The Elephant Project in Mondulkiri was our last major destination in Cambodia, but we decided to take a pit stop in the town of Kratie, to break up the long drive to Laos.
We were conveniently able to catch a local bus right outside our accommodation in Mondulkiri, thanks to Mr Tree’s wife. Local buses tend to be great for keeping your budget low, but the downside is that they are not renowned for being comfortable (as we experienced so many times in Vietnam). We were barely able to get our legs in behind the seats and the air con was basically a stream of warm air. Cambodia roads are in terrible order and the awful pop music we’d endured on the way to Battambang made an unwelcome reappearance too, so it really wasn’t the best trip, especially for the car sickness-sufferers among us. One woman opened the window for fresh air, in a bid to reduce her mal au voiture (term coined in Laos). One of the other tourists got pretty cagey with her for being ‘selfish, when there are others in here.’ I might have agreed had the air con actually worked.
We pulled over for a break after a few hours, at which point one poor guy with car sickness began retching into the bushes. We checked Google Maps as we thought we must be getting closer, but realised this was another indirect route; the bus was going all the way to the Vietnam border before hitting the road north, making this painful trip seven hours long. The car-sick woman politely asked a Cambodian passenger to tell the driver to turn the music off, which he did. But, after about two minutes of heavenly silence, the driver cranked it back up again. I imagine it was to entertain himself and other Cambodians on the bus, but I also suspect it was to spite the grumpy, demanding foreigners in the back too. Sarah’s download of The Riot Club kept us sane for the rest of the journey. Just about.
As we finally pulled into Kratie we began preparing ourselves for the impending stress of dealing with overbearing tuk tuk drivers. Much to our surprise, there wasn’t a single tuk tuk in sight at the bus stop. It was a relief, but also meant we had no one to direct us to our accommodation, so we decided to go and find a wifi cafe to check directions. Like Battambang, Kratie is small and less ‘developed’, with fewer tourists, so wifi cafes are in short supply, but we eventually found a place to stop before we began the walk to our hotel. It was a lot longer than expected and pretty tough going in the blazing heat whilst carrying two rucksacks each. A couple we’d encountered in Mondulkiri and on the bus drove past in a tuk tuk and waved at us, just to rub it in.
Still, we reached our hotel, Le Tonle, and were in for a pleasant surprise. It’s a small place, and well within our budget, but we were given a beautifully made room and decent communal bathrooms (very welcome given our filthy state after the journey) and we couldn’t fault the service. On booking we didn’t know that it was in fact a centre for disadvantaged youths to train in hospitality. Clearly they were doing a great job.
After we’d washed and crashed out for a bit we spent the evening strolling through the town for a final amok before leaving Cambodia. There’s not a lot going on Kratie, but there was a charm about the place that I really liked, and that we felt was lacking in Battambang. They look similar, with the steady flow of motorbikes, rows of mismatched three-storey buildings, and never ending grocery stalls, but there was more character. Perhaps it was the stunning panorama of Mekong River. The sunset, cooling breeze and shimmering water made a stroll along the riverfront memorable.
We only had one full day in Kratie so decided to see if we could spot Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. They are an endangered species, thanks to the usual problems of fishing nets, deforestation and damn construction, with only 78-90 thought to be left. Responsible boat trips are promoted by the WWF to raise awareness and help with their conservation. Luckily for us, Cambodia Rural Development Tours was just across the road from our hotel so we booked with them.
In the morning we were met with a very friendly tuk tuk driver who transported us around for the day. He first took us to a local village, which we hadn’t realised was part of the plan, but it was an interesting little place to drive through as we got glimpses of villagers laying bricks, constructing wood houses and other daily jobs which would normally sound mundane but were intriguing for an outsider. He stopped on the side of the road to buy us sticky rice in bamboo, a local specialty. I still think Hanoi has the best sticky rice but this one was quite nice too, cooked with coconut and red bean. He also took us to a religious complex which we weren’t too fussed about but figured we’d take a quick look. There turned out to be three long sets of steps to climb which wasn’t easy given my current state of fitness (appalling), but there was a decent view of the Mekong and surrounding trees, at least.
Once we reached the dock, which was essentially just boats lined up on the shore, we hopped aboard a boat with a Cambodian driver who spoke no English but managed to communicate perfectly well with various sounds. We sailed across the river, which was an experience in itself. The water seemed to be so clean which was a nice change. Unfortunately plenty of locals still throw rubbish into the rivers all around South East Asia, and here was no exception as we witnessed a later in the evening, but from where we were sitting the water looked blue and crystal clear.
