Kratie is a small town of about 7,000 people in northeastern Cambodia situated on the mighty Mekong River. It’s a sleepy little place sporting a green, tree-lined boulevard which stretches almost the entire length of the town from north to south. It’s main claim to fame is its proximity to the dolphins which inhabit the Mekong’s waters just a little north of the town.
When I recently mentioned to someone I was going to take a trip up to Kratie, I got the following response: “What is there to do other than visit some dolphins with no guarantee of seeing any?”
Despite this warning, one of the first things I did was to go visit the dolphins, and I beg to differ that there is more to see and learn than just hope to get a glimpse and take a photo of them. For me, it was about how I got there and what I learned about the projects that Kratie is involved in to make their community more sustainable. What started with a small group of like-minded and concerned people just over ten years ago is slowly growing. They want to preserve what is left of their resources and natural habitat to improve the quality of the lives of those living there.
Cambodia, being a poor country recently torn apart by a genocidal war, has a deplorable record for devastating its forests and ruining its main water way… the Mekong River… with over fishing and building colossal dams for the export of electricity. Many of the resources from the northeast have been used to not only build up the rapidly growing industry of tourism in the south but also for China’s consumption. This part of Cambodia has not yet been developed to that extent so it still remains as the poorest part of the country much dependent upon their natural resources. However, this is beginning to change.
On my second day in Kratie, after my first of exploring and familiarizing myself with the town, I opted to join a tour where I would be taken to the dolphins’ habitat in a kayak. With two guides and five boats, our group of ten tourists were paired up in twos to row our way to the dolphins’ home.
Yes, we had to work for our prize. I say ‘work’ because if you haven’t paddled a canoe or rowed a boat, you must be prepared for a strenuous upper torso workout. In addition to that, we actually had some mini rapids to battle. Fortunately, I was in the lead kayak with one of our guides who was an expert so I didn’t get too wet or dumped into the river. In fact, no one did. We all came through with flying colours….and we spotted at least a dozen dolphins!
This dolphin project began in 2006 when our tiny but concerned group of citizens realised that the dolphin was headed for the list of extinct mammals because of the over fishing with gill nets and the blasting of their pods by the fishermen to get rid of them. For centuries the people living along the Mekong had relied almost solely on fishing. Noticing that there weren’t as many fish as there used to be, they blamed the dolphins so began to kill them. Little did they realise that it wasn’t just the dolphins who were at fault. Some changes to their fresh water habitat were brought on by the numerous dams being built. Our concerned group composed of elected volunteers, along with help from the World Wildlife Association and some Government funding targeting community building for sustainability set about educating the fishermen. Over fishing soon became illegal. As one volunteer fisherman stated: “It hasn’t been easy to get them to change.” Some fishing with gill nets is going on but the blasting has ceased. The most difficult task is having to take away the fishermen’s nets or penalizing them if they continue to break the law after a warning. Realising they have families to feed, the leaders have helped to counteract this by hiring some of them as patrol men. Their other method was to teach the fishermen additional skills, such as raising cattle, growing rice and vegetables, planting rubber trees for latex, and cultivating peppercorn trees, as additional sources of income. Women are also encouraged to help and have proven to be very good entrepreneurs. It has become a family affair. Now the next hurdle will be how to get the young ones to carry this on when today many of them want to get away from the hard work of farming and head for the big cities to make a living.
The good news today from this project is that as of the last count two years ago, the dolphin population has increased to 90 when it was about 20 when it started over ten years ago. It really has become a balancing act with tremendous challenges because there are many who see the dolphins now as a tourist draw which will make them money. They are operating their businesses with motorized boats which can be very disruptive to the dolphins. The Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin which can only be found here in Asia in fresh water, is a shy creature and doesn’t respond well to many people in noisy boats ogling them. They also dislike performing for people so we viewers really don’t see much of them except when they come up briefly for a breath of air. We had to keep our distance and respect their home. After witnessing this, let’s hope that our concerned Cambodians will be able to maintain the progress they have made so far.
The other project which I have learned much about is a result of the Guest House where I stayed. I initially booked it on booking.com as I do most of my bookings based on its rating score and cost. I vaguely remember that someone had mentioned it was affiliated with some kind of hospitality training, and that it had a good restaurant. What a pleasant surprise I had when on my first night I read the brochures in my comfy, rustic room about the Centre’s origins and vision for the future.
Le Tonle Guest House and Restaurant was established in 2008 with the help of the Swiss Association of Tourism which subsequently was taken over by the local CRDT (Cambodian Rural Development Team) another NGO … non-government organization,…with the aim to train disadvantaged youth in the hospitality field. I write without any reservation that my experience with staying at this well run guest house has been one of the best I have had since coming to SE Asia over the past ten years. The young staff have been so friendly and accommodating. Each morning I have been greeted with friendly smiles accompanied with a genuine desire to speak English to me or French to the predominate patrons who stay here. Kudos to their teachers. This place is the best deal in town as far as I can see. Everyone wants to stay here resulting in a full house most nights. The rooms have no TV or A/C but are still comfortable because the beds and linens are of good quality. The rooms are dark but that’s because they are in a traditional Khmer house which is built that way to keep out the heat. We had shared bathrooms which were kept spotlessly clean so there was no problem there.
Besides the guest house which is housed in two buildings across the street from one another…there are 16 rooms in all… there is a fantastic restaurant where not only is the food on a par with any 5 star place, but the service is impeccable, too. Such service is a model to behold since most Cambodians are not good at that.
There is a third component to this complex and that is a CRDT Tour Office with friendly staff who were always glad to help me with future bus tickets or simply give lots of advice on what to see or do while in Kratie with no hidden motive or undue pressure. I also found them to be very curious about where I came from and wanting to know more about Canada once they found out I was a Canadian and not an American.
I would not hesitate to recommend anyone planning on a trip to Cambodia to make the effort to visit Kratie. You can visit Siem Reap for the Angkor ruins to learn about Cambodia’s Khmer history. Or, you may want to visit the south for the gorgeous beaches on the coast or on the islands. You may even want to visit the capital city of Phnom Penh to learn more about the civil war and the Pol Pot years, or simply experience the night life of this vibrant city. With the help from extensive Government advertising and the construction of fine hotels and resorts by China, these are the places first time visitors usually head for. However, if you want to see what could be in store for the future of this country, then Kratie is a good place to start. For a country which has been beset with such an unfortunate past, there is hope here as revealed to me in my visit to the home of the dolphins and my stay at the Tonle Training Centre. To me this is all about the future and the path which hopefully more Cambodians will follow.
Additional photos of Kratie