Where to meet the Irrawaddy Dolphins

The small town of Kratie, roughly 315 km northeast of Phnom Penh,  sits on the banks of the Mekong and, despite its modest proportions, acts as the capital of the rural province. We spent here one day on our way from Laos to Phom Penh, but to be honest the place in itself does not have a lot of attractions. 

Colonial buildings in Kratie, Cambodia
Colonial buildings in Kratie, Cambodia

The town and surroundings are pleasant enough, Kratie’s main attraction is the freshwater or Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River north of the town. The number of these freshwater dolphins has declined considerably in recent years, partly due to the use of explosives for fishing and environmentalists think less than a hundred now remain in the Mekong rapids near Kratie. They are listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Irrawaddy dolphin near Kratie, Cambodia

It’s not easy to spot the 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 from January to May when the water levels fall and the population is concentrated in nine deep water pools in a 190km stretch of the Mekong north of Kratie to the Lao border. The peculiarity of the dolphins is that they have rounded head and a straight mouth instead of a beak-like their seawater cousins. The pleasant boat trip to spot them, but also to paddle through a picturesque and rarely visited section of the Mekong River, starts from Kampi, a small village 15 km north of Kratie situated at the east bank of the Mekong River.

Mekong river near Kratie, Cambodia
Mekong river near Kratie, Cambodia

The town of Kratie also offers an authentic rural ambience so it is worth renting a motorcycle and head off to meet the people who live in the surrounding villages. They always have a warm welcome to offer, and you get the chance to enjoy richly rewarding encounters with genuine local people.

A village in the Kratie countryside, Cambodia
A village in the Kratie countryside, Cambodia

It’s also worth having a stroll around the town centre where you can see a number of French colonial and Khmer style houses, but above all the bustling local market (Sammki market) that, with its hundreds of stalls, will  allow you to see rural Cambodian life in action and taste some local delicacies like sticky rice packed in bamboo (krolan) and pickle raw fish in banana leaf.

Fish vendor at Kratie market, Cambodia
Fish vendor at Kratie market, Cambodia

A popular ”end of the day” activity in Kratie is to relax along the riverfront to watch the sunset when with its last orange – purple rays colour the river and its banks.

Sunset along the Mekong River near Kratie, Cambodia
Sunset along the Mekong River near Kratie, Cambodia

Need to know about Kratie

1. How to get there

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. If you are coming from Laos you’ll cross the border at Stung Treng crossing station, here you’ll find a bus (or some driver willing to take you) towards Stung Treng Town (75km). From here you have to take the bus towards Kratie (150km). Anyways the easiest way is to book in advance a van to reach your destination, have a look at asiavantransfer.com. or with bookmebus.com and Camboticket.com

2. How to move around Kratie

From Kratie to Kampi you can rent a motorcycle or take a tuk-tuk, once there you’ll see many small boats willing to take you to see the dolphins for a few dollars. Ask the boatman to turn off the engine if he doesn’t in case you spot the freshwaters.

3. Where to sleep 

There are some budget accommodations around the centre. We slept at Oudom Sambath Hotel (they can also arrange some trips) right in front of the Mekong River and 5 minutes walk from the market.

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