Kratie - a Mekong Town

January 15th 2009
Published: January 27th 2009
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Thursday 15th

The bus for Kratie was due to leave at 7am so we breakfasted at 6:30am and the tuk-tuk picked us up at 6:50am. We sped across very busy streets to a bus depot. The lady guide got us aboard as if they had been waiting especially for us, but a few others boarded after us. Because there were only about 7 others and we were told to take our luggage on board with us we assumed that this old bus was simply a feeder bus that would take us to the actual proper bus for the journey - but after twenty minutes it became apparent that this non air conditioned bus was taking us all the way to Kratie. Although it was a bit rough and ready the few passengers meant we could occupy the seats near where all the luggage would be stored so we had lots of room and big windows to sightsee from. For the first hour we followed the same route as that to Siem Reap but we then branched off passing through dusty towns. These towns with their numerous little roadside stalls would make an interesting stop - it would be good to be on a motorbike so that you could stop at will when you see something interesting. The bus driver seemed to stop for wee stops deliberately at those stops that had no proper facilities - although we passed many with. So I with the others had to troop off into a field for a pee - always conscious that you should never stray from trodden paths because of landmines. I'm sure the threat isn't great in such populated areas near major roads but you can't help it being in the back of your mind. At one stop I saw fried spiders and large cockroach-like insects for sale. The spiders were about 3 inches long. I saw one woman carefully selecting about 4 or 5 and sticking them in a plastic bag as a snack for later. The road is metalled all the way and the driver drove fast - the usual blurting of the horn to warn that he was coming through regardless. The farming in the first 2 or 3 hours appeared relatively prosperous. We even saw a herd of about 50 cows together. Normally they are single tethered ones. We recrossed the Mekong on a large modern bridge. We then passed many rubber plantations - then it became tapioca at the sides of the road as we passed very near to the Vietnamese border. The landscape changes to small rolling hills - quite wooded - we passed many trucks loaded with logs. For the last hour the driver went even faster - cutting many corners and overtaking on some blind summits. He did at one point brake violently to avoid something. The roadside stilt houses become noticeably more basic - the walls constructed from woven reeds, It was great to see the mighty Mekong again as the bus arrived after six and a half hours at Kratie. The bus stop is right on the riverbank and the view across the Mekong is magnificent. Only a couple of moto drivers made laid back attempts to get us to use their services. Such a contrast to the scrum in Phnom Penh. We headed across the road to the Red Sun Falling cafe to plot our next move. Jen got talking to an Aussie who told us of a reasonable guest house just 150m away. I went to check out the room which was fine to $5 a night (even a TV). It overlooks the market square which is surrounded by old French colonial buildings which are a bit dilapidated but characterful. The whole place has a run-down but laid back and friendly feel. We went for a discovery stroll and had a milkshake at the Star Guest House. Later once the heat had decreased we decided on a larger stroll. . The stroll took us south along the road and then a dusty track right by the Mekong. The people there obviously live simply but apparently happily judging by the friendly welcome they gave us. The children do not look malnourished. Some of the houses are idyllically placed on stilts out over the edge of the Mekong. We came upon a couple of billy goats head butting each other ferociously to extent that both were bleeding from their heads. Because they were untethered Jen refused to go any further so we had to divert. We then came upon wedding clebrations that meant we had to divert again - only to come upon some locals killing a large pig - presumably as part of the wedding celebrations. The pig was not enjoying having its throat cut and was making a horrendous racket. Jen refused to pass this scene, so we had to divert a third time.

Friday 16th January
We hired bikes after a hearty breakfast. They are ancient un-geared Chinese models with only the vaguest of brakes - but for $2 a day can't really complain. We followed the road that runs north parallel to the Mekong river. It passes through lovely and now familiar Cambodian villages if stilt houses with families spending their day beneath them in the shade (sharing the area with tethered pigs and scratching chickens). There is also always a sleepy dog which often is asleep in the road and only grudgingly moves out of the way when a vehicle approaches. Cows often wander into the road but strangely the water buffalo seem to be brighter and keep to the sides. Fortunately there weren't too many motor vehicles on this stretch. We passed a couple of men with fighting their cocks in the yard and then we came on a funeral. The house was decorated with colourful banners and the family were gathered around and there was amplified chanting filling the street. As we pedalled on there were numerous friendly children who were just happy to smile and shout hello. As usual we seem to intrigue and amuse them. We arrived at a village where the rare Irriwaddy dolphins can be seen. We joined up with a Dutch couple who had arrived on bike just before us. They are serious bikers having cycled about 2000 km from Chang Mai in Thailand with another 1000 km to go to Siem Reap. The four of us plus local boatman headed into mid stream of the Mekong. He used the engine only for the first 50m and then cut the engine so that he held the boat against the tide with the rear mounted oar. So in silence other than the lapping of the water the first dolphins appeared. It was wonderfully peaceful and serene. They are a strange variation on most dolphins we've seen in that they have very short noses. It was a great privilege so see them as there are only about 100 left in the world. Apparently the locals think they are re-incarnated people so do not harm them (other than accidentally when they get caught up in nets). They appeared close to the boat either singly or in groups of up to 3 or 4. They only appeared fleetingly as they surfaced to breath. You could hear them blowing quite distinctly. You get the impression that they are watching you as much as you are watching them. At some times we had dolphins appearing at several points around the boat. It was difficult to estimate how many dolphins there were but probably saw about 10 individuals including a family group including a (calf?). In between the dolphin sightings we could see a magnificent sea eagle hunting about 200m away. We stayed out for a full hour so had plenty of time to relax and just enjoy the experience. We wished the Dutch well on their remaining bike ride and set off on our considerably less refined old Chinese bicycles back to Kratie. The heat was really intense. The villages here are not connected to either electricity or mains water. Like many houses in Cambodia they have huge clay pots to hold water. I think drinking water is delivered by bowser but washing of body, clothes and dishes seems to take place in the Mekong itself for those who live alongside it. We stopped at a village famous for its sticky rice. We stopped to buy a bamboo tube full of it. I also bought some banana leaf wrapped bundles of the local raw spicy pickled fish. The portions were about the size of a sweet when opened. At a pee stop there was the usual anxiety in this land mine infested country of venturing to far off the road - so you just have to forget normal English reserve and just do it at the roadside like the locals. We stopped for a can of drink at a restaurant whose main option appeared to be some enormous snails that were being barbecued out front at the roadside. We had lunch at a friendly little cafe called Brown and Blue on the riverfront back in Kratie. Next door was a school from which we could hear the lovely sound of young children chanting in unison in Khmer. After the exhausting bike ride we just dined in the evening at our guesthouse.


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