On our overland journey from Siem Reap to southern Laos, we stopped in two different towns to break up the trip. First up was some temple hopping and cycling in Kampong Cham. Finally, we headed to a small town in northeast Cambodia – Kratie (pronounced krah-chey).
Kratie is the place in Cambodia to see the rare Irrawaddy Dolphins – fresh water dolphins that live in the mighty Mekong River. Their numbers are dropping fast so if you want seen them, you’d better make a plan to do so soon. We arrived in Kratie in the evening after a long overcrowded van ride from Kampong Cham. Sometimes it’s better to spend a little bit more for the sake of comfort and a direct route. Anyways, we had done some research online about hostels in the area and decided to go with the Balcony Guest House. We got a huge room with two double beds and a bathroom for $10/night.
The next order of business was to find the Sorya Cafe. Run by an American, this cafe offers plenty of good coffees, nice western food and of course some local specialties. They also do half/full day and overnight kayaking trips to see the dolphins. We opted for the half day tour beginning at 1pm as we’re not early risers and it gets really hot in the morning/early afternoon.
The next day we set out – just the two of us and our guide – in a pickup truck that had benches put in the bed. The ride out to the starting point took about twenty minutes. Once we finally got on the river we had a hard time controlling our kayak and making it float in a straight line. Thanks to our epic fail, our guide decided that he should be in the kayak with me and Sasha should have his own kayak. We stopped for a few minutes to eat a snack of sticky rice and go for a quick swim. Then we continued down the river through the Flooded Forest which was really cool. The river really picks up through this part and you’re floating quickly past so many trees and shrubbery.
Then finally the river opened up again and slowed down, and our guide brought our kayak to a standstill. He told me to wait. Suddenly, there were dolphins all around! Irrawaddy dolphins don’t have the same personalities as marine dolphins, so they would come near the boat only to take a breath and then they were gone again. They’re really hard to photograph for this reason, but we did see the dolphins and it was really cool. After watching the dolphins for a while the sun started to go down and the sunset boat cruises to see the dolphins started to arrive. We carried our kayaks up the hill to the truck and our guide told us to take some time to enjoy the beautiful scenery. With a gorgeous sunset as the background, we watched the boats chase the dolphins around on the river, which was pretty hilarious. Should you find yourself in Kratie, definitely go with the kayak instead of the speed-boat if you actually want to see the dolphins. Come on people, dolphins are smart – do you really think they’re not going to swim away when they hear a motor roaring towards them?
In the morning, we took a stroll around town and stopped in to a beautiful temple. The murals inside were absolutely stunning, and there was an incredibly colorful image of Buddha reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Some people complain of temple fatigue when traveling in SE Asia, but we can definitely appreciate each and every one – they’re an important cultural center in these countries and are usually the grandest structure in town.
There’s an island across the river from Kratie where you can see the way locals live and some workshops. You can rent bicycles and take them on the ferry. We wanted to do this but decided there just wasn’t enough time before our bus to Laos arrived, so we just took it easy relaxing in the local cafes. Finally our bus came and it was a long ride to the 4,000 Islands. Our 30 days in Cambodia had come to an end, and it was time to start a whole new adventure on our second trip to Laos.
Border Crossing to Laos
For those considering a similar trip, there’s one more thing you should think about. The bus leaving Kratie bound for Laos tends to fill up, so for those people further up the road in Stung Trung there were no seats available when we got there. From overhearing other travelers, it seems like stopping in ST is a complete waste of time and also risks not having a seat for the long ride into Laos.
We arrived at the Laos border late at night, after a long and bumpy ride. As is usually the case when crossing random borders overland in SE Asia, the guards were surly old dickheads. Since 2011, I had kept a stack of Laos kip with me since you can’t exchange it anywhere (remember to spend it all!). It was enough to pay for my visa, but the guard kept insisting I give him USD. I stood my ground and refused, and he finally accepted it begrudgingly. That’s how useless the currency is in Laos – even they don’t want it!
Finally when everyone was through, it was back on the bus for a short while. Those of us going to the 4,000 Islands were let off on the side of the road in the pitch black and assured that someone would be picking us up. Sure enough, a pickup truck pulled up and loaded backpackers and their bags on for a short ride. Finally, we got boat tickets, piled in a small boat, and crossed the river to Don Det. After that grueling border crossing, we were thrilled to kick back in a hammock with a Beer Laos and begin a whole new adventure.
Kampong Cham/Kratie Summary
Transportation: From Siem Reap, we took a bus to Kampong Cham for $7 each. Thanks to breaking down immediately after leaving, the ride took a little bit longer than expected. From Kampong Cham to Kratie, we were stuffed in a mini-van for a long and miserable ride. It was only $3.50 each, which was nice on the budget, but damn did it suck. The last ride was a long bus trip up to Laos which cost $14 each. If you can’t handle such trips, you’re going to have to either fly from Siem Reap to Vientiane or hire your own driver, both of which are costly.
Accommodation: In Kampong Cham, we stayed at the riverside Mekong Hotel for just $8/night. They have nicer rooms with balconies facing the river (ours faced a parking lot) for double the price if you’re so inclined. We wish we would have known about the hostel on the small island that had hammocks, so consider that if you’re visiting. In Kratie, we stayed at the Balcony Guesthouse in a huge room for $10/night. Both hotels were nice enough and very budget friendly.
Getting Around: Both places are small, so you can easily walk around the central part of town. For further exploring, rent a bicycle or motorbike for the day.
Activities: In Kampong Cham, you can visit a hilltop temple, Angkorian ruins, a few mountains, and cross the bamboo bridge to an island in the Mekong (depending on the season). In Kratie, the best thing to do is a kayaking trip through the Flooded Forest to see the pink Irrawaddy dolphins.
Food/Drink: Don’t miss Smile restaurant in Kampong Cham, a great place with a great mission to help disadvantaged youth. As for Kratie, we really enjoyed eating in Sorya Cafe, the same place that does kayaking trips. Of course, there’s plenty of Cambodian fare available in both towns for super cheap as well.
Recommended Time: We spent two nights in each place which was just fine. Arriving at night, that gave us a whole day plus another morning to explore. If you have more time, you could easily extend both places another day or so and take some longer excursions out of town.
Total Cost: We spent $105 for the two days in Kampong Cham, and then about $150 in Kratie. If that seems like a lot, just keep in mind that the kayaking trip was $65, so everything else was super cheap. It was definitely worth it, though. As for the border run to Laos, the whole day cost about $40 plus $35 each for Laos visas.