Monday, April 26, 2010

Kratie, Cambodia

I can’t believe I made it to Cambodia! This is my sixth country in five months. Wow, has it been five months already? Where does the time go? Crossing into Cambodia from Laos was easier than I’d anticipated. It cost $23 for a visa on arrival, plus another $3 in corruption fees. Once I made it through the border crossing I hopped back onto the bus and traveled to Kratie, with a brief stop in Stung Treng. Once I arrived in Kratie and exited the bus, I was immediately bombarded with tuk tuk drivers who were pressuring me to go to their friends’ hotels. I decided to do what I normally do… and walk. After walking around town searching for a reasonable hotel, I eventually found one along the Mekong River for $4 per night. Not too bad, I guess. However, I found another one later that night for $2. Darn it! Anyways, once I got settled and established in my hotel room, I went downstairs and hired a motorbike taxi to take me to see some freshwater dolphins.

The main reason I decided to visit Kratie was because of the Irrawaddy dolphins. I didn’t see them when I was in Myanmar or Laos so I thought that Kratie would be my best bet, as I’d read that this was the best place in Cambodia to view the freshwater dolphins. And since I wasn’t sure if I would be staying in Kratie for more than one night, I made sure to see the dolphins that evening for sunset. The Irrawaddy dolphins are normally found at Kampi, a town located 15kms north of Kratie. There were two prices to view the dolphins by boat: the first option was to pay $7 and be with a large group of people, and the second option was to pay $9 and have an entire boat to myself. I chose the latter.

Within 2 minutes on my boat, slowly drifting down the Mekong River, I spotted the dolphins. So exciting! I can’t imagine seeing dolphins in Missouri swimming around in the big muddy Mississippi River. I spent an hour coasting along the Mekong River viewing the dolphins. This experience alone was definitely worth the visit to Kratie.

Once I made it back to my hotel I ventured off into the streets of Kratie. I was excited, as this was my first night in Cambodia. The only thing that stinks about traveling to a new country is that you have to begin learning the country’s language. Every time I learn a handful of phrases that allows me to somewhat communicate day-by-day, I have to start all over from scratch once I enter a new country. That part is a bit frustrating.

That evening while walking alone along the Mekong River I met Sambath, a local Cambodian, who was sitting and enjoying the nice breeze and clear skies.

“Hello,” he said. “How are you?”

“Hello,” I replied. “I’m great, thank you. How are you?”

I could feel that this friendly guy was radiating with positive energy so I approached him, introduced myself, and engaged a conversation with him. After about 30 minutes he asked me if I would like to join him to his friend’s house and help tutor his friend English. I took me all but two seconds to respond.

“Yes, I would love to join you,” I said without any hesitation, as this seemed to be a great opportunity to tap inside the local scene.

“Really?!” Sambath said, with a surprised tone in his voice, “Aw, wow!”

As I rode on the back of his motorbike with my arms wide open as if to be an eagle soaring through the air, I thought to myself, ‘Man, now this is what traveling is all about.’

Sambath’s friend lived in a stilted wooden house off a dark, dirt road. Stray dogs could be viewed from the porch frequently entering and passing through the dim streetlights before quickly dissipating back into the darkness of shadows. Besides the nightly call to prayer from a local mosque, it was a rather quiet neighborhood, one that didn’t receive many westerners, if any EVER at all. Sambath’s friend, a woman, was a 30-year-old Muslim Cambodian. When she saw that I was with Sambath, her face illuminated with joy. She expressed her desire to learn English before she attempts to move to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I really enjoyed helping Sambath teach his friend English. We stayed for a few hours before leaving.

The next morning Sambath picked me up and took me to his village, located about 25 kms outside of Kratie in rural Cambodia. The village was home to many tall, stilted wooden homes. When we arrived at his parent’s house, his mother and sister were working on packaging the tobacco that they had just grown, which would soon be sold to a businessman from Phnom Penh.

Everyone in his village seemed so excited to have me as a guest. And because no one spoke any English in the village, people would speak to me through Sambath, who translated everything. Speaking of being excited, when Sambath’s grandfather received word that an American visitor was present in his village, he exited his home and approached me, slowly, and with a wide smile and arms extended. As he shook my hand he said, ‘welcome,’ and asked how I was doing. Again, Sambath translated all of this. A few minutes later I noticed a couple of men gesturing for me to visit their home. After climbing the steep, narrow steps of the stilted home—which I had to walk up sideways, as my feet were too large for the steps—I was greeted by a roomful of men who immediately began offering me food and forced me to drink alcohol with them. With every sip everyone would lean in and touch glasses.

“Cheer! Ha Ha Ha! Cheers!” All the men would shout.

After a long motorbike ride back to my hotel, now completely caked in dirt giving me a dusty, fake tan, I repeatedly thanked Sambath and gave him money for some petrol. As Sambath was walking towards his motorbike he stopped, turned around, and asked me if I would remember this day. I told him it was a surreal experience that I would never forget. Sambath, who was looking down and slightly to the left of me, smiled, said thank you, and drove away.


Next Stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia

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