Kratie (pronounce: Krachèh) is a provincial backwater along the Mekong river, roughly 315 km northeast of Phnom Penh.
Most tourists don’t even spend a full day in Kratie and are often overheard saying there is nothing to see. They are wrong. The town and surroundings are pleasant enough, Kratie’s main attraction are the freshwater, or Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong river north of the town.
Despite what some guide books might tell you, there is no river transport to Kratie. Fast boats from Phnom Penh to Kratie and further north to Stung Treng have been discontinued years ago.
There is occasional river transport from both Stung Treng and Kampong Cham to Kratie, but with the upgrading of roads in the region there’s not much demand.
Kratie is a laid-back friendly town, very similar to Kampot in southern Cambodia, but to be honest the place in itself does not have a lot of attractions.
Travellers are staying overnight in town on their way to or from Laos, or they visit Kratie for its prime attraction: freshwater dolphins.
These Irrawaddy dolphins are named after the river in Myanmar, where they also have their habitat. Cambodians believe these water creatures are half human and half fish. Not difficult to understand, when you spot these dolphins with their rounded head and a straight mouth instead of a beak like their seawater cousins.
The number of these freshwater dolphins has declined considerably in recent years, partly due to the use of explosives for fishing. They are now an endangered species. Environmentalists think less than a hundred now remain in the Mekong rapids near Kratie.
Although spotting the dolphins makes for a nice day trip, tourist activity also disturbs their natural habitat. So, visit or not?
Well, at least persuade your boatsman to turn off his engine when approaching the area where the dolphins are. It’s probably not easy to convince him, but at least give it a try.
After all, when the dolphins disappear forever, the boatsmen will lose that source of income. Knowing that money talks in Cambodia, it just might work.
It’s not easy to spot he freshwater dolphins and even more difficult to take pictures of them. They don’t jump high out of the water like the marine ones.
Your best chance of spotting the dolphins is in the dry season, when the water levels are low. Also, you should go out early morning or late afternoon.
The trip towards Kampi – where the dolphins are, see map above – is a very pleasant one. The road is lined with tropical trees and surprisingly nice houses on stilts. In the rainy season, there’s water on both sides of this road.
There are daily buses from Phnom Penh to Kratie and shared taxis also ply the route.
The journey from Phnom Penh to Kratie takes around 5 hours (via Snoul, which is the turn-off to Mondulkiri province).
It takes a little longer when you choose the (scenic) route along the Mekong River.