Dolphin hunting in Kratie
Technicolor cement flamingos. A rhinoceros. A giant dove on a globe. I looked around downtown Kratie in puzzlement. Surely these weren't samples of the wildlife this riverside town on the road north from Phnom Penh was renowned for?
A quiet weekend getaway for city-dwellers, Kratie has long sealed its place in Cambodia guidebooks for the freshwater dolphins that inhabit its stretch of the Mekong.
Once numbering almost 1,000, the now 60 or so Irrawaddy dolphins in the area are an endangered breed that have survived decades of poaching by local fishermen and the more recent biological wreckage of dams upstream.
Their existence and insistence on keeping to Kratie are a marvel; and their whale-like anatomy -- at least, what you can see of it through what locals call the "coffee with milk" waters of the Mekong -- is somewhat quirky. But, be warned, these porpoises are no Flipper.
Intrigued (and with a day to kill), I obligingly hired a moto for the breathtaking 16-km drive out to Kampi, the launching point for boat trips into the dolphin waters.
Half an hour later, there we were: three tourists on a rickety fisherman's boat over a flooded bank of Mekong, blindly wielding our cameras at every splash of water like harpoons in the futile hopes of catching a photo of the coy porpoises.
Our pre-pubescent boat driver had ignored our eager signaling toward some promising splashes and had moored us away from the action, on a tree fighting a solitary battle with the current. Hawks circled overhead, and the dolphins kept their distance, seemingly goofing around in pairs and spending almost a minute at a time under water in between quick breathers.
First would come a grumbling moan, then a dark puddle would appear on the waters' surface and a porpoise would emerge --revealing just inches of its back -- and quickly dive back under before we could hear its exhalation.
There were no flips, no playful smiles beckoning us to rub their noses. They barely came within 25 meters of the boat. It quickly became apparent that these dolphins are exceptionally cruel beings, playing on our circus-show expectations like master hustlers.
Then, as the cameras were shut off and we began to find dejected solace in singing the praises of the spaciousness and serenity of our environs, a vein of jealously snapped. Suddenly the show was on: the dolphins swam near us, skimming along the water's surface in pairs and diving under in smooth, circular motions like dogs trying to catch their tails with their noses.
And what noses, indeed: the "faces" of Irrawaddy dolphins have a peculiar punched-in, blockhead look that give their short black bodies more resemblance to stunted torpedoes than to their sleek bottled-nosed cousins. Think of them as the Danny DeVito of the Delphinidae family.
Cambodian tour guides will tell you Kratie is a one-horse town, that -- dolphins aside -- there's not much doing for the standard tourist.
Perhaps this isn't so surprising considering the town is made up of 14 streets, named in numeric order. Clue number two for me was seeing the girls at the red-light karaoke cafes reading The Count of Monte Cristo out of boredom.
As a result, most tourists pop into town for only a night on their way north to Laos or to Ratanakiri. But for those with a bit more time on their hands, Kratie is a springboard for jaunts into some striking countryside.
At once desolate and vibrant, the road to Kampi snakes along the bends of the Mekong and is easily accessible for those keen on hiring a motorbike to explore.
In wet season, its pothole-ridden surface effectively becomes an obstacle course and live comedy show for locals, who -- having few crops to farm during periods of floods -- spend their days hanging out on the stoops of their stilt houses and watching foreigners drive by in various states of horror.
All manner of business is conducted in the gravity-defying one-room shacks, with entire villages at times suspended 10 meters off the ground. Half-inch-thick bamboo floors hold up motor bike repair shops, roadside food stalls, petrol "stations" and cafes. This is rural Cambodia at it's most chill: Kids chase chickens around, girls sit picking at and braiding each other's hair, and the elderly sway in cloth hammocks facing the road. A chorus of "hello!" or "goodbye!" usually follows every motorist passing.
After fishing and rice farming, selling bamboo poles makes up the bulk of local industry, and rafts with piles of 30-foot poles can be seen floating down the river to Phnom Penh -- a reminder that the river truly is the life-blood of this country.
A hill about halfway down the road from town, though, was my ultimate destination. Phnom Sambok was pretty easy to find, considering it's the only raised bit of land in a 30-mile radius. At its summit at the top of an impossibly long white cement staircase, sits a calm little monastery and wat that are home to a dozen aged monks, nuns and their cats.
Walking the circumference of the hill, which offers spectacular vistas of the rice fields and Mekong below, I stopped when I saw a few boats with tourists heading out to the middle of the river on a dolphin-watch.
In their wake I saw a pair of the freshwater flippers diving around, while the tourists looked ahead with their cameras at the ready.
"Stop! Look behind you!" I shouted, jumping up and down, and watched the boat continue on its slow course. One of the nuns next to me laughed, her eyes gleaming with a look that told me this happens every time.
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Published on 9/7/04