Most tourists to Cambodia stick to Phomn Penh and Siem Reap. Many don’t even make it to Phnom Penh, preferring to see the Temples of Angkor and then leave. We wanted to experience a bit more of the ‘real’ Cambodia out of the well-trodden tourist paths.
Leaving Sen Monorom, our plan was to travel to Kratie on the Mekong to do a cycling tour and maybe see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins, then on to Kampong Cham, the third largest city in Cambodia, to break up the long bus rides across the country.
We had consulted with reception at the Nature Lodge about the best method for travelling to Kratie, where we hoped to go on a bicycle tour along the Mekong River. Husband was desperate to avoid the overcrowded mini buses we has seen hurtling down the highways on our trip from Phomn Penh, but it transpired that there was no other way to get out. So as a sort of compromise we took the receptionist’s advice and bought four rather than two seats, so we would be sure to have a whole row to ourselves.
We were duly picked up early the next morning. We had the whole row to ourselves and only 5 other passengers in the van. Perfect. Then we stopped at another house, and another hotel, and finally in the market where the boot door was opened, suitcases, bags of rice and boxes piled in, then on top of that, 2 motorbikes were roped half in and half off the van. Then the owners of this bewildering paraphernalia climbed aboard. In the end, our 12-seater minivan was crammed with 26 people, 2 motorbikes and innumerable bags. It was everything Husband had wanted to avoid and a thoroughly Asian experience.
The 6-hour drive to Kratie was not fun. We had the most room, having decided to share our four seats with a couple of petite Cambodian women rather than the unwashed bike owners perched behind us. The driver paid no attention to the road rules except the rule that you honk long and loud when you are about to overtake anyone – from pedestrian to cyclist to car. He also had no regard for speed limits so the only good part of the journey was arriving an hour early. It was a noisy, wearisome few hours.
Kratie is a ‘thriving travel hub’ according to my 2013 Lonely Planet. Perhaps it is humming with locals but it certainly isn’t pumping with tourists.
The remnants of the attractive colonial town were apparent in some of the river side buildings and the wide esplanade along the Mekong. However there was also plenty of evidence of the civil war. Pavements and roads were broken up and left un-repaired. Rubbish lay around the streets and as soon as you stepped one block from the river bank, the street lights went out and the comparative poverty was evident.
A few large international organisations such as WWF and UNICEF have offices in Kratie, based there to help the local population recover while protecting the endangered species of the Mekong, such as the extremely rare Irrawaddy dolphin. There dolphins, the great promise and attraction of Kratie, number only in the few hundreds. So the chance of anyone seeing them is remote. Local tourist operators offer boat rides out to see these rare creatures, but it is questionable whether such tours do more damage than good to the small dolphin population.
We had planned to stay for a generous four nights. One for when we arrived, one in a home-stay along the river, one for when we got back from our two-day ride and a final forth was a spare so we decided to relax and take it Kratie’s ‘Lively riverside…an expansive riverfront and some of the best Mekong sunsets in Cambodia’ – Lonely Planet.
We stayed two nights and that was enough.
We had come to Kratie to do a self-guided bicycle tour of the Mekong. Mentioned in our lonely planets, on some websites and in one recent blog post, it looked like a wonderful way to see a different side of Cambodia. On the afternoon we arrived, we set off to find the office of CRD Tours and hire bicycles to start our trip the next day. It took a while but we found a hut with ‘CRD’ painted on the door in the courtyard of a restaurant. It looked very shut up and knocking roused no one from their sleep except the restaurant proprietor. Did he know where CRD Tours was? No. They used to be here but they left 3 weeks ago. He didn’t know where they’d gone. Right. Fine. Faced with a dead end in a dead end place, we went to have a beer.
Determined not to give up on something Husband had been so eager to do, we hired a couple of bicycles from a local bar, procured a rough map and at 7am the next morning, set off.
It is important to note that I am not a natural cyclist. I am a little scared of cycling, or rather, I am scared of falling off bicycles. Perhaps the crowded, dirty, right-hand driving roads of Cambodia were not the best place for me to try and get back on the bike. We did well getting out of the city but once we hit the local roads, the bitumen was lumpy to say the least, the potholes intimidating and our fellow road-users frankly scary. The landscape, when I appreciated it, was beautiful. As soon as you left Kratie you were in rural Cambodia. Wooden houses and huts lined the road. Cows, chickens and small children stared at us as we went by, the road was edged with trees and rice fields and glimpses of the Mekong guided us as we rode along.
As lovely as it was to get up close and personal with a different side of Cambodia, the heat, dust and uncomfortableness of the ride was too much for me and after 1.5hours Husband insisted that I was as unhappy as I looked and we should turn back. I had wanted to try my hardest and really enjoy the experience for him but even he was prepared to admit defeat in the 32degree heat and un-cushioned pain of our bicycle seats.
The rest of our time in Kratie was spent cooling down in the blissful air conditioning of our hotel, having an afternoon drink then dinner at before retiring early.
Kratie has a lot of promise and perhaps in a few years, with the injection of some money and a couple more tourist-minded entrepreneurs, it will be wonderful stop to taste rural Cambodia. If you were a good cyclist and perhaps a little luckier than us, the ride along the Mekong would be a wonderful way to spend a couple of days.
Where we stayed: Luck Life World Hotel
Where we ate: Red Sun Falling for lunch and an unknown local place for dinners.
If you’re travelling to Cambodia, check out the other places we visited: Phnom Penh, the Elephant Valley Project, Kompong Cham, Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor (check out our tips for visiting the Temples). We also bookended our trip with visits to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.