THE MEKONG RIVER defines Cambodia as much as the temples at Angkor. With ferries every few miles, it’s possible to hop from bank-to-bank, crossing the river with local fishermen and cycling paths through villages that rarely see visitors. The old French colonial city and fishing hub of Kratie (pronounced kra-cheh) is a good place to begin a bike journey of a few (or a few hundred) miles along the Mekong Discovery Trail.
My boyfriend Eben and I recently cycled a 50-mile stretch of the Mekong. Here’s what we learned.
Finding gear and a guide
For 2-3 day journeys, you can rent bikes from CRDTours. The company was established by the Cambodian Rural Development Team to foster alternative livelihoods so that villagers may supplement their fishing income with tourism capital and avoid harvesting methods that kill the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin. CRDTours offers detailed maps of the route, and may arrange private guides and homestays in several island communities.
For serious cyclists interested in traveling the couple hundred kilometers north to the Laotian border, consider bringing your own bike or purchasing one in Phnom Penh. This far off the beaten path, gear can be an issue, as we couldn’t even find helmets in Mekong hub towns like Kratie. Bike panniers and trailers are also unheard of, so be sure to at least bring a daypack.
When to go
January to February is the best time to visit Cambodia — the monsoons have subsided, but the land isn’t yet fully parched. September and October have fewer crowds, but you may get caught in the rain.
The Irrawaddy river dolphins
Dolphins draw visitors to the Mekong, with Kampi most popular place to arrange tours, marked by a concrete dolphin statue 15km north of Kratie (a 40-minute ride). For $9 a person, you can charter a motorboat out onto the river, but be aware that engines alarm the animals and drivers hungry for tourists’ approval often nose too close.
A better option is to save your dolphin watching for sunset or sunrise and have CRDTours arrange a more intimate boat ride with a native fishing family further upstream. Talk to Mr. Tula before you leave Kratie, or call enroute (+855099834353) if you decide later.
Though Cambodia was once home to over 1,000 dolphins, snipers slaughtered most during the Pol Pot regime, practicing their aim and harvesting the animals’ fat for generator fuel. Today, the Irrawaddy’s numbers continue to diminish in the shadow of industrial pollution and illegal fishing methods that employ battery shock and chemicals. Only 70 dolphins survive on the Mekong, 25 of which live in the currents off Koh Phdao Island.
On our CRDTours-arranged visit, Ecocommunity President Manvichika took us to see the dolphins in his fishing boat off Koh Phdao. The boat wasn’t much wider than a kayak — we sat cross-legged on woven mats. Charting downriver, you’ll be surrounded by dolphins. Watch the surface for the slice of a dorsal fin. More importantly, listen as the sound of the dolphins’ breath breaks the silence before their bodies.
At the Rapids
Continuing up the road a few kilometers from Kampi, you’ll find the Rapids, a picnic area with palm-thatched gazebos constructed over the river. Here, the Mekong forks into a web of capillaries flowing myriad silted islands. Leave your bike with the motorcycles of local picnickers (of which there will be many), and spend an hour or two out of the sun in a hammock.
Order a coconut and sticky rice and beans steamed in bamboo tubes while dangling your feet in the Mekong, or wade among the golden sandbars that streak downstream beyond the boardwalk until the channels between islands become too deep.
Return to your bike and continue upriver, passing mats of cassava roots and rice toasting along the road under the intense Mekong sun.
The turtle-sitting monks of Sambour
The town of Sambour, a thriving metropolis in pre-Angkorian times, remains on the map because of its temple. The largest wat in Cambodia, Sarsar Mouy Rouy has 108 fluted pillars and a brightly muraled ceiling. The temple is abandoned except for a few old men sprawled on the cool tile floor. You’ll find the monks not in the temple but manning the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center in a building behind the wat.
This project was recently initiated by Conservation International and is managed by the monks at Sarsar Mouy Rouy. Here, the endangered Cantor’s Giant Softshell turtles — thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 2007 — are raised through their most vulnerable 10 months of life in a few humble tanks. The turtle-sitting monks are eager to show guests around and hitch up their saffron robes to dig up turtles burrowed in the sand.
Island hopping on Koh Phdao
Before catching a ferry to Koh Phdao, have a drink of fresh coconut milk over the river and watch cows wander down Sambour’s main street. As the sun plunges behind the floodplain, roll your bike aboard the ferry with passengers traveling home after a day of labor on the mainland. Don’t be overcharged; it should only cost 2,000 riel (approximately 50 cents). Make arrangements with CRDTours in advance to sleep overnight on Koh Phdao with one of the island’s 14 families who host visitors in rotation.
Once ashore, bike the island’s slender geography, riding a wave of singsong greetings as children chase you through the stilted homes of Koh Phdao. “Hello, hello, hello! Where you go?” The path weaves between rice paddies, dry by winter and grazed by mud-caked buffalo. When searching for your homestay, look for the house with a sign marked “My Turn.”
During our stay, our ‘room’ was a curtained mattress tucked in the corner of a large open space. Expect intimacy over privacy. A “food group” organized by the village’s ecotourism committee cooks dinner for all guests in the village and delivers it by motorbike on a huge covered tray balanced on a woman’s head riding sidesaddle. Our hosts ushered us upstairs to eat, rolled out a square of linoleum flooring, and positioned two fans to blow on us as they laid out a feast of Mekong grilled fish, fresh greens, and eggs fried with chives. Don’t feel guilty for the fuss, this is Cambodian hospitality at its finest.
Villages of the western bank
Our most memorable encounter on this less developed side of the river occurred when Eben’s rear tire went flat. We shouted into the shade of a stilted home for someone with a bike pump, and a team of four men swiftly emerged. The lead ‘mechanic’ was a shirtless man with a pump that didn’t fit the nozzle. He wore a red-and-white-checkered krama (a Khmer scarf) and vigorously shook each of our hands with both of his before he squatted at the bike.
A group of women and children swelled around us. Even though we couldn’t communicate, we waited anxiously together until he managed to inflate the tire with a misfit pump and a rubber band. He tested the leak with a wad of spit and hopped onto the bike to ride it in a triumphant circle. The crowd broke into applause as the tire held, and we were quickly on our way back to Kratie.
A longer stay
It’s possible to sign up for a week of volunteer tourism with the Cambodian Rural Development Team in Koh Phdao’s string of villages. Guests learn about rural agriculture while contributing to projects from building community toilets to transplanting rice with families in the wet season.
Additionally, you can cycle one of CRDTour’s other routes, like the 40km Dolphin Trail that originates in the town of Stung Treng (145km north of Kratie). Visit the CRDTours office for maps of this path and many shorter loops highlighting local cuisine and sites in smaller Mekong towns.
For more adventurous travelers, talk to Mr. Tula at CRDTours about biking all the way to the Laotian border (410km round trip from Kratie). While the route is not very developed, CRDTours can assist you with developing an itinerary and arranging homestays.
This article was originally published on April 18, 2013.