Seeing an endangered animal in its natural habitat is not something I get to do very often. But late yesterday afternoon I stood for an hour on a boat in the middle of the Mekong River watching endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. I’ve had some wonderful experiences in Cambodia and this only lengthens my list. For a time, I was on the only boat in the area and heard nothing but wind, water lapping against our boat, the chirping of birds, and dolphins blowing. If I turned my back to the others on the boat, I saw only water, plants, and dolphins surfacing. It was peaceful, beautiful in a distinctly Cambodian way, and one of those excellent moments when I was wholly present, soaking in everything around me, smiling at the world, happy.
Our decision to visit Kratie was not an easy one as there are limited transportation options and our time was short. If we made the trip, we’d only have one chance to see the dolphins. But people told us it’s a good time of year to see them with the river at just the right level and tourism low. The ride to Kratie from Siem Reap warrants its own blog post (Siem Reap will also be a getting a post) but for now, know that it was one of those experiences you can only survive with a very good sense of humor. The 90-minute boat ride to see the dolphins made the entire trip worthwhile.
Irrawaddy dolphins outside Bangladesh are considered critically endangered. In Cambodia and Laos, there are apparently fewer than 100 alive today. Although they can be seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Kampi village, about 15km north of Kratie, is considered one of the best places to do so as you can get quite close. These dolphins don’t play with boats and people the way bottlenose and spinner dolphins do, nor do they jump up and show off. Seeing the dolphins requires silence, patience, and a bit of luck. We were fortunate enough to see a baby with its mother and a few small groups playing around the boat. According to the locals in Kratie, seeing the baby is incredibly rare and those we told were pleasantly surprised we had such luck. Even if I’d only seen one or two dolphins, I’d still have relished the moment of tranquility in this often hectic place.
Jen wasn’t with me and my photography skills are still terrible so you’ll have to trust me that the grey lump in the middle of this photo is a dolphin and that what I saw was far more enchanting than this.
A tuk tuk ride to Kampi from Kratie should cost about $10 roundtrip, which may require a little negotiating. We had planned to ride bicycles but a torrential downpour midday left the roads far too muddy for us to make it safely there and back before sunset. Tickets for a boat ride cost $9 per person for 1-2 people or $7 for 3 or more people. Children under 12 cost $4. From November through May, the ride is 60 minutes and from June to October (rainy season), the ride is 90. The rainy season trip is longer because it takes about 10-15 minutes of motoring to the area where dolphins are routinely spotted, farther from shore than in dry season. Between buying your tickets and reaching the boat, expect grass, mud, cow shit, and of course, cows.