CAMBODIA TALES 2000
Relaxing in Kratie
Although Kratie (pronounced 'Kratchey' by my motodub) isn't a hotbed of ancient Angkorean ruins, it does have alternative attractions and its own brand of relaxed charm and that influenced my decision to take the long, cigar-shaped express speedboat up the Mekong river to this provincial backwater. After just one night in Phnom Penh, at the family-run Dara Reang Sey hotel on 118 Street, Virath moto'd me to the boat dock past the Japanese Bridge and I jumped on the Soon Lee and Penh Cheth express boat. It was already heavily laden with cargo on top and most of the seats below decks were occupied by locals as we left the dock just after 7am. Swinging onto the wide, tree-lined Mekong, busy with early morning fishing vessels, we stopped a few times to take on even more goods and a lot more passengers, so by the time we reached Kompong Cham after 2½ hours, it was standing room only, I was the only foreigner on board and the karaoke video was deafening those in close proximity to it, me included.
The dock at Kratie zoomed into view some five hours after leaving Phnom Penh. Like most boat arrivals, it was all a bit frantic as I climbed the steep steps and across the road to the Santepheap hotel. At the dock I'd met Phanna, who worked weekends at the hotel when he wasn't at school and he offered to ferry me around town. My double room with aircon, overlooking the river, cost a hefty $15 despite the fact that I was the hotel's only guest. Obviously my negotiating skills were a little rusty. Phanna, a fresh-faced 18 year old with ambitions to be a lawyer and the youngest of seven children, was bright and cheerful as we set off on his dad's moto. We headed south out of town but still close to the river, soon arriving at the 800 year old semi-ruined temple at Wat Ratakandal, where a handful of children playfully mimicked my every move. Across the road, we called in at a modern pagoda with its walls and ceiling painted in various versions of the life of Buddha and returning to town, we stopped by a half-finished wat to chat to an orange-robed monk, who was a friend of Phanna's. We also visited his school nearby and a newer wat near to the market before taking a rest at the Mekong restaurant with a soft drink and a bowl of chicken broth.
Phanna disappeared for his afternoon school lessons, so I walked along the riverfront road, past the governor's mansion and beyond before turning back and exploring the lanes and alleyways surrounding the town's main market, where all of Kratie's commerce seems to take place. Whilst some colonial-era buildings have received a lick of ochre paint, most are in a poor state of repair and the town has an air of impending decay. At 5pm, the town's loudspeaker system kicked in with music and news bulletins in Khmer. The food and drink stalls along the riverfront were busy with customers and I sat down to order a refreshing 'tikalok', a sweet, frothy fruit drink with raw egg, crushed ice, sugar and condensed milk, and to watch the sun setting, half-hidden by cloud, across the river. By 7pm, most of the stalls had packed up, as I returned to the Mekong restaurant for a tasty grilled beef dish with a plate of chips and followed that with a stroll around the pitch-black market area. The only light came from a couple of stalls selling fruit and a shop where teenagers were feverishly typing away on pc keyboards. I joined in an impromptu game of badminton on my way back to the Santepheap hotel, for a restless night's sleep, not helped by frequent power cuts and a noisy resident gecko.
The next morning, Phanna arrived at 7am alongwith his next-door neighbour, Veang, who was to be my moto-driver for the day. My original plans for a trip 30 kms east of Kratie to an ancient temple site at Preah Theat Kvan Pir had been dashed when Phanna explained there were rumours of bandits in that area, so Veang, who spoke no English, and I took Route 13 north of Kratie, with Sambor as our destination. Forty kilometres from town, Sambor was the site of a 8th century Chenla capital known as Sambhupura, although disappointingly, there are no remains of the original eight groups of monuments left to see. Instead, the journey, along a bumpy, pot-holed road with broken bridges and little traffic, was a chance to see the locals and their traditional wooden houses on stilts, running parallel to the Mekong river which was never far from view. At Sandan, we paid 500 riel to detour through a garden when a major bridge was under repair although the road improved greatly after that as we reached Sambor, 1½ hours after leaving Kratie.
