Monday, September 6, 2004

The Mysterious Mekong River Dolphins of Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

2004 September 06
by Ajarn Charlie at

My friend Phanna and I decided to head back to his hometown of Kratie (pronounced Kratchey) to visit his family and find and photograph the rare and mysterious freshwater Mekong Dolphins.

Leaving from the riverfront in Phnom Penh at 8AM, we soon wound our way through the weekend traffic exiting the city and headed north along the Tonle Sap River.

Crammed into the proverbial Cambodian Toyota Camry taxi with seven others ($35-40 per taxi for the trip from Phnom Penh to Kratie), I was allocated the space in the front seat jammed against the door, setting on my feet as there wasn't enough room for both Phanna and myself to set on the seat and also allow space for the driver to shift gears during the more treacherous and traffic laden parts of the journey.

For the next 5 hours, with my upper torso more outside the cab than inside we dodged in and out of traffic, honking the horn constantly at the never ending streaming obstacles of humanity, animals and vehicles. To put it mildly, a rented taxi jammed with seven other brave souls is probably not for the faint of heart as the first hour of the trip is a constant game of playing chicken and is probably better travelled with your eyes closed and fast asleep!

As I chose to keep mine open (since I was hanging out the window anyway), the 1st of the inevitable southeast Asian traffic accident appeared only a half an hour later with a motorbike lying on its side and a young woman laying in the arms of another woman next to it, crying and sobbing.

Passing this scene we continued north and at 09:30 AM made the first of several stops, this one at a very crowded restaurant. After a 15 minute break during which I had some soup and tea, we turned east on Highway 7, headed towards Kompong Cham. At 10:20, nearly two and a half hours after leaving Phnom Penh, we started over the new Japanese built bridge and were crossing the Mighty Mekong.

As many times as I have seen and travelled on this river, it has never failed to leave me in awe and this time it is no different, for as we climb quickly into the sky on the bridge, the river beneath you seems to dominate everything for as far as you can see, spreading itself to what I estimated to be over a kilometre and a half wide and running north and south for as far as the eye can see.

It is now September, the height of the rainy season and the river is full and straining its banks. The current is wicket; rushing towards Vietnam at speeds that require most barges, ferries and other vessels to hug the shore lines in their efforts to stay out of the fastest parts of the river and make some progress against the torrid current.

Most people don't really understand the size and power of this river. Here in Cambodia however they do as it is the only place in the world where another large and powerful river, the Tonle Sap, has its own southerly flow reversed at the confluence of the two rivers in Phnom Penh due to the shear power and strength of the Mekong River's waters rushing to Vietnam, the Mekong Delta and the South China Sea.

During this period as the levels of the Mekong rise, the Tonle Sap is backed up and the river reverses direction and starts flowing northwest with the lake enlarging from 2,500 square kilometers to over 13,000 square kilometers with the depth increasing from 2.2 meters to over 10 meters.

It now isn't long before we exit Kompong Cham and the road improves dramatically as the next leg of the journey has been rebuilt with the assistance of an Asian Development Bank loan and quite frankly, they have done a damn good job as the road is smooth and more importantly, very wide and straight.
Along this section, I start to notice new tree farms around almost every bend, laid out in perfectly straight lines that go on for hectares and hectares. As this region in past years has been a target of massive logging operations and pulp and paper mills, it is refreshing to see an effort to replenish what nature once gave us.

I do notice however numerous trucks still filled with logs either setting along the highway or travelling in various directions. It is obvious to anyone but a blind person that logging is still an economic reality and seems to be still occurring on a rather large scale although supposedly outlawed some years ago. Maybe someone has a special permit?

I also take note that the soil here is obviously very fertile and the vegetation very
lush and thick. This is quite a contrast to the land in and around the temples of Angkor and the town of Siem Reap which is difficult to impossible to grow anything on and during the dry season becomes incredibly hard and baked, seeming to turn almost into stone.

