How Do You Get out of Kratie?

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Asia » Cambodia » East » Kratié
August 17th 2013
Published: August 19th 2013
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If there was one place during our entire Asian trip that I probably would have been content not visiting, it would be Kratie. Not that the town is terrible in any way: it was colonially quaint and along the Mekong River, with an undeveloped, pretty countryside not far away. It simply comes down to boredom: there wasn’t that much to see. Thus, our visit was more about breaking up our route to Laos.

The one noteworthy visit to make, and undoubtedly the town’s main attraction, is to hire a longtail boat to take you along the Mekong River to view the Irrawaddy dolphins. Although these creatures were reminiscent of the pink dolphins in the Amazon River we’d seen while in Brazil, they are not actually freshwater, river dolphins as I’d initially thought: they’re oceanic dolphins that primarily live in areas near coasts, with subpopulations in rivers such as the Ganges, Mekong and, of course, the Irrawaddy. In Cambodia, I was told by a local fisherman that there are probably less than 100 of these dolphins. They partially surfaced from time to time as our boatman lazily rowed us along the river; he then sometimes started the motor to more quickly transfer us closer to their peeking heads, only to have them disappear once more. We did catch several glimpses of them, however, including a very close view of three that surfaced several feet from our boat. It is interesting to note that, as our boatman mentioned, that these dolphins supposedly sometimes aid fishermen in their fishing by “herding”, so to speak, fish into their nets; in return, fishermen then throw some of their catch back to the dolphins. It was an enjoyable time in the water, but reminded me a bit of our Kerala backwaters tour: I was fine with it being over.

Back on land, we got on our rented motorbike - which was in a dilapidated state, and probably the worst one we’d rented up to that point - and headed along the rural road to Phnom Sombok temple. Before we almost missed a very rapid left turn, with a sign directing us to the temple that would be more obvious to my unperceptive eyes only if it were neon, we drove through remote little towns consisting of small, wooden houses on stilts with roofs made of bamboo leaves. Families sat on the raised porches, feeding dogs and letting children run free; the children would yell “Hi” to us as we scooted by to avoid the loose dogs in the road. Shirtless men with cigarettes in their mouths fished the river, sometimes accompanied by assisting children. It was peaceful rural scenery.

When we made it to Phnom Sombok, up on a hill off the main road, we climbed the stairs to a couple different levels, including a pavilion with a larger temple and wooden houses, which I’d assumed to be accommodation for the monks. The top, which was finally reached after many stairs and with a lively dragon statue in front of the small temple, offered nice views of the Mekong River.

After our visit, we drove to the other end of Kratie along the main road, until we hit a dirt one. Not knowing where it led, we turned back and came across a relatively large building, perhaps the largest one in the entire town, with a huge sign bearing the name “Diamond City”.

“Hey,” I said to Klaudia, “maybe they’ll have some jewelry.” Klaudia agreed to have a look, perhaps giving her the opportunity to buy some cheaper jewelry as souvenirs for relatives, only that, as we drove into the hotel-sized parking lot, I noticed a few other signs advertising beer and wine.

“Hmm… maybe it’s a restaurant,” I commented as we got off the motorbike, which I parked next to a Mercedes SUV with tinted windows; next to the Benz was a Lexus SUV, and next to that was another Benz. Noticing the cars, Klaudia gave a confused glance, at which point a man with a walkie-talkie - dressed as if he were a parking attendant, in a red collared shirt, black slacks, and wearing a black baseball cap with “Diamond City” written on it – walked up to us and, in broken English, asked us if he could help us.

“Is this a store?” Klaudia asked.

“No,” the man answered.

“Oh, ok, it’s a bar. I’m hungry, let’s go,” I said looking at Klaudia. I noticed a Karaoke sign as the attendant stepped in front of me.

“Ehhh…” he mumbled.

“It’s not a bar?” I questioned, confused now as well. I gave Klaudia the “What the heck is going on?” look.

“Yes, yes, bar…” he answered.

“Ok…” We began walking towards it, when, but again, the attendant blocked our path, again mumbling, “Ehh…”

“Can we go see?” I asked him.

“Eh?” he responded.

“See…Look…Watch…Inspect…” I said pointing at my eyes.

“Ehh…” Now I was intrigued. The man finally acquiesced, saying, “Ok, ok…” with a disquieted smile, and began escorting us to the door. We entered the building, which immediately seemed lavishly kitschy: a mahogany bar stood to the right of us, but no clientele sat at it; to the left was a large glass cabinet full of wine; in front of us was a large, tall black-stoned Buddha statue in meditation posture.

“Is that onyx?” I asked the man, impressed.

“Onyx, onyx,” he agreed, nodding.

Walking towards the statue, I began to think that it was a bad idea to have lunch at the establishment since, by the looks of the décor, it was going to be expensive, when, suddenly, wearing a very tight black mini-dress and long heels, stepped out a pretty Asian woman from a corridor.

“Ohhh…” Klaudia and I said simultaneously and knowingly after a brief period of clueless silence. It was like a delayed response to a joke, the punch line suddenly becoming clear.

“It’s a brothel…” I said superfluously to the man and Klaudia, who was smiling awkwardly as she said, “Yep.” We both quickly turned and exited the establishment without another word.

