KRATIE (Khmer Times) – One morning in Phnom Penh, we made the decision in about five minutes. My friend needed to check dolphins off her list. I, not generally an aquatic mammal person, had woken that morning to find city pollution had turned my sniffle into a smoker’s cough.
One half-hour later, we were boarding a Sorya bus out of Central Market. Tickets: $7. Wifi :in your dreams. Road: mostly a paved, bumpy one-laner. Ride: seven hours. (They’ll tell you four-and-a-half, a time that I’ve seen made exactly once).
We were on a short weekend, so we hailed a tuk-tuk waiting at the lone bus stop on Kratie’s Mekong Riverfront. The friendly driver putt-putted 16 kilometers north along the river, following a paved but bumpy lane through villages and low hills. Women had set up stands along the way with Kratie’s local specialties: pomelos (the green-skinned grapefruit of Southeast Asia), krolan, and nhem.
Krolan, sticky rice with beans and coconut cooked in bamboo, receive the lion’s share of gastronomic attention around here. (If you’re passing through town on a bus, you’ll inevitably watch half the passengers get off at Kratie to negotiate krolan to bring their relatives in PP). But in my time as provincial correspondent, I’ve grown fonder of nhem. You can’t beat fish cakes cured with acidic leaves for snack food. But check with your friendly neighborhood supplier before you devour. If they haven’t been left long enough, you’re in for a mouthful of raw and very leafy fish paste.
We arrived at Kampi, village of the dolphins. The waiting area a wreck. Tickets are $9, the owner of Red Sun Falling restaurant tells me darkly, and where does it all go? Not to wharf upkeep…
The boat pilot received, he said, only $2.50 of our tickets. After motoring a while, he cut the engine and moored in an ideal dolphin-viewing spot in some brushy rapids. There were one or two other boats moored in the rapids, as it was the high season for tourists. The dolphins were, as you’d expect, mid-sized aquatic mammals.
We watched maybe five or so playing in the water for a time. They didn’t jump, but they frolicked and chased one another, and occasionally rose high enough from the water for us to see that their noses were short. “Like a human nose,” the tuk-tuk driver had said earlier, trying to describe them to me.
For me, it was on the way back that Kratie became more than a glorified WWF outpost.
Our driver, a remarkably patient man, pulled into his old pagoda. He’d been a monk 10 years before getting married, and his saffron-clad friends gave us a tour. From the top of the hill, we watched the red sun stain the haze at the horizon. This mango-shaded pagoda, Phnom Sambok, is about 10 kilometers north of Kratie. Its tiers and terraces open to startling views of fields and waters.
The best part of the evening came later still, when our driver stopped again at a wooden house by the roadside.
Two women peered out – his wife and mother. Two minutes later, we were invited to one of the best dinners I’ve had in Cambodia. To be fair, you don’t have to work hard if your fish come from the river behind your house, and your vegetables from your garden.
Our driver took us back to Kratie, full and merry, that evening after we refused an invitation to stay the night. Extra hammocks were all very well, but someone needed to upload her dolphin photos.
I suppose it’s easy to write that the locals are friendly, but there’s a tremendous gap between what the phrase seems to usually mean – the waiter at the café gave you half a smile before presenting the check – and what it means in Kratie.
I’ve been invited into local kitchens for pomelos on Koh Trong. I’ve gone on an impromptu pick-your own watermelon expedition out of Kratie’s ferry port, I’ve been chatted up by more friendly waiters than I imagine tourism in this place actually supports.
Maybe it’s that English speakers are thin on the ground, and foreigners present valuable opportunity. But the feel of the town seems something more. The place is slow, enchanted by its great river. Almost everything closes at 9 pm to allow for the citywide pastime of strolling the old paved riverfront, drinking moodily, and watching the waters.
We sat out there that night, my friend and I. It was her last excursion in Cambodia before moving to Chiang Mai to volunteer.
The other shore was completely black – there were no lights beyond the horizon, no Chroy Changvar peninsula, no settlement. The world, for all we could see, ended at the edge of the cobbles, with the lit leaves of plane trees and the men quietly smoking a few meters away. All of us watched for a while as a boat with a single sparking bulb at the front of it parted the currents of the Mekong, then later as two night fishermen wrestled a net to shore.
Seeing them, I took a breath. And found, as you sometimes do when you’ve made it far enough away, that the breath went deep. When I exhaled, my cough was gone.
Getting There: You can pay about $7 to get there in five to seven hours with Sorya, or you can pay twice that to get there in the same amount of time with your friendly hustlers at Central Market. (There are a number of drivers who stop just across from the Sorya Bus station). Some van drivers stop on the way to let customers buy durians from fields in the south of Kratie province. They are the best I’ve had.
Local Transport: Kratie ‘City’ has three main streets. So tuk tuk rides are unnecessary. Tuk-tuks to Kampi and such will find you. Moto rental is possible from The Silver Dolphin and Tokae Restaurant.
Restaurants: Le Tonlé is atmospheric and serves up great soups and taro spring rolls. It is run by the Cambodian Rural Development Team, a local NGO involved in microfinance and tourism in Cambodia’s northeast. Sorya Kayaking Tours has chocolate-chip cookies. Red Sun Falling is a classic, but their view of the sunset was recently blocked by The Blue Jasmine. This is a perpetually deserted toy project of the wife of a wealthy guy in the capital. Don’t go to The Blue Jasmine.
Staying: The town is full of guesthouses, all around $5 to $15 unless you are trying very hard to spend money. In that case, go across the Mekong to the French-built resort on Koh Trong. It has 10 deserted ‘bungalows’ and a pool. Le Tonlé, again, does a great job. It has refurbished traditional wooden houses, instead of concrete rooms, and enough geckos to finish off the mosquitos.
Early morning on the riverfront of Kratie.
Bundles of rice in the fields of Koh Trong, near Kratie.