Kratie to Stung Treng to Dom Kralor Monday 7 - Thursday 9 October 2008
We had planned to hit the riverside town of Kratie in the light with plenty of time to find a camping spot - but due to Paulie's very kind hospitality it was dark when we got there. On a whim Andrew drove into a Wat (or temple) just outside the town and asked one of the monks if we could camp there. It being a non-Buddhist trait to turn away travellers he said we could so we pitched up for the night. Having been in Buddhist countries a couple of months I knew there were all sorts of rules re: women and monks i.e.) you can't hand anything to them directly, touch their robes etc so I hung back a bit as I didn't want to do the wrong thing. Kratie is a little town that doesn't see a whole lot of foreigners - not in the Wats anyway!- and we were swiftly BIG NEWS!!
They were all a bit shy about approaching us but were hanging around giggling like a big gang of orange clad school girls ..eventually a brave soul approached us ..And suddenly we were inundated! A lot of them were novices, it being quite common for young men to become a monk for a short period as it earns their family merit. They were really interested in us..the vehicle ..Australia …and anything really! We had to beg tiredness after a couple of hours or we'd have been there all night!
Just as well we got a reasonable amount of sleep as the Wat bells to signal the early morning call to prayers ..went off like a bomb at 4am …and then on every 30 minutes until 7am so sleep was a bit elusive!
Next morning we had a chat with them and gave away our Khmer/English dictionary which naughtily we'd not really taken advantage of! They were all keen to practice their English so hopefully they'll get more use out of it!
We stopped at "Red Sun Falling" in Kratie a really nice little café run by an ex-pat Joe from the USA and had a really good breakfast. Kratie is a nice little riverside town. It is still very traditional -lots of little pony and traps and old wooden houses on stilts as well as a few lovely examples of French architecture. It was a long time KR stronghold (a situation which continued into the 1990s) and managed to escape any war time bombing so has a nice "old time" feel.
In one lovely old house (inexplicably surrounded by deer... presumably from the locality no one could tell us!) we found some traditional boat builders fashioning canoes, each out made out of one whole tree of 100 feet long …Andrew was really interested. No one could speak to us (though if we'd spoken French we'd have been ok!) but we later found out (see later pages on Laos when it finally gets done!) that the Mekong boat racing season was upon us so maybe they were for that!
We had a nice relaxing day (and a really nice meal in the evening- lemon grass and Mekong river fish really good) and found a good campsite 15km out of town. The drive there was lovely a real slice of the past - little wooden fishing houses on stilts over the water and cows/geese and ducks everywhere. We also witnessed a really good sunset.
The reason we had driven there was that this was the centre for dolphin watching -the major (if not only!) tourist attraction in these parts. The river is home to the Irrawaddy dolphins -a rare breed of freshwater dolphin. Found in various areas on the Mekong this area boasts one of the most plentiful numbers of these creatures -though a lot less than in the past. They have stopped fishing in the river and started a breeding program so the population is now roughly 100 - more than a couple of years ago but significantly less than was once the case - as aggressive fishing and the war really depleted numbers. We arranged a boat and agreed to team up with a nice couple from Berlin- Dirk and Bridget -and hit the water. We did see a lot of dolphins but they were a bit camera shy ..I ended up with loads of shots of the water! Anyway we had an interesting river trip and saw a slice of traditional Cambodian water life. Under strict conditions locals are still allowed to fish just off the river bank and we saw some of the traditional fishermen throwing in their nets.
There is a cottage industry around the dolphins, carving replicas and wood carvers line the drive up to the jetty. There are also a lot of children who sell food and drink around here -and we dispensed a few books and pens again!
So, we left Kratie and drove 142 km north to Stung Treng. This stretch of road only a couple of years ago was still an absolute nightmare of unsealed hell. Now (thanks again to the Chinese) it is a superb new highway so rather than a full day as was once the case it only took us a couple of hours to get there. It has been a pretty cut off province for a while but now as it is only 50km south of the Laos border (which was why we were there!) it is a bit more on the map. There is not a huge amount here, it was just a little town set on the Mekong with an interesting bustling market -we found a great campsite right on the river overlooking where the Mekong meets the Sekong River.
Whilst in Stung Treng we met Robert and Anna -other overlanders - travelling by a 750 Honda motorbike from London to Australia. They had been through Africa, Mongolia, China and SE Asia and we swapped travel stories. We had been asking everyone for weeks the relative prices of fuel in Laos and Cambodia to determine whether we should full up the long range tank prior to leaving -stupidly when we spoke to Robert the person who would surely have known we completely forgot to ask! It turned out to be pretty much the same so no harm done!
The next day (our last in Cambodia!) we visited Mekong Blue. This is a silk weaving centre a bit out of town which specializes in training under-privileged women in traditional spinning and weaving skills. They produce silk and weave and dye products which are sold all over the world. We met a lovely lady from the Philippines who was there on the voluntary service program helping them to move the business forward. The products were beautiful and it was great to see the centre which also provides a child minding centre so the ladies are able to leave kids there. The KR had been in charge many years and subsequently there is a real skills shortage in the area as there was no education and any "traditional" skills were eradicated. The products can be bought on -line and in addition Mekong Blue are keen to set up relationships with overseas retail outlets who would be interested in selling their products. We have included their web address here for anyone who is interested. www.mekongblue.com
In order to make a good impression on the border (!!) Andrew had a shave, we both put on clean clothes and as a final touch we got the car washed! It is great here a full inside and out car wash and detail comes in at under 2 dollars! We'll never be able to live in Australia or England again …we're getting spoilt!!
Sparkling clean we drove the last 50km of Cambodia to reach the very understated border at Dom Kralor. We arrived to think it was shut but the guard was having a snooze, and once woken he happily stamped our documents and we were let through to "no man's land" on the short drive to the Laos border.
We really loved Cambodia finding it friendly interesting and safe and would really recommend it as a destination. As I type this we have been in Laos a week and are having a ball. Unfortunately from the latter part of Cambodia to date we have been unable to upload all our photos - it is hit and miss at best and one picture can take 30 minutes. We think this is due to 3rd world archaic telephone connections. Sadly these pages might be picture free for a while but I will store them up for insertion once we hit civilization again - wherever that may be!