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Up the Irawaddy

In search of the Mekong River Dolphin of Northern Cambodia

sunny 30 °C

After 25 years of hopefully looking around on every boat ride I have ever been on in hope an unexpected dolphin might swim by (and 25 years of being disappointed that this has never happened to me wherever in the world I had been) I had begun to think that dolphins were either mythical or had some sort of aversion to me. For years I have looked enviously at people's holiday photos where dolphins have swum alongside their boat or jumped up in front of them unexpectedly. I have to admit that of you guys (you all know who you are) I have been green with envy.

Therefore when Andy suggested we change our current plan, to go straight to Vietnam, and instead head through Cambodia up the Mekong River in search of the rare Irawaddy River Dolphin. I was enthusiastic, but also wary that my curse of being a dolphin vaccination might also rub off on him. When he informed me that there are only 170 of these rare dolphins left in the world and are rare to see at all, I lost all hope. However, with one enthusiastic fiancé suffering from dolphin mania, I shelved my scepticism and we embarked on a 6 hour bus ride to North Eastern Cambodia, to the town of Kratie. After all, it was the only corner of Cambodia we had not visited.

Kratie Landscape
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From arriving it became clear that the town was not a massive tourist destination, and the few people that did arrive there were solely in search of the illusive dolphin. This was clear from the fact that the few restaurants and hotels around were either called “Dolphin” or “Mekong River” or a combination of the two. You would be impressed how many combinations they came up with. The buildings that were not these tended to be shops selling wooden statues of dolphins kissing, or statues of baskets of fruit (I have no real explanation for this anomaly but thought it best to be accurate). As soon as we got off the bus we were greeted by a friendly guest house owner (predictable guest house name; 'Silver Dolphin') who kept asking us whether we wanted to go see the dolphins right now.

I started daring myself to hope that this was the time that dolphins might be prepared to forgive me for however I had wronged them in the past. Instead of heading out in a rush we waited until the next day and spent the evening exploring the one street that is Kratie. It didn't take very long so we instead decided that beer on the balcony of our river view hotel room might be the best way to curb our excitement.

Setting out on 'Dolphin Day' (the alternative D-Day as it shall now be forever called) we were again quoted a ridiculous price for a tuk tuk and a ridiculously cheap one for a scooter so took off again on our own wheels along the Mekong riverside road to the 'dolphin site'. The drive took us through a whole set of stilted Cambodian wooden villages standing precariously on their four legs along the scenic river that was filled with tiny islands and the odd fisherman checking his nets; on equally as precariously balanced stilts. The breeze from the ride was appreciated as the afternoon sun in this part of the Mekong basin is boiling to say the least. The villages appeared to be entirely inhabited by children and animals as all the parents were working in the fields and rice paddies of the area. Kids were chasing and waving as we rode through laughing along with us as we pulled away. We had to stop for numerous chickens crossing the road in front of us *pause for chicken crossing the road jokes... enter your own here*.

We knew we had arrived at the dolphin site not from the hordes of tourists, as there were none, but from the life size statue of the Irawaddy dolphin that stood at the typically Cambodian entrance gate. This consisted of a sleepy but smiley Cambodian bloke behind a wooden desk next to an old woman with a cool box full of coca-cola and beer and a grill full of sardines on skewers. Still sceptical we paid our entrance fee, and were waved in the general direction of an equally sleepy and smiley looking bloke who had a boat that he pulled up almost to the shore for you to jump on. This is another typical Cambodian trait. It would be just as easy to pull the boats up entirely or build a slightly longer jetty, but they like the laugh of watching you jump awkwardly onto the boat, or more regularly in my case, fall head first into or out of the boat without any grace at all to the amusement of the crowd of boatmen and children.

We drifted into a beautiful pool area in the middle of the river while the boat man indicated for us to be quiet. We were unsure as to whether this was not to disturb the dolphins or whether he just wanted to sit in peace as he steered the boat with one foot and chain smoked silently. Not three minutes since we had left the shore, Andy suddenly jumped to his feet and whispered/yelped 'Dolphin! Dolphin!'. Suddenly we did not know where to look as the peaceful river dolphins broke the silent and calm surface of the river to breath all around the boat, about 10 foot away at every side. About 12 dolphins in total sauntered around the boat for the next hour coming as close as 5 foot away at times seemingly not bothered by our presence.

Dolphin and Boat
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More Dolphins
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Now, the bottle-nose dolphin is famed for it's friendly disposition and its hilarious nose. The Irawaddy dolphin is not as famous because it is not as plentiful and not quite as pleasing to the eye. In fact they have no nose at all and are pretty downright ugly. Ask Andy for his description of what they resemble. I won't be as crude to include it here but apparently it involves an area of the body that I don't myself have. However, I'll quote Kirsty Allsop here, it is all about 'Location, Location, Location' and when picking this area for their home of choice, the Irawaddy dolphin's have struck residential gold. The dipping hills behind the river landscape, the hot sun beaming and reflecting on the water and the tiny islands drifting along. Add to this the friendly neighbours in the Cambodians, who are desperate not to disturb the dolphins as they believe them to be reincarnations of people who have died, and you have a peaceful and lovely living environment. If you ever are in the area and you think that the 6 hour journey might not be worth it...you are wrong, it is!

Dolphins once again
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Thoroughly chuffed we jumped off the boat (without falling this time!) and headed back for the sunset. As you leave you are informed that the money you paid for the boat, 'Thank visitor please, all money you pay goes straight to the dolphins please'. I'm going to say that if these dolphins carry on being so entertaining then they better get a bank account to store all their dollars, as with the opening of more border crossings in Northern Cambodia and the building of more River Dolphin hotels in process, Kratie might be getting more tourist traffic in the future.

After discussion we decided that we felt satisfied with our Cambodia adventure and were ready to follow the river further North and get ourselves into a new country. Planning a stop over in Stung Treng, we got off the bus to find ourselves immediately boarding another one bound for Laos without the stop. As we found, all the best decisions to move on to pastures new are made spontaneously...

Posted by Annie Thornton 05:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cambodia dolphins mekong kratie irawaddy_dolphin

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