We landed in Kratie (pronounced K-ra-che not Karatie!) next to the Mekong, which has become our travel partner up north. We instantly agreed that it felt very much like Kampot. Dusty streets with a scattering of coffee shops, street stalls selling fried noodles, soups, beer and cigarettes. A few roads with guesthouses and a central market just 3 minutes from the bus drop off point. Everything is so compact and around the market square in small towns like these.
The place is quaint and quiet. We were approached by a few tuk tuk drivers who gave us a free lift to their recommended guesthouse. However it was right next to the school, which starts early morning, so look out and their ‘free internet’ turned into free wifi, despite our clarification that we don’t have a computer. We turned this place down as Laura felt it was substandard for the money. So we jumped back on the bikes again and were taken to a second place called Star Guesthouse, which Laura had read online was bad to stay at. A cheap place right on the market, which was not ideal at that time, as the market had recently burnt down and was being rebuilt with heavy duty machinery. However the management had recently changed and the rooms were large, a few cobwebs, but they are useful in catching mosquitoes! The outside eating area was nice and for $3 per night for both of us, with free internet on two laptops we couldn’t complain. We had a lot of website work to do and so this was a real money saver.
As we had been in Phnom Penh the night before at the bar, we decided (again) that we needed to curb our beer habit. We arrived at the hostel however and began some Internet ‘chores’ and were soon approached by and English guy and Swedish girl who told us that that had been in Kratie for 4 days and that at night there was nothing to do. As a result they were organising a party at the guesthouse, where the owner Mao had agreed to supply a BBQ and free shot on arrival. Uh oh, spells trouble! Either way the party is coming our way and so we have no choice- honest!
We met all the other people staying at Star and everyone liked the place. Mao was a great guy who just hung out with everyone and wanted them to enjoy themselves. We agreed to help hand out some fliers and rally people from other hostels with a beer chatting to our new friends next to the river with the other locals. The night came and we ended up with a group of around 13 people, which was not bad considering there were only around 20 tourists in the whole of Kratie! Really good fun. Ben the instigator played the guitar for everyone, Trevor decided to be the bar man for the evening and everyone helped Mao run the night. It was a communal effort that made us feel good and renewed our sense that a traveler’s community can exist with people, who travel in a similar way to you, with similar “traveling moral code”. Everyone who has traveled for over 6 months develops a style and certain views on what should and should not be done to get the best experience possible.
The morning after was unsurprisingly hard, after a tab of 16 beers and a recollection of the local rum being tried for the first time. The couple whole organised the party left early in the morning and left a note bidding us goodbye, which was a shame, but they needed to move, which we understood.
Either way we needed to focus on writing blogs and updating our website to begin to move it towards being authored by the many people we have met over the world. This website has ambition as a regular source of updated information don’t you know!?
The only thing we did was head out to have a look around the market and found a little gem of a stall selling fish rice soup with noodles and roasted peanuts. You then have the obligatory lime to squeeze over, chilli paste, herbs, fish sauce and soy sauce in any combination you desire, all for the princely sum of 3,000 riel or $0.50. Otherwise we established our regular places, which generally comprise of people who do not rip us off in the first instance (in addition to walking past places that tried it and making a point of our diverted custom) and who have stuff we need. At this point, given that it is so humid and hot in Kratie we take regular nuoc mia and iced coffee breaks. Star were great as we were also referred to a cheap water shop (600 riel instead of 3000 riel) and they let us cool it in their freezer, despite detracting from their sales. Otherwise it was days staring at code and writing non-stop, just briefly enough to check that no one else needed the computer. No one did though, as generally people tended to only spend a few days there at most. Head to Kampi to take a tour boat to see the rare irrawaddy freshwater dolphins (only 88 left in the world) and then head elsewhere. We like places like these though…. they are normal and you can just sit and get immersed into people’s real life. Normality.
On our third day or so we decided that it was time for us to get out of town and head into the countryside to see the sights. We had a motobike driven to our hostel for 7:00am to make the 30km track north to Kampi to get our own glimpse of the dolphins, yet had already agreed that we would just hang out on the river bank and hope to get lucky. We were not prepared to pay the $7 they were asking for a tour lasting just 1- 1.5 hours. So $5 down on the bike and then another 10,000 ($2.50) on fuel (never from a fuel station which is more expensive!) we set off in the warmth of the early morning, although not early in the eyes of the locals, all of who get up at around 5-6am!