After a couple more stops along the way to let the obviously pregnant woman passenger in the rear seat to throw up and to fuel up (and throw up again), we pull into Kratie town at 1:20 PM, which quite frankly does not leave one with a terribly wonderful great impression as the buildings are drab and the road turns to dust and rock again. This however is the wrong impression as the town turns out to be a wonderful, quaint backwater that reminds me in many ways of Nong Khai in Thailand (that sets across the Mekong from the capital of Laos, Vientiane).With only a couple minutes more, we are pulling up in front of Phanna's parent's home and they quickly greet us with smiles and hugs.

Panna's father turns out to be a very fascinating and extremely well educated man who has served in various capacities in the region including being directors of the World Food Program and the Kratie Province Rural Development Agency. It isn't long before maps are flying out of drawers and I am getting a briefing on plans for the development and potential for the province.

It seems the local officials think that the economic salvation for the province after the "legal" demise of the logging industry is agriculture, specifically dairy farming. A map that I now have shows me 6 massive tracks of land to the east of the Mekong and to the east and north of Kratie. The area encompasses over 34,000 hectares of land and lies approximately 20 kilometres east and north of Krati bordering areas along the Prek Te, Kampi and Prek Kakol Rivers. Land prices are discussed and quite honestly, I find the prices mentioned to be amazingly reasonable given their location, fertility, proximity to Vietnam as well as river transport via the Mekong.

After a spot of late lunch, Phanna and I head off with his brother in law in (you guessed it) another Toyota Camry. It seems that this model from Toyota is everywhere in Cambodia and in reality it is, from the beaches of Sihoukville to the trashy border town of Poi Pet, to the temples of Angkor, they are in fact everywhere! Just why or how has to be a story in itself and it is hard to imagine where Toyota could have this model somewhere else on earth as they had to have all been shipped to Cambodia!

This time however, with 5 fewer people, the trip north out of Kratie is quite pleasant and with the air-conditioning on, free of dust and the usually inevitable grime that accumulates on your skin and face from a Cambodian road trip.

Our destination for this late afternoon trip is the extremely rare and very famous Mekong River Dolphins. Although no one knows where this species came from or how they managed to come so far up the Mekong (and adapt themselves from salt water to fresh water), they are in fact here and living in several different pods (groups) in the waters of the Mekong.

The one pod we are headed for is called the "Kampi Pod" and seems to frequent where the Kampi and Mekong Rivers come together. It seems this past season (2004), with the Mekong being the lowest it has been in over three decades, that the population has declined from the estimated 100 or so earlier in the year to less than 60 (according to some locals) due to having to move from their normal feeding grounds into unfamiliar and dangerous waters where they were caught up in nets or injured/killed by river vessels.

This species of dolphin is more formally named the "Irrawaddy" and has a rounded head with no beak, and a flexible neck. They can vary in color from dark and light blue- grey, to pale blue. It is grouped as an oceanic dolphin, although some dolphins may live in the freshwater of rivers all their life (such as the Ganges in India). This species of dolphin has a small triangular shaped dorsal fin with a rounded tip, below the centre of the back , and is a slow swimmer - usually moving in small groups. Irrawaddy dolphins are very similar to the shape of the Beluga (toothed whale), and to the shape of the Finless Porpoise with its blunt round head, so they are sometimes difficult to tell apart. They can have up to 40 teeth on their upper jaw, and 36 teeth on the lower jaw.

Adult Irrawaddy dolphins can grow to between 2.1 and 2.6 metres long, with new-borns about 1m in length and a fully grown Irrawaddy dolphin weighing between 90 and 150 kg. At birth they are as much as 12kg.

Although some travel guides indicate that the best time to see them is between the months of December to April, Phanna and I have no problem finding them immediately as Phanna had for many years been a tour guide while growing up and was intimately familiar with this area of the Mekong, the dolphins and their feeding grounds. After renting a boat and driver for $6 at the dock just south of the Kampi River, within minutes at least 2 if not more, broke the surface next to our small boat and with regularity over the next half hour we observed them as our young boat handler managed to keep us on "station" with the engine off, just meters from the entrance to the Kampi River.

