There has always been a bit of a discussion about how long the bus from Phnom Penh to Kratie actually takes. Travel guide says 4 hours, Google maps say 5.5, guest house staff estimates a bit over 6 hours and those who have done it before say 7. We did ‘better’ than any of these. We took 11 hours, two broken down buses and 3 character-building toilet stops. In fact, the journey dragged on for so long that even the guest house in Kratie, no doubt accustomed to the legendary reliability of Cambodian long haul bus services felt the need to repeatedly call me to check if we are coming. Yes, we hope so. No, we are not sure how long it is going to take – you might be vastly overestimating our influence in this matter. Yes, we do want you to keep the 3 rooms in otherwise fairly booked out Kratie.
Bus number one with engine issues
Eventually, after several hours of uncertainty we finally arrived in the metropolis of Kratie. The good thing: we still had somewhere to stay. The not so good thing: our plan to see the famous river dolphins the very same day and leave on Sunday looked increasingly doubtful. It was dinner time. Having found that all there is that Kratie has to offer amounts to a handful of streets around the riverfront, generally hosting guest houses, questionable restaurants and local microenterprises, we were in two minds about extending our stay by another night. As it turned out, Phnom Penh buses only leave before lunchtime, which wouldn’t exactly give us time to see the dolphins and make it back on time for departure. Out of necessity, we booked another night.
Another reason why this was so difficult is the guest house. Having booked three rooms, two of them smelled of sewage, one of them didn’t have a sink in the bathroom and two of them were decorated with oil paintings of cheap looking semi-naked Cambodian girls. A clear sign of the clientele the guest house was trying to attract, but not entirely compatible with our party of 5 women and 1 man. However, left without much of a choice, we succumbed to the pressure of circumstances and decided to extend our stay until Monday, which happened to be a bank holiday.
Departure point to watch the rare river dolphins
Feeling tired and not exactly excited by the prospects of Kratie nigh life, we indulged in one of the most flavourless meals of our Cambodian trip and after a couple of cocktails, headed back to the guest house to book our dolphin tour for the following morning.
With fresh start, fresh thoughts on our Kratie weekend started to appear. Unsurprisingly, most of us were not exactly ecstatic about staying another night and so the option of getting a private taxi appeared rather appealing. With a price of 60 dollars in total, the cost would be the same as our 12 dollars per person bus ride from Phnom Penh, which was the breaking point in our dilemma. The outcome: If we could get a refund for the extra night, we would head back later afternoon in a taxi. After a brief negotiation with the guest house owner, we got our refund of 10 dollars. Somehow, however, the price of the taxi ride climbed up to 70 dollars, which would see the owner still get the 10 dollars back. Cheeky! Having said that, the view of being back in Phnom Penh that night was too attractive to pass and so we conceded and booked taxi for 5pm on Sunday afternoon.
A couple of river dolphins in the distance
The ride to the dolphins took us through rural area, past wooden houses on stilts, street stalls of convenience products and food and through lush countryside with palm trees, water buffalos grazing in the fields and wild-looking dogs adorning the steps of every house along the way. Our tuk tuk driver didn’t speak a word of english except ‘yes’, which didn’t exactly lend itself to finding any particulars of our trip or surroundings. Still, when we arrived at the dolphin spot, we were content that our main objective of coming to Kratie is probably going to be met.
Having an early start meant that there was only one another ‘dolphin’ boat on the Mekong River. As soon as we set off, our captain spotted first dolphins. Result! An hour on the river took care of another few sightings, although the randomness and unpredictability of these prevented us from taking any good pictures. Still, it was a great experience and when climbing up the steps towards our tuk tuk, we felt pleased with what we have seen, especially as one of the women we met previously mentioned that during her trip, not a single dolphin made an appearance.
Girls playing football in front of the 100 pillars Sambor pagoda
Determined to make the most of our trip, our tuk tuk ride was to include not only dolphins but also the 100 pillar pagoda in the Sambor Village and excursion of the nearby mountain, which offered yet another pagoda. Well, it was a monastery to be precise with women and men’s parts. But back to that later.
