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Published: January 19th 2010
It was a long seven and half hour bus trip to Kratie - flat boring countryside, very dusty in places, though the roads were all bitumen. Though it was a VIP bus DVD's were still played at top volume most of the trip which gets hard to take after a few hours. A popular DVD series features is a male comedian/singer whose screeching songs become very grating to our ears - though he's obviously very popular locally. Kratie was another quiet Mekong town, though it had quite a few larger hotels along the riverbank. Yet again there were many old French buildings and a wide esplanade along the riverbank. We found a hotel on the riverbank and then wandered into the market area which was behind the hotel. As usual we loved the market - every one has different goods for sale. At this one we were fascinated by baskets of mouldy looking dried weed which seemed to be in great demand at the few stalls that were selling it.
That evening we sat with dozens of local families at one of the many tiny restaurants which set up along the river bank each evening. We'll miss miniature plastic chairs
when we leave Asia! Kratie is renowned for it's fabulous sunsets and we certainly weren't disappointed any afternoon by them in Kratie. In the centre of the river is a large sand island called Koh Trong and next day we paid a fisherman to row us across the river in his tiny boat so we could explore it. After clambering over a wide expanse of sand we climbed up a steep path into the village proper where we had planned on hiring bicycles to explore the island. The bicycles were there, all locked together on a long chain, and when nobody could find the key to unlock it them we ended up walking around instead. It would have been a quiet place to stay (they had one guest house) but that afternoon there was loud music playing at full volume in the house next to the guest house - and it continued all evening. We could still hear it from our hotel room later that night. We've noticed that all the speaker systems used in Cambodia are big, usually with at least half a dozen speaker boxes piled up, and there are definitely no rules on volume level. The island's
roads were very sandy, and we were continually passed by a young man on horse and cart who was delivering pots of water to the houses. His horse was great to watch - he trotted backwards as pushed the cart under the houses so the young man could unload them. At the end of the island we listened to a monk chanting in a small temple whilst we sat and watched the canoes around the long floating village which was strung out in the waters of the bay along the island's length. It was home to Vietnamese fisherman and their families.
We found the correct path down the beach when we returned to the shore - a bamboo path over the sand which made the long walk back to the water easier. We shared the trip back to the main land with three young monks - one of whom was very ready to practice his English. A long flight of steep cement steps took us back up the road - the steps are high to accommodate the huge increase in the water's height during the rainy season. Later that afternoon we hired a young tuk tuk driver to take us
A spirit house - all houses in Cambodia have one
Food is put in them daily to keep the bad spirits happy and comfortable so they won't come into the main house
to Wat Roka Kandal, one of the oldest temples in the region. It was very pretty with the typical layered Khmer roof line and the interior was painted in black and gold patterns. It was used now as a display area for basket ware which was produced in the neighboring village - all now looking rather sad and dusty and not at all tempting to purchase. We walked through the village - it was very poor - and all the women and children seemed to be spending the afternoon delousing each other's hair. They sit with their head in another's lap, where hours are spent checking each hair. We see it constantly in the villages and towns. I think they pull out the grey hairs as well!
The main reason tourists come to Kratie is to see the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins and next morning we were up early and off to hopefully see some. The area on the Mekong were they are was 15 klms from the town - it was a great tuk tuk drive (again with our driver from the day before - he had been singing in a band till 1am that morning to earn extra money
but still seemed very bright and happy despite starting work at 6am) He owned his own tuk tuk but still worked for food and board only in a tourist restaurant. I guess it helped him find customers to drive around in his tuk tuk. The villages were very busy as we drove through them - all the ladies out buying food from the many tiny roadside markets, others washing clothes under roadside water pumps and kids playing before school. We were the first people on the water that morning and it was very peaceful after our canoe motor was turned off and the owner paddled us around. We weren't really expecting to see too many dolphins but we saw heaps! There are only about 75 left in the river and that morning we saw about 30 of them. They are very quick and at times we were very close to them. It was wonderful and we were quite excited. We had been on the water half an hour before more boatloads of tourists arrived. We thought that we wouldn't see any more dolphins as it had become noisy but surprisingly it was almost as if they put on a performance
for us - for the next half hour they were leaping high out of the water and really showing off. It was great! On our return trip we visited Phnom Sombok, a temple on a small hill. We are a little over temples now but the view of the surrounding area was worthy the climb to the temple. One of the temple had some very gruesome pictures painted around the walls - I think they were showing what would happen to you if you didn't pray! Their version of hell. We left Kratie heading for Stung Treng, a town north close to the border of Laos. We were told the bus would collect us in town but when it didn't show they bundled us into a tuk tuk and drove us 8klms out of town where we were left at a roadside restaurant to wait for the bus - we were the only people boarding in Kratie and the company decided it didn't want to drive in to pick us up. An hour later it arrived and we were heading to Stung Treng. Again the countryside was dusty and brown - I'm sure it must look much prettier when the
Traditional checked cotton scarf worn around head
also note pink pajamas (and motor bike helmet) in background -
rice paddies are full of lime green plants but at the moment all that remained was yellow stalks. It was dotted with poor houses made of bamboo and banana leaves.
We arrived late in the afternoon in Stung Treng and were left in a central square in the town. Leaving Jerry with the luggage I headed off to find a room. The town is situated on the Sekong River, a tributary of the Mekong. I found a brand new, very comfortable hotel on the riverbank for US$15 a night - a bargain for the standard of room. The town is close to the border with Laos (a new bridge financed by the Japanese Government now crosses the river)and this has dramatically increased tourist traffic between the countries. Previously you could only cross the border by boat. We hired a bicycle the next day and used it to explore the surrounding areas. We rode out to a silk weaving centre called Mekong Blue , again to watch the whole process. I had visited their shop in Phnom Penh and had been impressed with their products. Again the centre is training impoverished village women and has a kindergarten set up on the
premises. We spent part of the afternoon at the local post office chasing a parcel which we had posted in Phnom Penh on the 17th December which had still not arrived in Australia. During a subsequent phone call from Laos a week later when it still hadn't arrived we were told it left Cambodia on the 29th December - the day we checked in Stung Treng. I wander what would have happened to the parcel if we hadn't checked up on it?
Later in the afternoon we had a really fun bicycle ride through the villages which lined the Sekong River. We rode along the river until it joined to the Mekong and then sat and watched the sunset. We also were entertained by a group of men trying to persuade a bullock to get out of a boat moored on the bank. It took a long time - sadly we found out why - the bullock had a broken leg, probably from being forced in to the tiny boat in the first place.
Next morning we left for the trip into Laos - we had spent a month in Cambodia and thoroughly enjoyed everything about the country (except maybe
the dust!) and were quite sad to be leaving. The people were friendly - we had no pressure put on us (except by tuk tuk drivers) and the lifestyle very relaxed. Everything certainly ran on Cambodian time - it would happen when it happened! I loved the silk products - Jerry would be glad to have no more breaks in silk shops. We were looking forward to seeing Laos. Arriving on the border we paid our US$1 'contribution' each to get our passports stamped on both sides of the border. One man on our bus cried poor on the Cambodian side and got away without paying the $! - on the Laos side he complained as well, had an argument with the passport control man, had to pay, and then swore loudly when he got onto the bus when he found out his passport had only been stamped for a fortnight instead of the one month. It doesn't pay to argue with the men who hold the stamp pads! His complaining over a dollar was then going to cost him $2 a day to extend his visa for the extra fortnight he wanted....
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