The Irawaddy Dolphins of Southeast Asia are shy, intelligent creatures with upward curving mouths that bestow a look of perpetual bemusement. Like so many other large mammals the world over, the river dolphin population has been decimated by human activity over the last century. Although the dolphins were once widespread throughout the Mekong and its tributaries, those that remain are limited to a series of deep pools in an isolated stretch of river that passes through Northeastern Cambodia and Southern Laos. Less than a hundred individuals are thought to exist in this area, along with remnant populations in remote areas of Indonesia and Burma.
Endangered species can survive in one of two ways. Either they make a last stand in the most inaccessible reaches of their habitat, or they earn their keep, contributing in one way or another to the human economy. Unlike other rare Southeast Asian mammals, like tigers, pygmy elephants and Javan rhinos, the Irawaddy Dolphins are incapable of retreating to the farthest corner of the jungle. The Mekong is about as big and remote as rivers get, but it’s also a major regional artery for human trade and transportation. For the dolphins, which must breach water every few minutes to breathe, the flat surface of the river offers no place to hide. During the black years of Cambodia’s brutal civil war, it was not uncommon for soldiers to entertain themselves by shooting dolphins from the river bank as they came up for air.
Fortunately for travelers, Cambodians and dolphins alike, the dolphins have become a popular tourist attraction in recent years, providing a vital boost to the local economy. Here in Kratie, a sleepy provincial capital 5 hours by bus from Phnom Penh, the Irawaddy dolphin has become a symbol of the town’s rejuvenation after years of war and neglect.
“Kratie is a convenient stop for people traveling between Laos and Phnom Penh,” says Keang Sour, 24, a local guesthouse manager. “Most stop to see the dolphins. It’s a nice quiet place to visit.”
From Kratie, visitors must travel 15 kilometers upstream along a quiet paved road to Kampi, a riverside fishing village where the houses are raised on stilts as protection against the annual monsoon floods. The Mekong runs thick and muddy here, broken by wide sandbars and clumps of straggly brush. The dolphins can usually be seen right from the river bank, but it’s worthwhile to take a spotting cruise in one of the wooden long-tail boats available for hire. The Irawaddy dolphins won’t come right up to the boat like their gregarious salt-water cousins, but they are easy to find, lolling about on the surface, or breaking water with a distinctive puff of spray while chasing fish.
The boat men will turn off the motor to approach the dolphins and maneuver with wooden oars, or simply make fast to a clump off brush when dolphins are nearby. Ducks, herons and egrets are plentiful in the vegetation, providing an aerial sideshow when the dolphins are invisible in the currents below. In just over an hour on the boat, I saw the dolphins over a hundred times, at a range close enough to distinguish between individual animals.
When I returned to Kratie town, locals and tourists were mingling on the riverside, sipping from fresh coconuts and cold cans of beer. The tourists were spell-bound by the peaceful river scene, the locals were happy to know that their town was finally back on the map, and in the water below, the dolphins were still swimming, oblivious to the people who now depend on what they nearly destroyed.
If you go:
The road between Phnom Penh and Kratie is in good shape, although it takes a somewhat circuitous route, heading East towards Vietnam before veering North and then West back towards the river. With the improved road, there is no longer regular boat service on this section of the Mekong, although it may be possible to arrange a charter locally.
It’s also possible to reach Kratie from Laos, traveling by bus from the border to Stung Treng and then down to Kratie. Those taking this route might consider making a side trip into Ratanakiri, a Cambodian frontier province that is home to several tribal peoples.
Kratie is not a big place and quite easy to navigate. Several guesthouses and small hotels cater to travelers. I stayed at You Hong Guesthouse, a friendly place by the market with English speaking staff and a small restaurant. Fan rooms are small but clean and cost $3. Other travelers recommend the Star Guesthouse, also by the market, but those bothered by early morning noise might want to try a place a little further from the center of town.
Red Sun Falling is a restaurant, bar and second-hand book shop on the riverfront run by a sociable ABBA fan from Chicago. It opens for breakfast, closes from 2-5 for a siesta and then opens again until around 11.
To cover the 15 kilometers from Kratie to the dolphin viewing at Kampi, most travelers choose to take moto-bikes, which any guesthouse can arrange. The going rate is $3 for the round-trip, or $4 with a stop at a hill-top temple on the way back. Taxis are also available for around $10. Perhaps the best way to travel is by bicycle. The road is well-surfaced, quiet and shaded, passing through picturesque villages where one can stop for drinks. Bicycles also allow more time for leisurely watching the dolphins from the riverbank, as moto-drivers will want to get back to Kratie as quickly as possilbe after the boat ride.
There is now a $2 fee to see the dolphins, which supports the local community and the tourist police. Boats can be hired at around $3 per person for groups of three or more, although the price depends on the season, how far the boat drivers have to go, and how wealthy you look. We paid $9 to charter a boat for two people. Keep in mind that even if the money doesn’t go directly towards conservation, every dollar is an incentive to protect the dolphins and their habitat.
For more information, check out www.mekongdolphin.org. For information on travel in Cambodia, the best source is www.talesofasia.com.
Feel free to contact me with questions or comments.