Sambor is a small, dusty town with a couple of interesting wats to visit but little else. Wat Trasor Muoy Roi, a stone's throw from the river, is famed for its 100 columns and excellent wall paintings inside the vihara and has a large white-washed stupa in the temple grounds dedicated to Princess Nucheat Khatr Vorpheak, who was killed by a crocodile. East of the wat, a narrow track leads to another, much smaller, neglected pagoda known as Wat Preah Vihear Kuk. A young monk told us the ruined temple with its grimy, roughly-drawn paintings was 700 years old, although the translation was in pidgin English so I could be mistaken. After a brief tour of the town, we retraced our steps along Route 13, pausing intermittently to photograph anything that caught my eye. At one stop, in the village of Sandan and in the grounds of another partly-built pagoda, an open-sided classroom of children was too good an opportunity to miss. I accepted an invitation to join them and fifteen minutes later I was still chatting away to them when their teacher returned to take charge. On another occasion, I jumped off the moto only to frighten three little girls who promptly dropped their large bowl of cooked rice on the floor and fled screaming into the nearest house. That was one of my least successful photo opportunities!
One of the main reasons for the trip to Sambor was to hopefully catch a glimpse of the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the Prek Patang river rapids, north of Kratie. There are viewing areas at Sambor and Sandan but we didn't see any there, so when we stopped at Kampi, some 20 kms from town, I wasn't expecting too much. Well, I was in for a surprise. In a little over a half-hour period, I identified at least a dozen of the smooth headed grey dolphins constantly breaking the water's surface close to the riverbank. A small boat was available for hire to get a closer look but I was more than happy with my brief flirtation with these rare creatures and we left the deserted viewing area to drive the few kilometres to Phnom Sambok. At the summit of this hill are four pagodas at different levels, with restored Tripitaka paintings in bright colours and a nice panoramic view across to the river. Nuns and monks were in plentiful supply and I was invited to sit with the 92 year old head monk and a dozen or so younger monks and novices. For the next thirty minutes we practiced English and Khmer in turn, with hoots of laughter and the head monk's face permanently wreathed in a wide toothless grin.
Veang and I returned to Kratie just before 1pm and after a siesta in my room, Phanna arrived to show me one of his favourite spots along the nearby Prek Te river. The ride out there was very pleasant, with 'hello! goodbye!' shouted at me from all angles until we reached the river, which flows into the Mekong, where the only people we saw were toiling away in the adjoining fields. As the sun began to set, the Prek Te villagers made their way home on foot, by ox-cart and bicycle and we returned to town for tikaloks along the riverbank as the horizon became awash with a beautiful bright orange-red glow. As we enjoyed the sensational view, Phanna explained that if he wasn't successful in achieving his preferred lawyer's job, then he'd become a guide - his English was pretty good - and already he'd formulated money-making plans to design and print dolphin logos on t-shirts and postcards. On the way back to the hotel, I bought my express boat ticket for the trip to Kompong Cham early the next day, at a cost of 20,000 riel ($5) before a nap in my room. Unfortunately, my quick snooze turned into a longer one than I expected. Waking up at 8.30pm, I rushed out to find there were no restaurants or food stalls still open and most of the town was in complete darkness, apart from a couple of karaoke shops. Fortunately, I had a supply of biscuits and sweets back in my hotel room, so I wasn't going to starve as I retired to bed early, in readiness for my 7am departure the following morning.
Up at 5am, I was showered, packed and dressed by the time Phanna appeared an hour later. We walked around the corner to grab breakfast and some supplies to take on the boat before I thanked Phanna for his help and friendship, promised to write and boarded the Khemara speedboat fifteen minutes before departure. Soon after, passengers began to arrive in droves and the boat quickly filled up with around 100 people on board, including two western VSO'ers, one of whom I'd met on a bus a year earlier. We finally left the jetty just ten minutes late and 2½ hours later the now-completed bridge over the Mekong at Kompong Cham came into view as we docked. The return trip had been an interesting experience. I shared my food with a local election officer from Sambor, who spoke a few words of English, although the noise from the video drowned out most of the conversation. The boat, which appeared dangerously overcrowded to me, had stopped half a dozen times on the way to Kompong Cham to collect passengers, snack vendors and cargo, including motos and furniture. My time in sleepy Kratie had been a rewarding experience and well worth the detour on my journey from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It was exactly what I'd expected from a laid-back, provincial town on the banks of a river but extras like the dramatic sunsets across the Mekong, rare dolphins on the verge of extinction and the friendliness of the people ensure that I will return there again sometime in the near future.
Cambodia Tales : Messageboard : Next : E-mail
The contents of this website cannot be reproduced or copied without permission of the site author. © Andy Brouwer 2005