Avoid the backpackers: The other way to see Cambodia

Sittong the deck hand told us we were going to see the seals. Given we were only an hour up river from Phnom Penh I was surprised and confused. I was aware that there were dolphins that lived in the Mekong but had never heard of any resident seal colony.

My four friends and I disembarked on to the muddy banks of what appeared to be a small village. It was getting more bizarre by the minute. Sittong led us a short way to a small wood and thatched house that had two weaving looms at the front.

He then enthusiastically pointed to a basket of busy worms. "See..ee..lk!" he smiled. The vagaries of Cambodian pronunciation of the English language explained it all. It was silk, not seals, that we were being invited to inspect. So we bought a few beautifully woven silk scarves and headed back to the boat.

As village-dwelling seals in Cambodia would have been a revelation, so was the trip in a relatively small wooden boat up the Mekong to the riverside town of Kratie in the country's remote northeast. Over several years we had travelled widely in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, and whenever we could, we preferred to travel by various kinds of boat, for the pure pleasure of being on the water, predominantly the magnificent Mother Mekong.

This had become more difficult over recent years because most public ferry services up and down the river had been discontinued as the quality of main roads had improved, making the ferries uneconomical.  

So it was a welcome surprise that while searching for a hotel to say in Kratie I found there was a three-cabin, six-berth wooden boat available to take us upriver over three days and two nights. Since there were five us, including two couples, this was ideal.

The Khmer wooden boat was operated by the same people who ran the hotel we were planning to stay in – Rajabori Villas on an island in the middle of the Mekong called Koh Trong. Kratie is just a short motor boat ride across the water.

We were collected from our Phnom Penh hotel at 8am and driven to the boat which was moored at the main dock in the Tonle Sap river. This was going to be a cruise that might be small on luxury but would be big on adventure and atmosphere, peace, quiet and serenity. Right up our alley.

The boat is almost a caricature of cute, but not touristy. Three levels including cabins with just enough room for a double bed and a couple of suitcases, basic bathrooms, a galley, the captain's box-like steering room and an upper deck sitting and eating area protected from the sun by an adjustable awning that lets in the breeze.

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So we settle in on big comfy cushions on the deck, meet the captain and the cook Millok, who would rustle up three meals (delicious) a day.

We get our beer, wine and gin (for G&Ts at 6) from an Esky the size of a crate. We are excited as the captain hauls anchor and starts the engines. 

We settle in to the rhythm of the river and the shifting sounds of the water as it laps against the boat, which moans and creaks as it makes its way against the current. 

Before long Sittong emerges from the galley  below and serves us a delicious lunch of noodles with beef and noodles with seafood and rice. We eat hungrily and drink local beer and before long we are all fast asleep, a tangle of limbs, novels and dreams.

The journey is soothingly slow and we watch life on the riverbanks as if we are in a trance: people working in the fields, tending cows and water buffalo, a man loading a horse and cart, the banana trees shifting in the light, warm wind. Tall bamboo poles mark where locals have laid their fish traps on the riverbed. Women bathe wrapped in a sarong, waving enthusiastically as a we drift by.

As we get closer to Kompong Cham, the forest thickens. Small horses graze at the water's edge. Further on the eroded, precipitous riverbanks give way to meadows of heavy grasses and islands of reed beds. 

The sky begins to darken and the light slips away. We drop anchor and moor against a sandbank, not far from a few small boats of families who fish and live on the river. They are just silhouettes against the fading sunset but we can hear their muffled nighttime chatter. Here and there a family lights a small fire on a small island.

Sittong arrives with a giant mosquito net and cocoons our deck within it. Dinner is a muscular river fish cooked over coals at the front of the boat. There is potato salad and hot and sour soup, and of course, more beer and wine.

The sun sleeps and the sky is a star-filled canopy. The world is black and silent and it feels like there is no one in it but us. 

Our days are all like this and we revel in it. No cares, no woes. No stress, no noise.

We chose to travel to the bustling riverside market town of Kratie because we could travel there by river and also because it was a new frontier. We also wanted to see the pod of 20 or so rare Irrawaddy dolphins that live in the river about an hour's drive from the town.

After nearly three days and two nights on the water we arrive at our destination of Koh Trong, a small sandbar island in the middle of the river where our hotel, Rajabori Villas, is located. We are collected from the riverbank by a what seems like a fleet of motorbikes that carry the five of us and our luggage down the narrow and occasionally rutted track to the hotel. 

The hotel's spacious timber villas have a Cambodian flavour. Mine has two bedrooms with shuttered windows and a large timber deck, which proves perfect for drinking most kinds of alcohol while waiting for the sun to set over the Mekong.

There are several designated tourist activities in Kratie (which has some fine French colonial architecture) but we are really focused on a the trip to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.

An endlessly fascinating 45-minute tuk-tuk ride through several villages takes us to a point on the river where for a small fee we embark on small wooden motorboat that takes us across the swollen, swirling river where the treetops poke through the surface.

The captain ties a rope around a tree and we moor near two other boats and wait for the dolphins. The captain tells us they usually appear at this time of day to feed and play.

Suddenly, several, dark gray, snub-nosed dolphins, including what looks like a calf, appear above the surface of the water like small miracles and they continue to dip and glide for half and hour. They are so close it seems lie we can reach out and touch their slick shiny bodies. At most, there are 10 people watching these gorgeous, endangered creatures with a collective sense of wonder. It is worth the trip.

GETTING THERE

Fly Malaysian Airlines to Kuala Lumpur, Thai Airways to Bangkok and Vietnam Airlines to Ho Chi Minh City and connect to Phnom Penh.

See malaysiaairlines.com, thairairways.com, vietnamairlines.com.

BOAT TRIP

From Phnom Penh to Kratie (3 nights and 2 days): 

Big boat (three cabins) $US1600 (excluding food).

Small boat (one cabin) $US1000 (excluding food).

Contact : rajabori-kratie.com or ratanakiri-lodge.com.

STAYING THERE

Rajabori Villas, Koh Trong Island, Kratie, offers a variety of villas of different sizes that start from $US30 per person per night. See rajabori-kratie.com.

SEE AND DO

Day trip to see the Irrawaddy dolphins which can be booked through your hotel. 

A tuk-tuk tour of Kratie which can also be booked through your hotel.

Visit the Kratie market. 

DINING

There are a variety of restaurants and cafes on the Kratie waterfront.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

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