It was New Year’s eve and once more we had crossed borders. It felt kind of strange to be in Cambodia after the three weeks we had spent in Vietnam. New Year’s eve marked our fourth day in Cambodia. We had just finished our journey from Phnom Penh to Kratie. To tell you the truth, Phnom Penh wasn’t really to our tastes but we found Kratie just exquisite. It offered us a glimpse into the raw real Cambodia. It’s the Cambodia that people talk about and unlike popular belief it was not scary at all. Our real purpose however was to visit the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie and the fact that we got to spend New Year in Kratie was just a big bonus.
THE LAYOUT OF THE LITTLE VILLAGE CALLED KRATIE
The Mekong formed the perfect backdrop for some coll photographs.
Kratie is a small village that lies on the banks of the Mekong River. It isn’t a popular destination so don’t expect to see a lot of tourists there. In fact, while we were there, there were approximately 6 other people in the village who weren’t Cambodians.
There isn’t much infrastructure in Kratie that you can talk off. A few restaurants (around 12) and just one really posh restaurant (well sort off) lies on a small expanse of land that borders the Mekong river. The village was small but we loved every inch of it. Like I said before the Mekong river borders this tiny town. It seems to envelop the world around you in a soft rhythm.
One may wonder what took us to this little village that is so off the beaten path. Before we headed out to Cambodia, I stumbled across an article that talked about the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins that could be spotted if you kayaked out into the river. Most people (like me) have never heard of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie. In fact, I did not even know that dolphins lived in rivers before I headed out to Cambodia.
THE IRRAWADDY DOLPHINS OF KRATIE
The Irrawaddy dolphin is a fresh water dolphin which is found in the Mekong river. The Mekong river is both long and deep which provides a great environment for the Irrawaddy dolphin to thrive. Unlike the other dolphins, the Irrawaddy dolphin has a shorter snout and the color of the dolphin is pinkish making it hard to spot in the Mekong waters.
I think awareness about the crises surrounding the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie is an issue that needs to be tackled. These dolphins live in the Mekong river making them one of the five remaining critically endangered fresh water dolphin species in the world. When I say that they are critically endangered, I would like to substantiate that statement with some facts. The last survey (which was taken in 2015) documents that only 80 Irrawaddy dolphins exist.
The population is currently declining because of the decreasing water levels of the Mekong river which is a direct result of the number of number of dams that are being built along the river. These dams prevent fish migration which in turn has affected the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie too. Another major reason for the decline in the population of the Irrawaddy dolphins is fishing. There are organizations that are working to protect the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie but what is still lacking is awareness on a global scale.
USHERING IN THE NEW YEAR
The Cambodians welcome the New Year with a lot of cheer!
The soft rhythm was disrupted as the New year rounded the corner. The famous Jasmine restaurant had a stage all set for the countdown and the food served was all at half price. Most of the other restaurants in the village were closed because the locals were having picnics on the street. We were hungry and settled in for a couple of ribs while loud music blared. The locals seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere and it was fun to watch the going ons. Although the food was just $1.75 per item, it was meant only for the well off locals. It’s sad reality in so many parts of Cambodia. We would have honestly have loved to join the local picnics but we got invited to their picnic only after we had stuffed ourselves silly.
We spent a while walking down the banks of the Mekong and watching everyone celebrating on the streets. New Year celebrations in Kratie were definitely lively. Despite the allure of the festivities, our bodies craved for rest. The journey to Kratie had been long and tiring. Our ultimate purpose was after all to catch a glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin. So we headed back to our room to get a well deserved rest.
KAYAKING ON THE MEKONG
Our 2017 New Year was spent Kayaking in the Mekong river. The day started early in the morning where we all assembled together at the designated spot. We were five of us in total. Six if you count our guide. That meant three kayaks were going to be heading down the Mekong that day. On a side note, I must mention that you can do the trip using motor boats but the sound of the boats tends to scare off the dolphins. Plus kayaking down the Mekong was way more fun!
