It’s thought that there are only around 80 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong river. Tragically this is believed to be largely due to unmanned gill nets. While the use of these nets was prohibited by Cambodia’s government, this is not the case in Laos where the population has decreased to only 3 dolphins. Back in 2012, 5 fishermen from Kratie town representing their communities, public expressed their commitment to protecting the dolphins and in a ceremony celebrating the importance of the creatures as a national treasure of Cambodia. Locals believe the dolphins to be sacred and have vowed to treat their living environment with care. The Irrawaddy dolphins also provide an important source of income through dolphin watching tourism.
We were apprehensive about visiting such a delicate ecosystem but after lots of online research concluded that the best way to conserve these animals was to give money to the local boat drivers who had promised to look after them. Without visitors coming to see the dolphins, there would be less incentive to defend them.
Kratie really is quite out of the way and you have to really want to see the dolphins to make the effort to get there. We are those guys, so we took an uncomfortable 8 hour bus journey from Phnom Penh to spend some time out on the water with absolutely no guarantee we’d see a single dolphin.
We stayed at River Dolphin Hotel and this was pretty much the only place we saw any other tourists. One night, while eating dinner, we even had the pleasure of seeing one of them throw up on the floor. We were then lucky enough to be able to look at it for a good quarter of a hour before anyone thought it a good idea to clean it up. That said, it was a nice place to stay and our room was surprisingly cute, with several thoughtful and homely touches. The hotel manager was incredibly deadpan (we think) and we liked her a lot.
On our first night there was a huge thunderstorm with some of the most spectacular lightening we’d ever seen. We watched some of it from the balcony then got scared of being electrocuted and went and watched from our room.
To see the dolphins, we took a rickshaw early in the morning down to the river. The journey was full of stunning scenery. We even went down a street where every other house was selling corn on the cob. There really is hardly any tourist infrastructure in place in this part of the country and so after wandering around for a while, someone pointed us in the direction of the stairs down to the water. We agreed a price with a friendly boat driver and we were off.Just as we had read online, the engine went off a good way back from the pools where the dolphins were known to reside. From here we peacefully floated along the river. At this point we couldn’t see any other boats and it felt like we were the only people on the whole Mekong.After just a few minutes we heard the glorious whooshing sound of a dolphin’s air hole. He or she then appeared above the surface of the water and within a few seconds was gone again. Gradually more and more dolphins appeared and took it in turns to come to the surface and jump about. Knowing how few of these beauties are still on the planet, we felt incredibly honoured to have been in the presence of around eight of them. We spent about an hour on the water listening to and watching these elegant creatures play right near the boat.
It was an incredibly relaxing and meditative experience and a far cry from some of the horrendous tourist boats we’ve seen in other parts of the world. The animals weren’t cornered, followed or interacted with in any way. Instead we just bobbed around by a little tree while the dolphins did their thing.
Later on that day we visited the magnificent Phnom Sombok, a temple north of town situated at the top of pretty much the only hill in Kratie.
Apart from a couple of monks, we were the only people there. There were 358 steps to climb and in the blistering midday sun. We were gently encouraged by the hundreds of statues of monks who lined the stairs.It was quite a challenge to get to the top, but entirely worth it for all of the beautiful temples and statues that we saw, not to mention the stunning view. Kratie is well known for its kralan, which is a delicious street snack. sticky rice, beans and coconut milk are all cooked up together inside a piece of bamboo. So delicious.
Hopefully Kratie will maintain a moderate level of tourism. The tranquility that is to be found here is truly special.