Not just a drive by, the wonders of Kratie and beyond

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February 20th 2010
Published: February 21st 2010
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The first thing about travelling in Cambodia is to realise that the bus is always going to be late and you will be fine. In that vein, our morning bus departed from downtown late, weaving through the bustling traffic bound for the north east and Kratie, a city of approximately 80,000 most of whom make their living from the might Mekong's waters. Leaving the traffic and congestion behind, we ease into the more rural life where after hours there is finally no English signs with the exception of the cel phone stores. In every town, grand temples dominate the landscape and despite the poverty, they are still built in grand styles with well cared for grounds that stand in juxtaposition to all of the garbage that lines the streets, alleyways and fields for entire trip. Wooden houses on stilts with steep staircases line the road, some with roof decorations in the traditional Khmer style and the year that the house was built prominently displayed front and centre. For those who are more wealthy, the houses are painted and the railings made from metal with a scooter or a rare car or Lexus SUV parked below, but for the majority, they are plain wood, but elegant in their simplicity and practical in the rainy season when the areas flood and the stilts keep everything bone dry.

Along the banks of the Mekong, fields and fields of rice are grown, now brown in the dry season with abandoned boats left for when the waters rise. Children ride home from school, doubling each other on bicycles while the high school kids stay longer at school, the parking lot full of scooters. The soil changes from brown to red, red soil which layers a fine dust all over us and all the locals wrap themselves tight in scarves as they travel on the backs of carts, scooters or trucks. The palm trees yield to scruffy trees as we move away from the Mekong and bright pink water lilies dot the roadside as tourists stop to take photos.

At our first rest stop, we encounter the famous spiders which are apparently a delicacy and enjoyed in this area. It is rumoured that this tradition started because during the Khmer Rouge days there was so little food that everything was considered fair game and because the spiders were that good, they remain on the menu today. There were plates heaped high and not too many takers though we did see some locals buy them and one adventurous tourist. We've heard you eat them like crab, suck out the sweet meat from the legs which you break off one by one, but avoid the centre which is filled with all kinds of unidentifiable and therefore likely to be disgusting inards!

Onward and northward we go, the heat unbearable while the locals dress in sweaters, and wool hats with huge brims to keep the sun out. For just under 300km, this is a slow ride, as we stop again for another short break. 7 hours from when we started, we roll into Kratie and I know that at the first corner I'm going to love it. It exudes a charm with its old French colonial crumbling buildings, bustling market of goods and produce and most of all, the friendly residents, all of whom have nothing but huge smiles for you. Situated along the banks of the Mekong, the sunsets are also killer and at sundown, both locals and tourists come to the river to have a drink and watch the sun go down over the town. While the landscape fades to red and then brilliant pink which is reflected in the water, a fisherman casts his net glistening in the last light.

Early the next morning, we fill our stomachs at one of the backpacker restaurants of which there are a few and grab a rental bike for $1/day to head across the Mekong on a ferry to Koh Trong Island. There are only 2 other tourists in site and as soon as we approach the ferry, the Cambodian hospitality comes alive as the men grab our bikes and load them on for us, treating us like honoured guests. The boat leaves when it is full or else when there are enough people on the other side to make the trip worthwhile, but we have time so we sit and relax and it fills quickly. We make the short crossing and land on a seasonal beach which at this time of the year is huge and drag our bikes through the sand until we make it to the woven bamboo mats which have been laid end to end to create a path up to the top of the island. There is nothing quite like riding
Typical Khmer Style HouseTypical Khmer Style HouseTypical Khmer Style House

This one is a little more upscale with its paint etc
on bamboo and the crunching of the pliant material as it is flattened by our trusty Flying Pigeon one speed bikes!

Up the hill, we start to circumnavigate the island and were delighted to find a well worn shady path which keeps us cool from the blazing sun. On one side of us the gorgeous views of the Mekong and the beach beckon and on the other side, the well kept yards and wooden Khmer houses. At every pedal a chorus of friendly "hellos" welcomed us and everyone we passed smiled in greeting. At the one end of the island there was a temple and then a spectacular view of the floating Vietnamese village which was incredibly picturesque. Gazing at it from afar, we could hear the sound of the boatbuilders constructing a new huge wooden boat. Continuing on the sound of hammering competes with the chanting from the temple on the other side of the island which only adds to the atmosphere of this wonderful island.

We passed through the centre of the island which was more agricultural with cows roaming the fields of rice, banana groves and other crops. Alongside the water, all of the homes had access to the river which is their life blood and many of them kept livestock with piles of hay stacked high into conical shapes to keep it neat and orderly. And clean it was, in contrast with the rest of the country, the island was pristine.

Stopping to hydrate, the women in the stand immediately took our bikes and moved them into the shade, pulled out two chairs for us which they wiped down, brought us napkins and in general pampered us and then charged us very little for drinks that we had paid triple for in Phnom Penh. The hospitality and warmth of the people was lovely and we wished that we had arranged to stay in a homestay there, but it was not to be this time. Left the little jewel of an island regretfully hoping that it will stay as it is with its warm and hospitable people.

Back in Kratie took our 2nd shower of the day which is becoming part of the routine, followed by staying out of the heat until later in the pm. Then we took our sturdy bikes and headed down to one of the oldest temples in the area and likely in the country at over 200 years old, having survived the destruction of the Khmer Rouge. There were two temples across the road from each other and at the first one, a young guy befriended us and showed us around. This was followed by two monks approaching us and asking if they could take their picture with us! That was a first since they are usually dodging tourists and supposed to renounce all material goods. Not sure that a camera should be exempted, but maybe their traditions are changing too! Across the street, small children beseiged us until the groundskeeper chased them away and welcomed us inside. While the exterior was nothing to look at, the inside was spectacular, all wooden beams hand painted in simple geometric, but elegant designs. On the way back following the river again, we rode through a poorer area where again everyone came out to say hello to us making our ride one long chorus of hello volleyball and putting huge smiles on our faces.

Reluctantly we returned our bikes which had stood us in such good stead and went back to our feet. Another dash to the river to watch the sun go down and then it was off to dinner and another round of scrabble before an early evening. Leaving Kratie the next day and not seeing any tourists on our bus get off, we realised that for most, it is just a drive by, but for us, it is likely to be one of the highlights of our trip and a real jewel of an area that we hope stays like this for many years to come.

Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


The monks who wanted to take our pictureThe monks who wanted to take our picture
The monks who wanted to take our picture

So then we turned the tables on them ; )

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