Seventy kilometres north of Kompong Cham on the east bank of the Mekong, KRATIE (pronounced Kra-cheh) is especially lovely when the river is low and the town seems to be perched on a hill, from the top of which you can look out over the sandy beaches of Koh Troung, the large island across from the town. In the rainy season, it’s another story, as the surrounding country is engulfed by water and the town virtually turns into an island.
Thanks to the dolphins upstream at nearby Kampie, Kratie has become a popular stopover on the backpacking circuit. The town itself is a pleasant enough spot to stay overnight, which is about all the majority of visitors do, generally arriving on the first bus in the late morning and spending the afternoon dolphin-spotting before making an escape the next day. A couple of pagodas to the north can easily be visited by moto if you allow yourself a little more time: en route to Kampie you’ll pass the appealing hilltop pagoda at Phnom Sambok, while further north, about 30km from Kratie, Sambor is a quaint little village featuring an outsized pagoda.
Kratie escaped damage despite being occupied by the Khmer Rouge early in their campaign, and the town still has a distinctly French feel, the riverfront retaining some tatty but attractive colonial terraces. To the south of the town centre is a series of large colonial buildings (now housing government departments) and the gracious provincial governor’s residence, where tame deer graze in the garden. Life in Kratie revolves around the river, and the riverfront is a good place to watch the comings and goings while you settle down with some sugar-cane juice at one of the stalls.Read More
Cambodians traditionally believe that the Irrawaddy dolphins (psout) that live around the Mekong rapids at Kampie are part human and part fish, and consequently they do their best to look after them. However, the dolphins’ numbers have declined sharply due to the use of explosives and electric rods for fishing, and in 2004 the Irrawaddy dolphin was added to the IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species. They can be spotted throughout the year, but you’ll get the clearest view in the dry season (Nov–May), when you can take advantage of the low water level to see their backs breaking the surface of the river. They are most active early morning and late afternoon, as this is when they tend to feed, although you’ll still need to scan the water carefully to see their snouts or backs emerging a few inches above the murky waters of the Mekong, and photographing them is almost impossible. The site at Kampie is run as an ecotourism venture with fixed prices of $7–9 per person depending on the group size for an hour on the river, with some of the money going to the community. Once boats are out on the water the motor is cut and the boatman rows the craft to prevent disturbing these rare creatures. It’s not, however, necessary to go out on a boat to see the dolphins. Just continue about a kilometre upstream, where from dry land, with a little patience, you will almost certainly see them playing near the river bank.
Freshwater rivers, such as the Irrawaddy and Mekong in Southeast Asia, and the shallow tropical zones of the Indian and Pacific oceans, constitute the habitat of the Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). In the Mekong they now inhabit just a 190km stretch in the north of Cambodia, and can be spotted most easily at Kampie and north of Stung Treng near the Laos border, with occasional sightings elsewhere; in 2001, a pair were found just a few kilometres north of Phnom Penh.
Irrawaddy dolphins look more like porpoises than marine dolphins. The head is rounded, and the forehead protrudes slightly over a straight mouth; noticeably, unlike their seagoing cousins, they have no beak. Their dorsal fins are small and basically triangular, though slightly rounded. They vary from dark blue-grey to slate grey and pale grey, and are darker on the back than the belly.
Irrawaddy dolphins reach maturity at around 5 years of age, when they can measure up to 2.75m in length and weigh up to 200kg. More low-key in behaviour than the marine dolphin, they seldom leap out of the water, instead arching gracefully to expose their heads and backs for a moment before diving again. Family groups, or pods, usually consist of around six individuals, but larger groups are not unknown. In spite of good breeding rates, there is a high rate of calf mortality, which remains unexplained.