As we wait for them to surface and as I make an effort to catch them with my Nokia digital camera, we discuss the area, its past, development and growth. It is than that I learn that a proposal is on the table and is being seriously considered to build a dam in the very spot where we are watching these creatures feed and play.

Although I am usually very much a realist and know here in Asia feeding people and providing them food, water and power will always override other environmental concerns (as well as the destruction of rare animal species), I secretly hope that this is one dam that isn't built.

As I watch a massive thunderstorm build to the north, we can hear the rolling thunder from its anger and I am wondering if it and its rains will head our way. After watching it and the winds for a few more minutes, I determine that it most probably will not, at least for the next hour or so and after getting some more photos of fishermen and the their nets along the river banks, we turn the boat south and head for the parking area and dock where Phanna's brother in law is awaiting us.

After piling into the car again, I am surprised to find we turn left (north away from town) out of the lot onto the narrow, heavily potted lane that serves as the main road north and south along the Mekong. After another 30 minutes or so and after passing through another village where the road makes a Y and forks off to the northeast, we stay on the section that parallels the banks of the Mekong and soon enter an area that has a very large, modern Wat (temple/pagoda) within easy view of the road and the Mekong. It is only after pulling into this area that I understand just how large it is and find out it is the largest such Wat in Cambodia, having exactly 100 large columns supporting its roof.

Wat Trasor Muoy Roi as it is formally called, is famed for its excellent wall paintings as well as the stupa dedicated to the Princess Nucheat Khatr Vorpheak who legend says was killed by a crocodile. Although very beautiful, I became much more mesmerized by a much smaller and far older wooden Pagoda setting on the grounds several hundred meters further inland and to the east.

As we pulled under a beautiful tree that dominates the area where the older Wat still stands, we noticed that no one was around except for one lone monk picking up palm branches. It had been raining earlier and the ground around the temple was wet and muddy so we had to step carefully as we made our way inside.
After taking my shoes off, I was immediately drawn to a large setting Buddha which dominated the pagoda but was additionally surprised and fascinated to find a panoramic collection of hand-painted murals that rested on the walls above the height of the doors and windows. They were spectacular!

As I snapped at least one photo of each, I listened to the translation from Phanna of the monk's description and history of the murals and the pagoda itself. I was told that the temple's name was "Preak Heak Kok" which means "high ground" as the ground on which it set was higher than the surrounding area and was never flooded by the Mekong when it overflowed its banks. Articles from others however refer to it as "Wat Preah Vihear Kuk" so I am not exactly sure what its proper name is.

I also listened to several stories about its history and was told it dates back to 1142 AD when the original stone temple was built on the same spot. The resident monk told us that the wooden temple that existed now was 346 years old but once again this seems to be in conflict with other writers who have indicated it to be over 700 years old. I am more inclined to believe the younger age myself.

Stories were also relayed about its role in the recent fighting in 1983 when a major battle took place on the surrounding grounds. Supposedly three monks were killed and several buildings were destroyed, one of which still has the concrete steps leading up to an obviously empty space, pot marked with the battle's scares.
There was also another story concerning this very old and beautiful pagoda that was equally sad in that as recent as 1998 it was looted of many of its precious artifacts by a high ranking government official who was supposedly taking the items to Phnom Penh for safe keeping with the intent of putting them on display in the National Museum. According to the monk however, the items might be "safe keeping" but they are nowhere to be found in the National Museum. Go figure....

Part 2

It was looking like the thunderstorm was moving in on us from the north so after a few more photos, we piled into the Toyota just as it started to gently rain and headed south, backtracking our way back to Kratie Town along the banks of the Mekong.

As we made our way south, we made a quick stop at another beautiful, wooden temple where I once again took a few photos. It was all closed up however with the entrance gate closed and locked so I had to settle from some shots from the street.
The road (actually a lane) was once again congested with people, vehicles, animals and pets even in spite of the fact that it was starting to rain harder and harder as light turned into dusk. I was in the front seat during this leg with Phanna in the back, straddling the opening between the two front passengers as we discussed in great detail the Cambodian education system.