The boat driver took us quite far out before cutting out the engine and letting us float. I figured we’d be waiting a while on the off-chance that we should spot any dolphins, but within minutes he was calling ‘eh!’ and pointing out into the distance. Sure enough, we could see a pod breaching only twenty metres away. The boat driver moved us to a few other spots to get a few more glimpses but we were lucky enough to see the dolphins swim within a few metres of the boat. By a stroke of luck I managed to take my one and only good picture for the animals surfacing.
I think the last time I saw anything like this was back in California on a family holiday in 2003. We’d been on a boat to see grey whales in the Pacific, and whilst it seemed nice at the time, I was not that interested. Perhaps I’ve caught some of my dad’s interest in sea mammals.
Our final evening Cambodia sounds pretty uneventful, as we decided to go and have dinner in a waterside restaurant, but it was a perfect ending. The sunsets have been colourful all around Cambodia, but with only trees in the distance and the reflection from the Mekong, the sunset here was magnificent.
And so our time in Cambodia had come to an end and I’m filled with many fantastic memories. I won’t be forgetting about child sellers, litter, intimidating tuk tuk drivers or just the bizarre popularity of ‘no money no honey’ t-shirts, but mostly I’ll remember its natural beauty, delicious cuisine, and friendly people. Not a bad way to start the tour around South East Asia.
Now was time to face the long journey to Pakse, Laos, a nine hour journey north that none of us were looking forward to. We were pleasantly surprised when the bus pulled up in Kratie; it was relatively spacious with decent air-con and the seats were actually quite comfortable. Excellent. As we approached the border, a couple of hours later, we did find that the potholed roads worsened to the point that we were swerving around great big craters. There were a few moments where bums were sweeping cleanly off the seats. Other than that, it was one of the better bus journeys.
As we neared the border the bus guide began doing the rounds and collecting passports, visa documents and fees. We were charged more than expected on the way in to Cambodia and found the same problem again here. Lindsay and I had to fork out $42 for ours, and the Canadian man next to us, $49! Sarah, having a Luxembourg passport didn’t need a visa but had to pay a $5 ‘stamp fee’. The guide told us he was only charging $1 commission per passport, but I don’t think anyone was fooled. When the Canadian man asked if he could do it himself the response was essentially ‘yes, but we won’t wait for you on the other side.’
Ironically, we were waiting for two hours at the border. Amazing, as there was hardly anyone around. The guide told us it was because there was only one member of staff on duty. Hmm. Then once we boarded the bus again we had another set back. Every time the driver tried to start the engine the bus made oddest metallic noises I’ve ever heard come from a vehicle. Once it finally kicked into action we were crawling along at about 10 mph and you could feel the resistance. Dodgy gear box or something, by the sounds of it. Who knows, I’m no mechanic. Whatever it was, the prospect of the setback was rather depressing. Looks like we could have done our own passports after all.
We were panicked about how long we would be delayed for, as it was already 6 pm and we had another three hours to go. Luckily we weren’t waiting around too long as a few minivans turned up to take different groups to their destination. Phew, I thought, but then came the usual conundrum cramming as many people into the van as possible, in this case 12 people in 9 seats. Lindsay’s car sickness came in handy as it meant that she and Sarah could go in the front without sharing. I wasn’t so lucky and was squished into the back. By this point I was pretty fed up and grumbling things to myself. The Polish guy next to me, rather patronisingly, said ‘hey, it’s not so bad, only a few hours.’ I don’t think he expected my response: ‘yeah, but it gets a bit frustrating when you’ve had six months of it.’ One of many times where my baby face must make me look like the backpacker freshman.
Whilst I may have been trapped on the ridge between two seats I may well have been safer than the other two on this journey. The driver was a complete maniac and cut our journey time down from three hours to about 1 hour 20 mins. Lindsay and Sarah confirmed that he was driving at 160 kph for most of the journey and got photographic evidence to prove it to me. He was yet another driver also insistent on blaring annoying music the whole way.
Reaching Pakse was a massive relief as it was only around 8:45, earlier than expected thanks to the minivan driver. We were shattered and dropped off on the side of the road which meant getting a tuk tuk to the hotel. There was only one about and it was super tiny which meant Sarah was on the back of the motorbike whilst Lindsay and I squeezed into the side attachment. The change in temperature was pretty dramatic so we shivered as we whizzed down the high street of the city, laughing our heads off at the ridiculousness of the situation. A day of completely chaotic travel.
We reached our hotel, threw our bags down and settled the bill of SEVEN DOLLARS. Clearly Vietnam and Cambodia have taught us nothing. Always settle a price first!