Boarding yet another bus specializing in the torture of its passengers with early-morning karaoke, I headed to Kratie, a small town on the Mekong that is reportedly the best area to spot the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. The bus took its second rest stop in the very dusty town of Snuol, its unpaved red-dirt roads dusting my feet in a small taste of what would be in store just a few days later.

It was here that I met Céline, who was busy inspecting small square leaf-wrapped bundles of what appeared to be a fish cake of some sort. Hailing from France, she’d spent some five months working in photo and video in Cambodia, and was taking a quick two week trip in her last two weeks here. Having had her camera stolen on a bus days before, she was a photographer without a camera, so I lent her one of mine as we became travel buddies for the next five days.

The usual crowd of moto touts descended upon us in Kratie; an amusing phenomenon this time, as all the hotels were within a one-block walking distance. There was one who made a point of not trying to yell louder than the others, so I took his recommendation for lodging after finding my original pick less than thrilling.

Kratie is a small town, yet its center crowds around a busy market, creating an incongruously dense web of shops, restaurants and various merchants around its perimeter. Up the street the city museum rarely opens, and the riverfront nightlife consists of a handful of noodle stands and a couple of underlit restaurants. If you somehow landed next to the market, you might expect a grand city with winding, dirty alleys. But stroll just five minutes in the evening and you are in the boonies, crickets chirping, dogs barking threateningly.

With some commotion, Céline and I managed to hop a couple of motos for the twenty kilometer ride to see the dolphins, and boarded a boat with Belgian Sven. Riding out on the Mekong was relaxing, especially when our boat captain, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, cut the engine and rowed by hand; this is for the safety and comfort of the dolphins, whose numbers are staggeringly low in every region they inhabit. They don’t breach and bellyflop or jump through hoops for the tourist. Rather, an alert eye and attentive ear helps to spot their dark silhouette, barely above water, or the faint puff of air as they breathe out before refilling their lungs. That day I only saw brief shapes, the occasional fin, but from pictures I know that they have a round, bulbous appearance, more Airbus than bottlenose.

In the end, we saw several, and I managed to capture practically nothing with my camera. It is just as well, as they were but part of a nice ride out on the river. Serene, with only a couple of boats around, one could hear the sound of rapids up ahead, interrupted occasionally by the sound of the dolphins. Atmospheric. We stopped on a sandy jetty where a woman grew watermelons, and sold them out of a shack. Who knew that watermelons grew on a beach in the middle of the Mekong river?

On the way back we stopped by Phnom Sombok, a hill-top temple up a couple of steep sets of stairs. One pavilion showcased the hell that awaits those who do not lead a clean Buddhist lifestyle; shit, I thought this stuff only came out of the bible. Dogs ripping flesh off of women’s buttocks, men being sewn in half, devils prodding, ripping….. Further up, was the temple itself, where a painter was half-way into the more holy images of monks following the proper precepts. Eerie, they did not yet have faces. Ghostlike monks in lotus positions, waiting for an identity. Maybe they should leave them faceless. Contemporary Buddhist art…

Back in Kratie, with everything having closed early, Céline and I shared beers on the balcony, watching the motodop down below napping, artfully balancing himself on his bike without falling off. We counted the geckos’ croaks (6 is bad luck, 7 good?), discussed briefly Sarkozy’s election that day, and managed to mostly avoid the cockroach-crickets approaching our feet. Such is the nightlife in Kratie.

That morning I was woken up at 4:30 by the sounds of the market getting ready for the day. Haggling, screeching metal, motorbikes, commotion. All those people that were missing the night before had suddenly congregated full-force, jolting me awake.

I managed to sleep a couple hours more, and that day we followed a similar routine, hopping a moto and riding a bit further to the small town of Sambor, to see its famed temple of 100+ columns. Though reconstructed, it is indeed impressive, but not exactly what I’d expected. The exterior, though having said number of columns, looked like any other temple in Cambodia. The inside, however, was a lot more spectacular. Once inside, a couple of locals, who I assume live on the grounds, let us peruse an illustrated book on the life of Buddha, and attempted a broken conversation in French. The images in the book are standard, and each large Buddhist temple generally has Buddha’s life story illustrated on its walls. This one did not disappoint, with mile-high ceilings and bright, elaborate paintings.

On the way back to Kratie we stopped by a local hangout, a bamboo pier jutting out into the Mekong “rapids”. These weren’t the grand whitewater rapids I’d thought I’d heard the other day, from what might have been miles away. But no matter, the best part by far were the handful of boys catapulting themselves into the water in all matter of somersault, hamming it up for the camera both in air and in superhero kick-boxer poses. Their reaction to seeing themselves on the digital cameras was priceless. This definitely made the two-hour, three-person motorbike ride worth it.

After another night of imitating geckos, we would head back to Snuol in the morning, a stopover before veering East to Mondolkiri.

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