Although I have experienced it first hand having been a teacher in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap as well as having taught courses at both language schools and universities, I did not agree with some institutions policies of allowing students to attend class as late as they wanted with students not even reporting to class until at least 15-45 minutes after it had started. It seems here in Cambodia, all too often, once a degree has been paid for, that somehow precludes the actual necessity to go to class and learn what is being taught. In my opinion, not the best way to assist in a country's development or show a student what is expected after graduation.

After a few more stops along the way to chat with friends, we eventually enter town and get out of the car across the street from the Red Sun Falling Restaurant which turns out to be the only Barang (foreign) owned bar in town.
Al from Sharkys in Phnom Penh had told me to make sure I visited the place so after saying thanks and goodbye, I crossed the street with Phanna and we set ourselves down on 2 of the 4 bar stools that were in front of the bar.

The proprietor of the establishment is a young guy named "Joe" from Chicago in the good ole U.S. of A. As I was writing this article, I wanted to try his "special" posted to the entrance ways' chalk board as well as have a couple of cold beers.
Joe was friendly enough and filled us in on his personal history and the hows and whys of him coming to Kratie. Also told us about some of the local expats which seemed to number a dozen or so and were all involved with one NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) or another.

The special arrived and it was a pretty decent pasta dish, with salad and some garlic bread, all for 7,000 Riel (less than $2). Not bad I thought. Not bad at all.
Over the next couple of hours we talked about numerous things including the growing number of travelers through Kratie on their way north and south on the Mekong from Laos. Joe stated that at the height of the tourist season that 60-70 folks passed through the ferry terminal here and many chose to stay for at least a night or two before continuing on their journey. With very nice accommodations with large rooms being available for $3 a night, not exactly over taxing on a backpacker's budget. (Kratie however is NOT the place to use the Internet as prices are between $4-7 an hour compared to Phnom Penh's .50 an hour!)

It got to be around 9PM and I felt it best we head home back to Phannas and join his family for a bit. Grabbing a motorcycle taxi we arrived back at Phanna's home where everyone is preparing to go to sleep. A bed has been made up for me in the front living room area which is quite comfortable and after a bit more conversation, we all called it a day and went to our separate beds. It was only moments later I was fast asleep.

DAY 2 - Down the Mekong

The day woke with the noise of the traffic outside and the crowing of the ever present roosters. Even in the "wilds" of Phnom Penh, awakening to sounds of occasional rooster crows and the occasional automatic weapons fire seems to be quite normal. Today however, all I hear here in Kratie, are chickens and cars.
It is early and I don't even realize just how early until I am out of bed getting dressed and putting on my watch. I guess 5:30 AM isn't too early to start the day's adventures and with that thought in mind, I am soon outside, pacing around the area in front of the house and along the graveled street.

After Phanna's mother fixes the family some breakfast and me some tea, there is several long exchanges again with Phanna's father about the development of the province. Phanna's father speaks very little English as being a well educated and an older Khmer, he learned French. Phanna however does an excellent job of relaying our conversation and I learn many more interesting things.

Time is pushing on however and there is a lot to see before we catch the 10:30 high-speed ferry towards Phnom Penh. With this in mind, we set off by foot as Phanna's sister is out and about with their motorbike. She soon catches up with us however and even though she is some distance from their house, turns the bike over to us and we leave her standing on the street next to the Mekong. Seemed a bit odd that we didn't offer to take her back to the house....

Phanna and I are than taken up with the area along the Mekong and its many old French Colonial buildings, wats and wooden pagodas. There is also an area just south of town on the dirt lane closest to the river that has more Vietnamese than Khmer but although it is a bit seedy, the view along the shore is quite beautiful and only a couple of minutes through this area leads us to another beautiful wooden pagoda.

Wat Roka Kandal is a well preserved pagoda dating from the 18th or early 19th century located right next to the banks of the Mekong. It has traditional decorations and is of wooden construction and the information inside state that it is the only one of its type in Cambodia.

A German NGO has helped with the Pagoda's reconstruction and maintenance and inside now there is a local arts and crafts shop.

