Northern Cambodia: River dolphins, pyjama people and the karaoke bus

I wish we’d had more time to spend in Cambodia. The little we saw of it was captivating, and the warmth of the people along with the delicious Khmer cuisine meant that we were sorry to leave when we did.

I am grateful at least that we did get to see a little of the north of the country, through our decision to take the road trip from the Lao border to Phnom Penh. The road itself is decent, and our speed varied between 80 km/h in a car to a very scary 130km/hr in a big passenger bus. The road passes through many neglected overgrown fields, and at closer inspection it’s easy to see why they are derelict. Signs by the roadside warn passers by not to enter the fields due to the mortal danger of landmines. Yet another stark reminder of the tragic legacy this part of the world still suffers.

Stung Treng

Our first overnight stop was Stung Treng, a small sleepy town on the banks of the Mekong. We arrived in late afternoon, found a decent guest house and had a little while to explore before sunset. One of our first observations was the number of women dressed in pyjamas. Whether on motorbikes, working in the market or stepping off the river ferry a sleeping outfit adorned with teddy-bears seemed to be fashion statement of the town.

Morning market, Stung Treng

We had our first Khmer meal that night, and later enjoyed a moment of language mayhem as we tried to ask for some of the delicious pineapple for dessert that the neighbouring table had enjoyed as we had entered an hour earlier. With none of the staff speaking a word of English and our attempts at communicating the word ‘pineapple’ via charades proving a miserable failure, we finally hit upon drawing a picture of one, at which point the girl’s face lit up and she happily informed us there wasn’t any left.

Kratie and the pyjama ladies

We were off early the next morning on the public bus to Kratie. What should have been a two hour journey was completed in a little over an hour thanks to our crazy driver who flew through the Cambodian countryside at breakneck speed. Even the villages we passed through did not cause him to slow down; he just blew the horn continuously as we careered past children on their way to school and women carrying water and fully-laden food baskets. As a welcome distraction we had the best of Khmer pop music playing on the TV, with deliciously tacky music videos accompanied by the words for those that wished to sing along. At 7am the desire among the passengers to sing was thankfully absent, and with the words flashing by in Khmer we would have been unable to join in even if the mood had taken us.

Kratie is also a small town, and the proportion of pyjama wearing ladies was even higher here. It boasts a large central market, and it wasn’t long before the heat of the day meant that we stopped our exploration and sat in a roadside cafe for a drink and an early lunch. Our aim for the day was the see the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins. There are only around 80 of them left in this part of the Mekong, and this time of the year is one of the best to see them, as the river levels are quite low and they are confined to fairly small areas of deep water.

An Irrawaddy dolphin

The best place to view them is in Kampi, around 15km north of town. We took a tuk-tuk out to Kampi, passing through many small villages and waving back at the many children who greeted the passing ‘barang’ with excitement. On arrival we were told with confidence that although it was $7 to go out on a boat, we would get our money back if we saw no dolphins. This was a risk-free promise to make, as we could already see them from the riverbank!

Although our boat was equipped with a motor, in fact the boatman never used it, as paddling a little way into the river was enough for us to be surrounded by the elusive creatures. They are not camera friendly at all, and no sooner did we see one appear than he was gone, only to resurface somewhere different a minute or two later. We did see several dolphins close-up, and although the pictures do not reflect how well we saw them they were a joy to observe.

Two dolphins make a brief appearance

From Kratie we took an overcrowded minibus for the four hour journey to Phnom Penh (it was apparently seven hours in the public bus for the same price so the discomfort was compensation for the shorter journey). Our little detour through northern Cambodia had been a pleasant one, and not only had we seen a rare endangered species at close quarters, but we had got to experience a little bit of Cambodia that already had us eager to see more.

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