Leaving the boundaries of Kratie we sped north with the Mekong flitting in and out of view behind the treeline. The only houses seemed to line the roads and beyond those you could see expanses of rice paddy fields dotted the horizon. People lazed around in hammocks in their general wares shops that seemed to be the only kind of shop. The occasional stand with pepsi bottles filled with petrol and a glum/ board person lying around, seemingly living life in idle mode.
We wound past Sambok hill and past increasingly dense trees lining the road. The ride was beautiful and the bike smooth- better than we have had yet, as it didn’t rattle and could easily reach 60kmph. We saw a guy who had been at the party a few days earlier and cruised past him waving as we went. In about 45 minutes we reached a concrete dolphin statue that signalled our arrival. We continued past to find a good place to stop and found a few but returned to see the boats and see whether people were having any luck in seeing these rare animals. We parked up and sat by the water’s edge, only to be approached and asked to buy a ticket. We said we didn’t want a boat tour, but apparently you need one just to sit by the river- ridiculous. We told the guy that wasn’t going to happen and eventually he went away. We gazed out next to a handful of locals and observed the high water level of the river, which made it more difficult to find the dolphins and thus we realised that it was not likely we would see anything without a boat tour. A few people headed out on lone boats and before long we were approached again and told to leave as we were not paying the $7 ticket just to sit there! We declined the offer despite idle threats about the police being called (it is not possible to make police move for anything less than $10 here, so that was 100% unlikely) and left leisurely towards a place 2 minutes further north of the river where there was a shack over looking the water. We parked up and let our eyes adjust across the vista and beauty of this amazing river, reflecting on how we have followed it north from teh Delta in Vietnam and will continue following it into Laos. Bits of trees and river weed floated down with some serious pace and considering the river is so wide we just imagined what volume of water was passing by, from beginnings of a spring in Burma.
It was great just to sit and take in the scene in peace. We were joined by a tuk tuk and two girls joined us, but didn’t break the peace. It turns out that this is the best spot to watch the river without being charged.
After a few hours we decided to make a move and head further north. We didn’t see the dolphins but just watching the great Mekong sufficed. We were tempted to go back and take a boat though, as we felt that these crazy looking critters would not be around the next time we would be back! (later however we learnt that in Southern Laos it only costs $2.50 to take a boat to see the dolphins and less than $7 to kayak next to them!)
Another 35km north of Kampi was a 100 pillar wat that it another attraction. We are not so fussed with attractions, but they provide a useful guiding point that we generally deviate from when we see something else interesting. We head down more tree lined streets with the kids bursting out of many houses crying “hellooo!” and waving emphatically. It is such a good idea to see people swinging in hammocks underneath their houses on stilts in the mid day heat.
Soon though we were out of the shade and into the roaring heat of midday. It is lucky to be on a bike for the breeze, but you get severely dehydrated. I wasn’t feeling so well, I suspected a few things, but as always it is difficult to name a culpret. We stopped in a random village as it was lunch time and after driving around the central junction, which was the village saw few people eating except in one place. We tried there, but they tried to charge us 20,000 for a rice and meat dish, which is a blatant rip off, so we just left them laughing at the scene. We found somewhere else and watched what someone paid before being told a higher price. Luckily at this point we could communicate that we knew the price due to seeing what was paid (a great tip to avoid being ripped off) and were finally served 3 dishes for 5,000 each. We love sitting with the locals on the red plastic chairs and food scraps that are chucked on the floor, presumably for the stray dogs to mop up. There always seems to be a kung fo or fighting film on the TV with people staring at it between gulps. A familiar sight to move western home’s!
We continued north in the full sun, which was only ignored with the immense beauty of the countryside. The paved road turned to mud and we knew we were in the sticks. Rattling over numerous bridges over streams feeding the mighty Mekong, we eventually reached a village with one shop in the centre of town selling mobile phones. Like Vietnam there is henerally one, it has a glass facade and air conditioning. A modern insert into a wooden village, which looks so alien.
We curved round a bend and saw a Wat and entering saw that it must have been the 100 pillar Wat. We love Cambodian temples, the curved forms that reach to the sky makes them dominating and powerful looking. We walked up and were welcomed in by a caretaker eating his lunch. Around the walls were pictures telling the various stories in Theravada Buddhism and at the end a giant Buddha statue. We didn’t count all the pillars and trusted them, and were soon distracted by a turtle sanctury set up by the monastary for the Mekong’s turtle population. There were also two beautifully made and brightly painted long boats for racing on the river.