The curious thing about Cambodian tours is that they generally offer to take you to the main sightseeings such as pagodas, museums, palaces and similar. This is all very well, but there is only so many pagodas one can see without them all starting to blend into one. Personally, I found the ride to the Sambor Village much more interesting, passing basic workshops and stalls, children playing in the dust, men and women lounging in hammocks hang underneath their houses, families gathered on wooden table like platforms in front of their houses enjoying their lunch and youth on motos shyly or not so shyly peeping into our tuk tuk. It would have been fascinating to see their way of life up-close, but for one our tuk tuk driver wouldn’t understand us even if we tried to explain and if someone did translate to him, it would trigger handsome addition to his daily fees so on we went towards the pagoda.
Whilst the pagoda itself was impressive in its colourful frescoes, golden statues of Buddhas and special atmosphere emphasized by a monk sitting inside offering his blessing for a small payment, everyone from my group was much keener to explore the village within which it was set. Leaving our tuk tuk driver chatting to a soft drink stall keeper, we left through the back gate and took a walk through dusty streets behind the village. Briefly confronted by a crazy old woman, we hurried towards the centre of the village past wooden shacks each with sewage lake in the front or back yard.
Those of us who were familiar with farming admired the multi-level arrangement of wheat fields designed to keep water for as long as possible. Making round trip and arriving back at the pagoda, the tuk tuk driver was already waiting outside the main gate with puzzled look on his face. Maybe we should have told him we were going out but .....
With lunchtime upon us, we agreed that food was in order. Using the limited English of our second tuk tuk driver, we determined that stop somewhere on the way towards the Sambor Mountain as on the cards. Unbeknown to us, our driver, presumably the boss of the two interpreted this as an opportunity to charge us extra. True to the canny spirit of some Cambodians (nowhere near as bad as Vietnam apparently), he drove us to the Mekong river rapids, sporting an extensive picnic / beach area suspended on wooden stilts over the river.
Young fisherman at the Mekong rapids
Confused but hungry, after unsuccessful inquiries with the tuk tuk driver where we can actually find some food, we ventured over the long floating path towards the picnic area. Managing to negotiate a mat and order lunch, we spent two relaxing hours on the river, watching the happenings around us. Despite this turning out to be a nice stop, the particular location was by no means demanded by us and so we were not little surprised when the more English proficient tuk tuk driver came to announce that his colleague wants to charge us 3USD per person extra for visiting the site of rapids. Hmm. I don’t think so. Telling him in no uncertain terms that we asked for a roadside stop and he took us here out of his own initiative so we were not prepared to pay extra, he eventually left. Fortunately for us, this topic did not come up again.
When finally ready to move on, we slowly boarded the tuk tuks and headed towards our final stop – the monastery mountain. By that point, we were rather tired and not entirely keen on yet another religious site. Still, we did climb up the stairs and browsed through almost deserted looking nun monastery, surprised to see so many houses in complete disrepair. Comparing the men’s side with elaborate statues, looked after houses and decorated pagoda to the women’s dwelling, it was clear that monks get much more funds than nuns, not exactly impressing our largely female group.
Village in the Kratie area
Arriving in the guest house shortly before 4pm, we had just enough time to get changed and chill with a couple of fresh smoothies, before our ‘bus’ arrived. Although we emphasized that we need mini-bus for 5 people, in true Cambodian fashion a standard family Honda arrived. Not having the energy to negotiate and keen to get to Phnom Penh the same day, we waved farewell to Charlotte who continued her journey to Laos and squeezed into our transport for the next 5 hours.
With the sun disappearing on the horizon and the bumpy and often non-tarmacked roads getting not less busy, there were moments we didn’t think the dog would cross fast enough or the moto would escape our side mirror, but somehow we pulled through and 5 hours later we arrived at our guest house! Monday was a bank holiday and so I was looking forward to nice lie in decently smelly room.
This is where the nuns live
Failing to find a kayaking place in Phnom Penh and not willing to travel 4 hours to the nearest recommended spot, Monday was a day of relaxation. Cycling to the riverside, I indulged in yet another Khmer massage, manicure and pedicure, before enjoying a couple of ice coffees by the river, watching people go by. It also happened to be Sharmila’s birthday, and so after a few hours in town, I was back in time for taking part in the celebration arrangements.
The night’s plan was to head out for dinner in Pap Giorgio’s, an Italian restaurant on the riverfront. Despite underbooking and having to negotiate access to another two tables, it was a great night with chocolate cake, cocktails and lovely Italian food. Still remembering the blunt tastes of Kratie’s culinary pursuits, I savoured my tuna pasta smothered in parmesan cheese and showered with pepper. Not a bad end to a long weekend.
Musical instrumentz used during udhist ceremonies