THE TRIP BEGINS
Our blue chariot with all its charm and style!
We had a quick breakfast at our pick up spot. In retrospect I’m glad that we did because kayaking in the Mekong river is hard work and the breakfast provided us sustenance till it was time for lunch. Our ride was an open truck which had the three kayaks stacked at one side. I must admit that we were pretty nervous. We wanted to see the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie but a lot of it also depended on luck. Our guide reassured us that there was a 90 percent chance of seeing the Irrawaddy dolphins. So with the odds stacked in our favor and a water bottle each, we clambered into the truck.
KAYAKING IN THE MEKONG RIVER
Our new found friends were quite the team as they navigated the Mekong currents with ease!
I love kayaking. We have kayaked in different parts of the world. While I wouldn’t call us experts, I know that Shawn and I function pretty well together in a kayak. We seem to have found our own rhythm. That being said we have kayaked in the mangroves in Thailand and in the sea in many other countries. We were however ill prepared for the currents of the Mekong river.
It took us around 20 minutes to reach our destination. Together we helped unload the kayaks and drag them to the river. Since I couldn’t swim well enough to survive, my first action was to strap on the life jackets that were provided. While everyone else were strong swimmers they were all advised to do the same. Like I said before, the Mekong river has strong currents. Getting caught in one can prove to be fatal and a life jacket could be the difference between life and death.
That terrifying moment when Shawn told me to navigate so that he could click a photograph.
At first the Mekong felt incredibly calm as we pushed off the shore. The currents however picked up as we neared the center of the river. Catching a glimpse of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie however was scheduled for the latter half of the day. Before that we had to maneuver through the submerged forest. Sounds incredibly amazing and it was despite the fact that we weren’t struggling so much. The issue with the submerged forest was the strong current combined with the shrubs that protruded out of the water. If you miscalculated and hit the shrub, the force of the water could topple the kayak. The idea did not sound too pleasant and I have to be honest, it freaked me out a bit. Luckily we made it through unscathed though there were a couple of near misses.
A PIT STOP FOR SNACKS ON THE MEKONG RIVER
At the start of it we were a little puzzled about where we would stop for lunch. Our guide however had no qualms. He pulled up on a little sand dune in the middle of the river. I have to admit that after over an hour of kayaking my arms needed a rest and my legs needed to be stretched. Our snacks consisted of the local cuisine: fruits and rice stuffed inside a bamboo. I have never tasted anything as nice before. One thing that I loved was the way the guide dug a hole and buried all the remains of our meal. Everything was biodegradable and there was no trace of human foot fall left behind.
NOTE TO SELF: Never ask a dutch man if the water is shallow. He has way longer legs that my short stubby ones!!
Our pit stop also included a plunge in the river. I was feeling particularly confident that I wouldn’t drown because everyone was standing upright in the water and I had been practicing my swimming a lot. I asked my colleagues if it was shallow and they said yes. So instead of waiting for Shawn to get into the water (like I usually do) I jumped in. My legs however refused to touch solid ground. Panic… Panic… Swim… Swim… Ahh… The safety of land!!
TIME TO SEE THE IRRAWADDY DOLPHINS IN KRATIE
A fleeting glimpse of an Irrawaddy dolphin.
Spotting the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie is a difficult task because the pink color of their skin helps them camouflage with the muddy Mekong water. Unlike the dolphins in the sea, the Irrawaddy dolphins don’t jump out of the water. The trick is to listen for them. If the surroundings are really quiet you can hear a blowing sound as the dolphin breaks through the surface of the water to take a breath.
We spotted quite a few but to actually get a photograph of them was hard work. The half an hour we spent bobbing in the water and watching the Irrawaddy dolphins was peaceful. It was also very sad. We knew that we were lucky to have caught a glance of a critically endangered species. As the Mekong river levels lower with dam after dam, the population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie are doomed to diminish.