I was really taken with the beauty of the columns and the views through the surrounding grounds through the beautifully framed windows. After a bit of shopping picking out things for friends back in Phnom Penh, Phanna and I got back on the motorbike and headed once again south along the wide, picturesque streets with their numerous traditional, wooden framed homes.

It has now gotten to the time where we need to start thinking of catching the ferry home to Phnom Penh so we head back north to the central part of town and the ferry docks.

After spending a bit of time in the local market and after grabbing a bite to eat in a restaurant across the street from the docks, we head back to Phanna's house where we return the family's Honda and say our goodbyes.

Phanna's family with wonderful smiles and waves say goodbye to us as we catch a motorcycle taxi to the docks.

A couple of minutes later we pulled up to what was obviously a developing throng of people waiting to catch the various ferries that seemed to be heading out in the next few minutes. As it was only 10 AM and the expected departure time was 10:30, I took a quick hike around the block, snapping some more photos of both buildings and people.

I returned a few moments later, and it seemed the dock had swelled to it was in fact now occupying the riverfront street, with packages, bundles, construction material and food stuffs appearing from everywhere.

As I had been told the boat would be appearing from the north on its way down from the Laos border with Cambodia, I kept an eye in that direction to make sure I caught it as it neared the dock. I wasn't however prepared for the site that was to come into view and as it turned from the main channel and headed towards the shore, as it seemed that it would capsize at any moment.

As I stared in disbelief at the "express" ferry I could only imagine what the slow boat might look like. Was this really going to be the vessel that was to take me and Phanna down the Mekong?

As I had already purchase my $6 ticket (negotiated down from $7) and Phanna his (Khmer price of 15,000 Riel or $3.75), we obviously had no choice as we needed to get back to Phnom Penh and unless we waited for a weekday, the boat probably wouldn't be any less crowded.

To Chan Thel and Phanna at the Kratie Municipal Dock

After saying our farewells to Phanna's friend who is also an English teacher and part-time tour guide in Kratie, we boarded the boat, crawling our way along the port side cat-walk only inches from the water. As few people had left the heavily laden craft, we had to go back as far as where the engine's exhaust stacks rose from out of the engine room where we climbed up onto the roof which for the remainder of our journey served as our outpost on the Mekong.

It is hard to see the boat under the sea of humanity boarding the ferry.
As we departed Kratie port and set out down the Mekong, it wasn't long before we were moving along at a pretty good clip, far faster than anything else we came across.

Although everything along the journey was interesting, including the numerous stops along the shore to load and unload passengers and cargo, what was particularly interesting early on in the trip was the mid-channel docking at noon with another express boat coming up the Mekong. Done smoothly and quickly, if you hadn't been watching the bow (front) of the boat you probably wouldn't have noticed it happening.

What was also interesting to watch was the young girl walking along the very narrow "catwalk" of the boat selling oranges as it was hurling full-speed down the Mekong. What made me wonder of the longevity of her career was the fact that she chose to neither tie herself off to anything or hold onto what rail there was. Her faith in the boat's buoyancy or the captain's capability or maybe just Buddha was pretty amazing....

At 1PM we had gone as far south as Steang Trong where you notice steep cliffs on the western bank of the river. It was only a half hour later we arrived Kompong Cham, crossing under the huge Japanese bridge spanning the waters of this mighty river.

After a bit of negotiating ($10 for the rear seat), we found ourselves a taxi and were soon winding our way out of the port taxi area and onto the road south to Phnom Penh. At 3:30 PM we passed the Chroy Chang Var Taxi Station just to the east of another Japanese bridge that spans the Mekong in Phnom Penh and were soon once again where we started, the Crystal Net Internet Cafe on Sisowath Quay.

Sophanna Chheang (Phanna) can be reached in Phnom Penh at his guest house, the #10 Lake Side Guest House (Lake Boung) or by phone at 012-725-032 or 011-445-464. He can also be reached via email at "Phanna Chheang" .

He is wonderful and knowledgeable young man who speaks fantastic English, some French and is studying International Relations and Law.

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