We also left Kratie the following day to begin our trip to Laos, and experienced the worst trip we’d ever had (with a quick Internet search, you can read plenty of other horror stories concerning this exact journey). The general level of scamming in Cambodia had increased, perhaps only surpassed by what we’d experienced in India, but we were sufficiently travel-hardened at that point to avoid it. Unfortunately, we fell in it big in Kratie when - at the suggestion of our hotel concierge, who assured us that it would be quicker and more convenient - we saved a whopping $1 by taking a tourist van instead of a regular tourist bus. The tourist van debacle began innocently enough as we (Klaudia, I and an additional Frenchman) underwent the usual two or three confusing van changes that make no sense to tourists - it’s always unclear as to what astute decision-making process prompts the van changes, and I’m certain that I’ll never know since questioning concerning the matter is never answered – but, being accustomed to it, we went along with it. Things began to get fishy, however, after the third change, when, after a short drive - and while we thought we were at last on our way - we stopped, were asked to exit and were escorted to a tourist van sitting in the middle of the road. I could see the onset of a fuming Klaudia as we walked towards the van; and, once we reached it, I knew the fuming would absolutely begin as we instantly saw that it was full in capacity. We made a very big fuss, ignoring the urging of the two drivers to enter the van. I kept asking the drivers if they wanted me to sit on the roof, while Klaudia informed the drivers that she did not pay money to sit on the laps of some Cambodians; the Frenchman, no help as anticipated, looked on speechless. They finally conceded to our demands and returned us to the original van. I said “thank you” as we began to drive, but Klaudia reminded me that it was very premature to be doing so – as usual, she was right as we reached our initial starting point and were asked to leave the van again while the driver pointed to the very first van we’d been thrown out of, this time also almost full.

At this point, we had two choices: one, run away; two, stick it out with this craziness. We weighed the two options, finally deciding on the latter because we thought another day in Kratie, which would have followed had we chose the former option, was the absolute worst thing that could befall us - in retrospect, I wish we’d chosen the former. We sat down in uncomfortable, contorted positions; then, we waited…for what seemed like hours, while the drivers strapped on the most peculiar things to that back of the van, things I would have never considered to strap on to the back of a van, things like fans, coiled plastic piping and even a scooter. The final stroke was fitting 25 adults in a van with a capacity of 14 individuals: ad hoc plastic seats were provided to some, while others sat on laps.

We drove in the heat for several hours to a town not quite yet at the border. The van stopped and everything was unstrapped from the back and removed from the back trunk space, including our baggage. They then invited us out and resumed the long exercise of strapping the wealth of objects to the back. We began to inquire as to our whereabouts and what the plan was to take us to the border with Laos, receiving only pointing and mumbling from the driver. We figured it was yet another van change to which we had to resign ourselves. Alas, we were simply left there.

Not knowing what to do, we began asking the surrounding locals about the next bus, but suddenly no one spoke English. We called our hotel in Kratie and explained our predicament. Needless to say, he was of no assistance, but did assure us that another van would appear to take us to the border. When I questioned him about the timing of such an appearance, he replied that he wasn’t certain.

The Frenchman had disappeared at this point, while we left our bags at a guesthouse and headed to the police station after we’d seen, argued with, and even threatened with police action some of the drivers from some of the many vans we’d been passengers on during this journey to some town in the middle of a Cambodian nowhere. We took their pictures and headed to the police, knowing that they would be of no help as well but figuring we’d at least feel better complaining to someone. The police, every so often asking us if we still had our passports, called our hotel, but received the same answer we’d received. So, back to square one, we returned to our baggage, only to find that the hotel proprietor there had organized a van to take me, Klaudia and the Frenchman to the Laos border, once again instilling us with hope for the Cambodian people. As we entered the van, the Frenchman complained that they had waited for us for over 45 minutes...oops…

The ride was obviously uncomfortable, full of people, agricultural products, and tools of all sorts, but we successfully made it to the border. There, other tourists and yet another (nicer this time) van waited for us. The driver took our passports, our money and, after disappearing for over a worrisome hour, procured our visas (tired and sick of it all, I cannot say whether we overpaid for anything in terms of visa and bribe costs, but, with the passage of time, I’ve now read that tourists should not trust this process and should take their passports across the border themselves). He apologized for the wait, informing us that the border officer on the Cambodian side was ill and a replacement needed to be found to stamp our passports (and take our bribe). He then directed us to cross the border and that he would wait with our passports on the other side. At first Klaudia thought that it was a joke. Skeptically, we walked under the railings and across the completely empty border crossing, without a border officer in sight and without our passports in hand. No matter, we were in Laos. At the van, our passports were returned and we set off. Unfortunately - despite all the shuffling, the scamming, the lying, the arguing, the visit to the police, the crammed vans and arriving to Laos eight hours later when the trip was supposed to take four - the climax of this story had not yet been reached. As the van sped off, it hit and killed a stray dog. Yes, we had run over a poor dog; the van jumped twice as if driving over a speed bump; everyone in the van screamed in terror.

Please heed my warning: if you’re travelling to Laos from Kratie, Cambodia, please, please stay clear of the tourist vans. Take the big bus. As I’d mentioned earlier, a quick Google search of this trip will reveal plenty of stories like the one related above. Save yourself loads of grief and don’t let this happen to you.


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