It was baking and we sat under a tree looking around us, inspecting the monk’s living quarters and their abode. I was feeling drained and so we decided to head back to the hostel for a rest. We flew back past the same scenes as before, but reached a group of kids jumping into one of the rivers off the bridge. They were so excited to see us and so we took a few shots to show them, much to their delight.
They loved seeing their own faces and were jumping around excitedly before jumping in again to show off to us. Full of smiles we continued back and soon made it under the fan for a few hours. As the road was straight Laura decided to take the reigns and drove us for most of the way. The first time of driving a motobike in any real way. She did well after getting the feel for the accelerator!
When it was nearing sunset we decided to go to Sambok hill to watch the sunset from the highest point in the area. The top of the hill also has a temple (the desired location as it is then closer to infinity). We didn’t have much fuel so drove at economic 30kph, but reached the bottom of the stairs in good time. Clambering up the three levels of stairs to the top for an obscured view, due to trees, but a great one of the surrounding area and of the Mekong winding through the endless rice paddy fields. We sat there and watched the sun set behind a 3 faced image of Buddha. No one else was around until the red sun had finally melted into the green horizon, when a group of young men talking loudly arrived and signalled our departure.
On the way back a crazy amount of bugs had taken flight and it was almost impossible to breath without ingesting one. Driving was slow as I literally caught 3 insects in my eyes, which were blurry. The hemet I had was darkened and so in the dark I couldn’t see the road. Literally they were pinging off the visor as I mediated between with and without it. In town they cleared up though and with some fuel left I decided to go a different way. Just then the moto cut and we had run out of fuel. So we pushed the bike back- luckily not that far. En route we found Kratie’s answer to KFC. Fried chicken for 3,000 for a large drumstick and 3,000 for a wing (how they were the same price I have no idea, but Asian people love meat bones in their food!) Cooked well and great coating- that is what it is all about! Going to get back on the bike I had no idea where the keys were. After a commotion of “what” and “where” the guy pointed to the seat where they were sat. A few onlookers were amused, but this turned to confusion when I put them in my pocket and we continued pushing th ebike to town. Their faces were priceless!
The next day was pretty uneventful. Taking in a different part of the world. Some more internet was punctuated by helping Mao on his menu and producing some posters for him. At this point we were pretty much part of the furniture. Happy hour was all day for us and he would give us gin and tonic for $1 instead of 2, so we were happy. We wandered around the filthy market and peered across the building site watching the massive pile driver smash in stumps for the next market area. It is also curious to see that there are so many small shop sized rooms all full of kids on drips. We are still not sure why so many kids were on drips. Some walked down, or even skipped down the road with their parent. Some drive off with drip sticking out of the window!
We sat on the edge of the wall of the Mekong and watched another glorious and burning red sunset that literally was the most red I have ever seen a sky before. The horizon was patched with clouds building for a night time storm.
Earlier Mao had told us about his new speciality, which he dubbed the “Khmer Volcano”. It sounded like a fondue, but where oil is used to cook various meat and vegetables. He said that we would take us so we could try it. Although he wavered at one point due to people being around eating, business trailed off and we all jumped into his friends tuk tuk to the restaurant. It was amazing. The best thing really were the sauces. One was red bean and the other tofu. Tofu is not the most exciting food, but this was immense! Just $5 each including 2 jugs of beer and 2 volcanoes (we had to have a second!) Really good communal food, just as the Cambodians love to eat- together. We had a great evening out and it makes such a difference going out with someone who knows the area and is a local.
The next day was our last. Again we decided to do very little, but book our bus to Laos and eat and drink in our favourite local places one last time. It turns out that we had stayed there longer than anyone else before, which says something (6 nights). The day came and went as they do when you remain in a place for a while and that evening we had agreed to have a volcano at Mao’s, outside so we could be the promotion for his new speciality. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as a massive table of 19 turned up, so there were no more chairs or tables! They didn’t buy much either. We ended up sharing anyway with a couple we met as the guy had been sick so we tried to befriend the girl to keep her company.
Mao joined us for a few drinks at the end of the evening and we ended up staying up after the place had closed, chairs stacked around us. We packed our stuff up and headed to bed.
Next morning we grabbed coffee and baguettes for the road and then with 3 of us in the van headed around the corner to pick up 2 more people. We set off, but then stopped again. What for now? More people will not fit. But in true Cambodian style, yes more people. But that it another story!