Exploring The Mekong: On The Lookout For The Irrawaddy Dolphins

 

Kratie is a tiny city at the banks of the Mekong river. The central marketplace is surrounded by old, French colonial buildings. But most importantly, it’s known to be the best place in the country to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.

 It's not much but yep, it's them... the Irrawaddy dolphins...

It's not much but yep, it's them... the Irrawaddy dolphins...

It was still morning when we arrived in Kratie, our first stop in Cambodia. Earlier that day, we took a tuktuk from Laos to the Lao/Cambodian border to hand out our departure cards and get a visa on arrival. Doing this process early was a nice and relaxing experience, relatively crowd free.

So, we get a minivan on the Cambodian side, arrived in Kratie and we’re early. At our hotel, we were lazy and decided to find out more about the city. Turns out, after doing a little research on what to do, Kratie had a few other ‘amusing’ attractions up its sleeve besides dolphin spotting.

Exploring Koh Trong Island in the Mekong

That same day we decided to go to Koh Trong. It only takes a ferry boat ride to get across to this island and we read it’s nice for evening walks or bike rides and that the last boat back leaves at 6:30. The boat had a skinny dog and a lot of flies going crazy over a bit of trash. We left around 16:00 to try to avoid the heat... but it was hot, especially because we didn’t move until more people filled up the benches.

 On the ferry to Koh Trong.

On the ferry to Koh Trong.

We finally arrived at the other shore thinking we’d rent some bikes and spend around an hour circling the 9 kilometers around the island, with enough time to explore and check out the floating houses we read about. But things didn’t go our way that day.

The ‘bicycle man’ was charging us $2 per bike instead of $1 and kept pushing to rent us a much more expensive motorbike for less than an hour because according to him, the last ferry boat would leave at 17:00. Ughh... that dude freaked me out. We didn’t know if we could trust him and had no way of knowing the truth.

We didn’t want to overspend for the motorbike so off we went on foot to try to see some of the island.

 Buffalo cart.

Buffalo cart.

 Koh Trong view.

Koh Trong view.

In the end, we didn’t see much but the little time we spent there was really nice. There’s a concrete path that breaks the scenery in half but makes it easy for tourists and locals to move around. Large green fields for crops, cows giving you the 'who are you and what do you want?'-look, wooden houses along the opposite coast and some locals here and there.



We didn’t get far before we decided to return so we wouldn’t miss the boat. We made it on time only to... wait, because we didn’t leave until 18:00. We wanted to strangle the ‘bicycle man’... Tomorrow was another day and we we were determined to make it a productive one.

 Three girls trying to catch the last ferry to Koh Trong.

Three girls trying to catch the last ferry to Koh Trong.

Phnom Sombok temple

Renting a motorbike for the day, means you have to return it before 18:00 or 19:00 so after breakfast we were ready for some action. First stop! Phnom Sombok. If you like stairs, this is the temple for you, hahaha. Phnom Sombok (phnom meaning hill) is a small temple on a hill. It’s separated into tree levels and in between a bunch of stairs. The highlight of this temple though, are the monk statues greeting you from all the way down at the entrance to all the way up the hill.

 One of the interesting images...

One of the interesting images...

The temple itself isn’t very impressive but a few things stand out... particularly the drawings on the wall on the first level. They depict the different tortures of hell awaiting those who have sinned. The drawings aren’t very good which probably adds to the macabre of the whole thing.

On the second and third levels, a few more statues and the view from the top, well, this time it wasn’t worth the effort of going up all those stairs. All in all it’s always nice to see something different and at the same time do some exercise.

On the lookout for the rare Irrawaddy dolphins

Next stop! The main attraction in Kratie, the Irrawady dolphins. These guys are super endangered and only around 80 swim in the freshwater stretch of the Mekong River between Laos and Cambodia.

The Irrawaddy dolphin is similar to the beluga in appearance, though most closely related to the killer whale. It has a large blunt, rounded head, and the beak isn’t well defined. None of which you’ll see in our pictures because they’re very hard to photograph; so you’ll either have to imagine it or better yet, google them.

We arrived around 16:00 because the internet says you’ll get a better chance to see them in the late afternoon. We parked our motorbike and by the time we bought tickets for the boat, a tour bus full of Chinese tourists arrived at the site... then another... and another! Our worst nightmare.

 Dozens of Chinese tourists. We could hear them yelling and screaming on the shore.

Dozens of Chinese tourists. We could hear them yelling and screaming on the shore.

They all stumped in a herd towards the boats and where packed like sardines before they headed off into the river taking their loud mumble with them. We just stood there frozen for a minute. What are we going to do now? There were no more running boats left (only a few empty ones, floating at the sides of the pier) and we had just bought a more expensive ticket to ride in the boat just the two of us with our driver.

Should we return the tickets and get our money back? It was non refundable. Should we just leave and loose the money? Maybe this whole thing is over rated but we just hate to throw money away. 

 Our guide.

Our guide.

So we decided, f*ck it, we’re gonna wait. It was hot and there were more people around  so we waited for half an hour, keeping an eye on whichever boat might come back and try to be the next ones in it. Until finally, we hear someone calling us from the side of the pier. He was going to assign us a driver on one of the few remaining boats.

And in we went through the bushes, jumping across some trenches along the ground and sliding down the muddy sand, all to reach the boat which was not properly docked.

Ok, we’re in, lets go! Or... not? Seriously? The boat wouldn’t start...

 Any luck yet?

Any luck yet?

Now, we acknowledge the guy who called us was making a serious effort with the driver to get the boat started. He even ended up going in the river (only his head sticking out the water) to do who knows what, but nothing worked. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long to get transferred to another boat and away we went. 

The way it works is that for around an hour they take you to different spots around the river where they think the dolphins will surface. For most of it, they use a large motor to get the boat going which makes me think they’ll scare all the dolphins away. But then you look closely at the water and you realize it would require a large amount of strength to row the boat around with the strong currents. The driver does eventually row when the animals are close.

 Heading back to shore.

Heading back to shore.

I think we were lucky after all, because by the time we where in the river, the sun had gone down enough to make the sky pretty and the weather fresher and most of the noisy Chinese tourists were gathered in one spot far away from us.

We ended up having the most relaxing time. We saw the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins a bunch of times, only a bit too far for taking any good pictures. Every time they surfaced they made a sigh sound which made it easy to spot them. 

All and all we were so glad that we waited because it was worth it and we would’ve missed a great experience.