Or “Beautiful Sunsets over the Mekong”
It was time to leave the wonderful elephants of Mondulkiri behind us and continue on our way to our next destination, the town of Kratie. The only way to get there was by minivan and since we had heard so many horror stories from other people about 30 squished people trying to squeeze into a van of 15, we were a little apprehensive of what would await us. So it was with a sigh of relief that we saw the minivan was only half full as we left Sen Monorom. Travelling with us was a French family that had also been on the road for almost a year now, the two kids and their parents looking like I would have imagined the Robinson family would have looked like as they were rescued after being stranded for years; tanned and wild. We talked a little and compared notes which made the time pass by quicker and although the ride was by no means pleasant, it wasn’t the horror ride we had anticipated.
So it was after about 4.5 hours that we found ourselves in the mediocre town of Kratie, where no one really wants to stay longer than necessary, but everyone still comes on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. As with all mediocre towns, Kratie had only mediocre accommodation, which we found out as we walked along the riverside in order to find us a place to stay.
This was our first encounter with the Mekong river and I must admit, although it was hot and we were beat, I did enjoy the sunset over the river as yet another day reached its end.
Most people come to Kratie only to see the Irrawaddy river dolphins before leaving the area a day after. Since we had actually done a small detour to see these dolphins we thought that we would spend more than just one afternoon away from our guesthouse and decided to see what else was there to do in the area.
So we started the day with the only hill surrounding Kratie, Phnom Sambok. A long set of steps lead you up the hill towards a pavilion, where the walls were depicted with torture scenes for those who did not lead a spiritual and honest life. Looking at those paintings I felt myself starting to count the wrongs I might have done in this lifetime, because believe me, if whatever was drawn on these walls is true, then whoever sins better hope that they invent an immortality drink in his lifetime...What intrigued me most was the bureaucrat who took notes in his book and when your time came he would be the judge of what awaited you in the afterlife.
Bureaucrats! Here since...well, forever!!
Another set of stairs led to the top of the hill and some nice views over the river and the surrounding forest.
We had read somewhere that a family of monkeys lived in the nearby trees, but unfortunately we did not see them that morning as they were probably sleeping in :-)
Our next stop was the soft-shell turtle sanctuary which we hoped would be as interesting as the one we had seen on Isla Mujeres.
But I must admit, after having seen the green turtles in Costa Rica and the sanctuary in Mexico what we saw today was a huge letdown. The facility was rundown and didn’t look very clean, the turtles, although being rescued, didn’t seem to be on the staff’s top of priorities and in general it felt more like another way to get money from tourists than a real interest in helping an endangered species.
Right next to the sanctuary was Sambor, a 100-pillar Wat that was built in 1529 and rebuilt in the 1990’s after being destroyed in the 70’s. We found out that there were actually 116 (!) pillars, but if they changed the name it wouldn’t be as interesting to tourists..! I must admit, the name 116-pillar Wat would MUCH LESS interest me... :-)
Architectural speaking, it was an interesting building and the fact that we were the only tourists here only emphasized the fact that most of the tourists in Kratie really only come for the dolphins...
It was blazing hot by now and we were getting hungry so we stopped at a local restaurant opposite the Wat. Although the food didn’t seem to be appetizing we thought that no one could do wrong with rice. And since both Ronni and I were still hesitant when it came to food, we had mostly rice and I added the adventurous meal of vegetables with pork...only the pork tasted like dog and had some hair still stuck to it, so I can’t be sure what I ate! Needless to say I did not finish my meal :-)
By now it was early afternoon so we headed back south towards the Kampi Rapids to cool off a little bit in the river. During dry season hundreds of people come here on the weekends to cool off in the waters of the Mekong. During wet season the water level rises between 8-15 meters and nearly floods the streets high above the river.
The water wasn’t cold by any means, but it was nice to dangle our feet in it and relax for a little while and let the heat of the afternoon pass us by. And although these makeshift wooden straw huts didn’t inspire much confidence in me, the water level was low enough that even should they collapse we would be able to comfortably wade to the shores...:-)
As late afternoon approached and the heat of the day cooled off a little it was time to head towards the nearby docks and get ourselves into one of the boats in order to see the main event of the day – the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. But on the way I had to stop midway and take a picture of this beautiful scenery!!
