A small town on the banks of the Mekong in central Cambodia, Kratie is best known for its proximity to one of the last remaining groups of fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins left in the river. They are under threat, not least of all due to the Cambodian government’s plans to dam the entire width of the Mekong about 35 kilometres north of the town, but more about that later.
Kratie is six to seven hours by public bus from Phnom Penh. It is actually not nearly that far but instead of going in a straight line, all the buses detour from Kompong Cham to Snoul on the border with Vietnam, which adds a couple of hours.
Aside from dolphins, Kratie is well known for its kro lan, sweet coconut flavoured sticky rice sold pre-packed in bamboo tubes from street vendors along the river front.
It also has a couple of other unique features.
There is some fantastic architecture, a lot of it in quite good nick due to Kratie being spared from much of the US bombing that devastated much of the rest of the countryside in the early seventies. These buildings, mainly congregated around the central market, include Chinese-style shop houses and French villas. On the side of one abandoned pre-war style building it is still possible to make out the words Banque Commerciale D’Etate (State Commercial Bank) in French and Khmer.
Kratie is still a great place for traditional Cambodia poster art, the oil paintings of motorbikes, telephones, electrical appliances etc, shopkeepers use to advertise their business. Good examples of these are increasingly hard to find in big cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
The town’s other quirk is more barbers and hairdressers per metre than any other place we have been to in Cambodia.
Then, of course, there’s the Mekong. There are a number of small open air bars along the bank, the perfect place to sit back with a cold beer and watch the sunset. At night the river and opposite bank is almost completely bathed in darkness, occasional engine noise the only indication you are overlooking a river.
There are a number of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. We stayed in the Heng Heng II guesthouse on the bank of the Mekong, which although not particularly ambient is quite good value at US$7 a double a night.
Uttong II has ok fare at moderate prices. Red Sun Rising is also quite good value, although its hours are erratic: basically whenever its owners feel like opening from what we could tell. As the guidebook says, Mekong Restaurant is a hole in the wall with good local food. Angela said the sweet and sour fish was particularly good.
But the main reason to visit is the dolphins. If you are lucky (we were), you’ll be able to see them swimming in rapids about 15 kilometres north of the town.
Tours to see the dolphins are advertised in every hotel in town, including travel to the site and a boat to take you out to the section of the river where they live. My only advice is to shop around. We took the first tour offered to us but could have got the same deal for half the price.
One of the last pockets of these creatures left in the Mekong, some estimates say there used to be a thousand dolphins in the river before the war. But the last few decades have seen their numbers decline to around 80-100 due to rising pollution levels and dynamite fishing.
But the most serious threat they now face is the government’s plans to build a dam that would block the entire width of the Mekong at Sambor about 35 kilometres north of town.
Fisheries experts and critics of Mekong mainstream hydropower development are scathing of the dam’s potential impacts.
“Devastating, the worst possible dam currently planned along the mainstream of the Mekong,” was how one informed observer I spoke to assessed the impact.
The dam would block fish migration, isolating fish stocks from historical spawning and rearing areas, with effects far upstream to southern Laos and beyond, and on Cambodia’s Great Lake [Tonle Sap] fishery. The Tonle Sap contributes almost two thirds of Cambodia’s annual fish catch, largely comprising migratory fish species.
The World Conservation Union has also identified the dam as a serious threat to the habitat and movements of the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. The stretch of the river between Kratie and the Lao-Cambodian border, one of the most important in terms of deep pool habitats along the Mekong, is a crucial dry season refuge for the dolphin.
The Sambor project is part of a major push by Cambodia to develop its hydropower potential for internal use and export to neighbouring countries. Only 20 per cent of Cambodian households currently have access to a reliable supply of electricity, a figure the government wants to raise to 70 per cent by 2030.
Five dams are currently under construction in Cambodia in addition to the two currently operating, and over 20 are being studied in partnership with private companies, most Chinese.
While observes agree steps need to be taken to improve Cambodia’s access to power, not all agree that hydropower is the best option and say national energy policies should prioritise innovative renewable and decentralised electricity technologies that are now available and cost competitive.
For better or worse, Kratie, like so much of Cambodia, is set to experience great change as the government makes up for lost time, trying to cram decades of development into a few short years.
Get there while you can.