Kratie might only be four hours by car from Phnom Penh, but it feels like a different country. The concrete, the rubbish, the traffic: it all slides away as you coast north on National Road 7, following the contours of the Mekong River and delving deeper and deeper into the ‘real’ Cambodia – the Cambodia of rice fields, lotus farms and sleepy wooden villages.
As with most provinces, Kratie (pronounced ‘Krah-cheh’) is also the name of the district’s capital city – in this case a small riverside settlement that includes a handful of hotels and restaurants, and incredible views of the Mekong. Kratie is best known among tourists for its wildlife and ecotourism offerings, which are all easily accessible as half- or full-day trips from Kratie proper.
We recently spent a weekend in Kratie with my dad during his visit to Cambodia. Here are a few of the activities we most enjoyed.
Mekong River Dolphins, Kampi
If there’s one reason you should make the effort to travel to northern Cambodia, it’s to see the Mekong River at its finest. It seems the further you travel upstream from Phnom Penh, the wider and wilder the waterway becomes (especially true during ‘rainy season’). The section of Mekong that runs through Kratie province, linking the three main centres of Kratie, Kampi and Sambour – and all the small villages in between – is unbelievable vast and comparatively pristine. Hiring a boat for an afternoon and going out on the water is pure bliss.
The area’s famous Mekong River Dolphins congregate in pods around Kampi, a small town just north of Kratie that is easily accessible by tuk-tuk. The population of dolphins is dismally small, and they are notoriously difficult to photograph, but the boat drivers who leave from the ticket booth in Kampi know the best spots to find them. We happily sat for an hour or more in our boat watching six dolphins swim back and forth.
MTCC & 100 Pillars Pagoda, Sambour
Kratie’s other, lesser-known animal emblem, Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle, also calls the northern reaches of the Mekong home. The Mekong Turtle Conservation Center (MTCC) does incredible work protecting this endangered species and educating local residents about habitat protection. The Center displays hatchlings of various sizes plus a few larger turtles, and offers an optional tour package that includes an overnight homestay and early morning visit to see the turtle nests. Find the Center on the grounds of the 100 Pillars Pagoda in Sambour – itself worth visiting if only for the impressive Buddhist murals that decorate the main temple’s interior.
Phnom Sombok, Kratie
Heading back into Kratie town, Phnom Sombok is a good place to stop and stretch your legs. You can attempt the long climb to the top of the hillside temple – or just admire the forest statues at the base of the stairs.
Lotus farms, National Road 7
Lotus farms fringe the edges of National Road 7 and are visible from the highway when you’re heading in (or out) of Kratie. Ask your driver to pull off for a quick photo – but you’ll need to visit in the morning if you want to capture the blanket of pink and white flowers as they fold their delicate petals up during the heat of the day.
Wet market, Kratie
There’s not a whole lot happening in Kratie town proper, but it’s well worth having a look at the central wet market. You’ll see plentiful quantities of freshly caught seafood, vibrant fruits and vegetables, and one of Kratie’s specialty snacks, kralan (sticky rice and red bean steamed inside bamboo shoots). This is the only place in Cambodia where I’ve seen betel leaf for sale.