Day 10 – Day 11: Kratie
Very early next morning, we got picked up for another minivan ride, direction Kratie. Kratie is a laid back riverside town that’s not really on the touristic map of Cambodia. It’s to the East of Phnom Penh, so it’s mainly used as a strategic spot to break up the journey between Phnom Penh and the Wild East of Cambodia. After the glitz of the capital, rural Kratie was a real contrast.
The main touristic draw of Kratie is the chance to watch the rare irrawaddy dolphins, a river dolphin that’s near extinct. And by near extinct, we mean really close: It is estimated that only around 80 of these dolphins still roam the Mekong. So after checking into our hotel (the River Dolphin Guesthouse), we rented bikes – basically just a piece of rust joined to the form of a bicycle – and made our way to a village about 15 Km north of Kratie. The dolphin watching spot is then marked very clearly and it’s basically the only place with any tourists. The road up led us through some stunning experiences of the rural Cambodian life and we found ourselves stopping much too often to snatch a picture of the wooden houses and friendly people.
At the dolphin watching spot, boats take tourists out to the middle of the Mekong, a gentle giant that would now define much of our travels. It is actually not too hard to spot the dolphins as they come out of the river very regularly. However, they are a little bit shy and rarely (or never) let you actually see their faces. Nonetheless, drifting along the mighty Mekong with those rare creatures is a magical experience.
Day 11 – Day 14: Sen Monorom (Mondulkiri)
Getting from Kratie to Mondulkiri
The next day, we headed even further to the East, to Sen Monorom. We were expecting the usual Cambodian minivan (which turned out to be a really comfortable and fast way of transport), but this time, it turned into a full-fledged adventure: After driving for maybe half an hour, the minivan suddenly stopped next to another bus, which appeared to have broken down on route, and decided, why don’t we just pick up everyone (!) who just got stranded? So in the end, we fitted 23 people (including driver) into a van for 12 people, together with about 20 boxes of god-knows-what! In effect, we were sitting five people in a row, with multiple people sitting on plastic chairs or piled up on each other. During our trip, the locals (so everyone else) were eating chicken, eggs and the air generally got really disgusting after a while. It was quite a ride! We had already experienced some crazy road adventures (including a 48h cargo ship ride across the Caspian Sea) but the trip from Sen Monorom to Kratie definitely tops the list!
Totally exhausted and unnerved, we arrived at Sen Monorom and checked into our hostel, the Nature Lodge. And it totally made up for this entire mess of a journey. The Nature Lodge was a wonderful green paradise about 2 Km out of Sen Monorom, with stylish and comfortable bungalows, a well stocked bar and great food in the restaurant, plus extremely friendly staff! We wanted to stay here forever!
Sen Monorom is situated in the incredibly scenic hill areas of Cambodia close to Vietnam. We took an entire day to explore the Mondulkiri region by scooter (Kevin was happy to have his motorized companion again) driving to the impressive Bou Sra Waterfall, some natural pools and finally a coffee plantation near Sen Monorom. After the heat of Phnom Penh and the islands before, it was good to breathe some chilly air!
The Elephant Valley Project
The main reason to visit Sen Monorom and the Mondulkiri region are elephants. The local Bunong people enjoy a special relationship with the animals (they are animists and believe in natural spirits – for them, elephants are at the same level as humans) and a number of NGO’s now dedicate their time to help elephants that are being held captive and forced to work (for example by carrying tourists around). We visited the Elephant Valley Project (EVP) and it was definitely one of our highlights of Cambodia! Ten “rescued” elephants live there in an area of 300,000 ha protected forest, so there is lots of space for these beautiful animals to roam freely, munching green leaves or taking a bath in the river.
The tour basically consisted of us hiking through the forest and shadowing the elephants, following them and their mahouts from place to place as they go around their daily routine (eating and eating). During the tour, our guide explained to us a lot about the EVP and the tremendous efforts they undertake to help the elephants as well as the local community (for instance by providing health insurance for their local employees and their family). The EVP has a strict policy and doesn’t allow hand feeding, riding or bathing with the elephants, but we were really just content watching the animals from very close distance as they go around their natural habitat. After following two elephants for the entire morning, the tour ended with some excellent lunch at the EVP basecamp.
Traveling on to Laos
In Sen Monorom, we booked bus tickets taking us directly to Si Phan Don, the famed four thousand islands of Laos. After the last bus ride, we were skeptical and feared the worse. However, all went smooth. The minivan was delayed, but otherwise drove us straight up to Banlung in Ratanakiri, a place even farther remote, but also popular with tourists because of the great hiking there. From there, we switched into another van to Stung Treng, the border town to Laos. Two Tuk Tuk rides later, we were on a third van driving to the border.
The border itself was unspectacular. It was quiet and nothing compared to the Bangkok – Siem Reap casino situation. The most annoying part was that we had to pay $ 5 extra each to bribe the officials to let us pass ($ 2 on the Cambodian side and $ 3 on the Laos side which included $ 2 for the stamps)?! When Nicole asked the stamp-official why she should pay 2 dollars, he just replied ‘now it’s 4 dollars, because you asked’! Having eventually crossed to the other side, another van was waiting for us to finish the journey. So all in all it only took us three different mini vans and two Tuk Tuk’s and about nine hours to arrive safely in Nakasang where we continue the story next time!
Written by Kevin and Nicole in Thakhek, Laos.