we waited. There were, of course, the standard baguettes, sandwiches, fruit and packaged chips and cookies. One vendor had a huge tray of all kinds of insects that looked to be fried and dusted with chilies: crickets, grasshoppers, larvae, spiders. We went for a more appetizing option: Krolan (sticky rice mixed with coconut and beans and cooked in bamboo tubes). As it’s one of Kratie Province’s famous dishes we were sure to buy some for the bus ride on to Phnom Penh. Delicious!