This is more or less what I had in mind when I imagined SE-Asia and I’m happy that we got to see it!
So we set sail towards the place where the dolphins gathered in the afternoon to feed in the hopes to get a picture like this...
(this is not my picture by the way but from the internet!)
With our noses pointed south we sat back and hoped that luck would come our way and we would get a good glance of these enigmatic and shy creatures.
Needless to say that on the way to the dolphins Ronni and I were enjoying the cool breeze in our faces and the fact that we hadn’t died of dehydration on this blazing day.
We reached the feeding grounds after about 20 minutes and were surprised at the amount of dolphins swimming around. There must have been at least a dozen of them, slowly making their way above water to breathe, blowing out water as they did. These dolphins are quite different from their oceanic relatives – they don’t come near humans as they are generally shy and they don’t jump around, only about a third of their body venturing out of the water when they came up to take air. And with them being a close colour to that of the water it was hard to get a descend picture, but n the end we did, with this being the best one...
With only a couple of boats on the river, their motors shut off, the afternoon setting in the horizon and the slow ascents of the dolphins every couple of minutes, the afternoon turned out to be an amazing time. It was a delight to watch these animals swimming around us, slowly circling in the waters, unafraid, but still shy.
Sadly after a while it was time to head back and with a fulfilled heart we turned around and watched another beautiful sunset over the Mekong River.
After a full 36 hours in Kratie it was time to leave and board the next ride from hell. We knew it was going to be tough and I had prepared myself physically, mentally and 'toiletally' for it – the bus ride to Siem Reap. A notorious memory on everyone’s travel blog that would normally end with “Why did I ever agree to this??”
The beginning was actually quite good. We had front view seats, had gotten some nice baguettes and were sipping our morning wake-up-drink (Coke, God forbid!) and the driver even had a heart of gold and did not use his horn that much, so that sleeping was a distant possibility. The air-con was working and there weren’t too many stops on the way. So I didn’t mind the fact that my head was leaning against a crumbling wooden board, or that frayed metal was scratching my knee from the frame of the bus where the inside was ripped open, or the fact that we were going quite slow or my chair so uncomfortable I would have to resuscitate one of my butt cheeks every 5 minutes. Nope, I was zen about it and for my good behaviour the driver turned off the karaoke after only half an hour.
After 4 hours we had to change busses and here is where things started to spiral downwards. First, air-con was once part of the bus’s functions, but that part belonged to the past, so all we got was a whiff of fresh air from outside. Second the driver was apparently agitated a little so he liked to move people out of his way by honking every time he thought he saw someone. I’m not even talking about the blasting karaoke, or the fact that every 2 minutes we would stop for someone randomly on the side of the road that would pay the driver under the table some cash. Add to that the fact that traffic was slow to begin with and you can see where this is going- Hell!
8 hours in I was ready to kill someone, anyone, just to get me away from the karaoke and the smell of sweat that had entered every pore of my own saturated body. I tried meditating, tried finding my inner calm, but the only thing I found was more clenching of my teeth. I don’t know how but 3 hours later, 11 hours after we had boarded the first bus, we finally found ourselves in Siem Reap with the image of an air-conditioned room and a good shower , feeling like a river of sweet, sweet milk.
What did we get? Well, turns out some dumbass trucker/bus driver/tractor (everyone said something different) had run into an electricity pole and that had the domino effect of bringing down a further 12 poles, causing 80% of Siem Reap to have no electricity. So it was our luck when we walked into our hotel that it was dark and hot and we were told that the generator would kick in only in about half an hour.
For the next couple of days we would have on-again-off-again power and all I could think of was, “But I didn’t shave!?!!”
But our adventures in the Lara Croft / Indiana Jones ruins were only beginning, more on that in the next blog (if we ever get the electricity back on.. :-)