Once very prolific and found everywhere in the Mekong in Cambodia,the Irrawaddy river dolphin can now only be found in a few places. One of them is near the town of Kratie, which is why we headed there next. Unfortunately this meant two bus journeys and a short stop in Phnom Penh inbetween.
On our way into the eastern countryside we encountered more and more dusty and bumpy gravel roads but at least getting out of the capital was a lot easier and faster than going west.
Kratie is an average provincial town and rather small with hardly anything special to write home about. It lies at the Mekong river and is a connection and transport hub to the region. We had booked two nights in a nice double room in a guesthouse a kilometer upstream of the bus station which was nice and cosy.
About every person and their grandmother in town seemed to offer tours to the surrounding temples and the dolphins. The closest place to see these unusual water mammals is in Kampi, about 16 km upstream. Because of the easy and flat road there we decided to hire bikes and de-rust our pedalling muscles (while saving some money). Getting them through our accommodation was easy and convenient and allowed us an early morning start. About one hour later we arrived at the carpark for the dolphin boat tours. Prices are fixed at $9 per person for a one hour ride during the dry season and one and a half hour during rain season. After paying and giving our tickets to one of the men hanging around next to the steps down to the river, we found ourselves on a small longtail boat heading out into the middle of the river.
After less than a hundred meters our skipper spotted the first dolphin and turned of the engine as to not to harm the animal. Using the oar instead, he rowed the boat while we played spot the dolphin. It was swimming in the same direction as us, but it was not easy to predict when and where it surfaced in order to get a photo of it. After a bit it swam away and we engaged the engine again. It was not long until the next fins appeared and we were back to rowing. We had found two or three dolphins which swam around ours and one other tourist boat. Despite them being advertised with photos of jumping dolphins, we never saw more than the top half of them. Most of the time they came to the surface only very briefly. We were constantly scanning the surface but mostly found them by listening for them blowing out the water before breathing in. By the time we aligned our cameras and focussed they disappeared in the murky waters again. Getting photos of more than just empty waves turned out to be quite tricky but in the end we succeeded.
Once upon a time there used to be over 1,000 irrawaddy dolphins living in the Mekong all the way up to the 4000 islands. Enter the Khmer Rouge and the great hunt began. The main reason was the same which brought the numbers of whales in the oceans down drastically: their oil. Today only an estimated 85 of these special freshwater mammals still roam the river and are heavily protected. Despite the ban of fishing and motorised water transport between Kampi and the 4000 islands, their future is still uncertain. Thankfully, the area around Kampi is also known as a dolphin pool with around 20 animals living there near permanently. The locals have discovered them as a source of tourist money and seem to therefore look after them and protect them.
During our boat ride we had plenty of sightings; some as close as ten meters from the boat which was really exciting. Once we got back ashore, we noticed a group of them very close to the landing place and decided to keep watching them while eating lunch. The group seemed to be 5-10 big and some of them were hunting. They swam around in tight circles while spitting water and making big waves. It was very exciting and we were super happy to get some more dolphin time. Sadly it all came to an end when the next tour boat returned and the dolphins moved further downstream.
Taking this as a hint we decided to go return to the bikes and head homeward.
Roughly near the halfway mark lies the hill Phnom Sambok which features a temple complex on its top along with over 250 steps to get there. Our guide book mentioned great sunset views but this info must have been a few years old. The forest had grown up high and obstructed any great view. The haze in the atmosphere did the rest. The temples themselves were nice and still being used as a monastery.
After our return to Kratie, we spent the afternoon relaxing.
We were looking forward to the day after with a laughing and a crying eye: we were going on a seven hour bus trip, but it was to be our last bus journey in Cambodia. Booked through our guesthouse, it would take us to Siem Reap and the famous temples of Angkor.
The trip started in a very interesting fashion because both a minivan as well as a mini-bus turned up to pick us up. We had booked the bigger mini-bus and decided to stick with it despite the slightly more dated appearance. Soon we thought it would have been better the other way round. Despite being the only passengers we were allocated the seats furthest to the back but insisted on sitting in the front half (there were four rows in total; the remaining space was taken up by five scooters and other luggage. After picking up some deliveries we turned up at the bus station in the town center, where an entire Cambodian family joined us. For some reason, they refused to sit in the back so we conceded and moved one row back in order to preserve some form of harmony.
Two hours later our driver steered the bus down a sandbank and onto a surprisingly big ferry. This gave us some 20 minutes break while we chatted with a local monk who was travelling to a congregation to see the prime minister. He used us as an opportunity to practise his already pretty good English and we were happy to help out. A lunch stop, two toilet breaks and two delivery stops later we arrived in Siem Reap. We were gobsmacked when the driver told us to get of at a seemingly random place by the side of the road five kilometers from the center. The attendant then proceeded to hand our backpacks to the first tuk-tuk driver to enter the bus without saying anything. We started fighting back and refused to move while demanding to be taken to the center. They seemed to accept that their tuk-tuk scam had failed, closed the doors and drove on. The next time we stopped was one kilometer further outside a scooter dealer, where our five motorised two-wheelers were to be dropped of. By this point some of the Cambodian passengers were still with us. Surprise, surprise: the same tuk-tuk driver appeared again offering us his services. By now we were really pissed off and refused to move no matter what the driver shouted without talking to our booking office.
He rang them and after hearing both stories, it turned out that the bus driver was right and they forgot to tell us where the bus station was. Infuriated by this standard of service, we got them to agree to pay for our tuk-tuk to the hotel since if they had told us about this inconvenience we would have booked a different option. So we ended walking only a few hundred meters before finding a free tuk-tuk (after the annoying and persistent one eventually gave up). The lesson we learned after that is that some hotels have too many staff who don’t talk to each other. We had to ring our old hotel about ten times to agree and work out the payment for our refund and everytime it was somebody different and we had to start explaining the story all over again. It is very handy if the day shift goes home early…
Anyway; so if you book some transport make sure you know the name of the company and the location of their station before you book it. Even experienced travellers make mistakes sometimes, but at least we learned something from it.