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Asia travel

Cambodia’s Kratié province offers an idyllic rural escape on the banks of the Mekong River, with dolphin watching, and home stays

In the second instalment shining the spotlight on Cambodia’s rising destinations, Marissa Carruthers visits the eastern province of Kratié to experience nature and get a taste of rural life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2018, 5:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2018, 5:18pm

We follow the village elder as he ambles along a dirt track that cuts through jungle and paddies, and cautiously climbs the rickety stairs of a decrepit wooden shack in the middle of an open field. “Animism is practised here,” says our guide Phiya. “He needs permission from the spirits before you can stay.”

We watch as the spirit master gently chants, lighting incense and pouring orange soda as an offering over a carefully arranged set of stones believed to hold the spirits. After about five minutes he stands. “Now it is OK for you to stay,” Phiya says.

Glad to have received the blessing, we make our way back to our home for the night, a traditional stilted house in a village on Koh Pdao, an island in the Mekong River in the northeast of Cambodia.

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Our welcoming hosts – a family of six from three generations – await, having set up our bed for the night: a mattress under a mosquito net in a cordoned off section next to where the family sleep. We join them on a mat on the floor and tuck into a feast of freshly cooked chicken curry, rice, pickled vegetables and fried fish as we bombard each other with questions over the rumble of a generator – the sole source of electricity.

This is what a visit to the rural province of Kratié is all about. The village on Koh Pdao – a small island about an hour’s boat ride from the mainland – is one of a handful that is turning to tourism to shake off the shackles of poverty that plague many communities in Kratié. And it is these community-based ventures, coupled with Kratié’s unique natural gifts, that are appealing to the increasing trickle of tourists starting to explore this sleepy province.

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But it’s not only home stays that are helping communities. A series of tours, led by locals, have also been developed. They involve cycling through pristine countryside, stopping off at villages along the way, exploring the farms that dot the landscape, kayaking on the Mekong, visiting pagodas, learning about local industries, such as the bamboo sticky rice makers the area is famous for, and watching Kratié’s rare wildlife.

The endangered Irrawaddy dolphins live in a small stretch of the Mekong River in Kratié and local fishermen spend their spare time ferrying tourists to see them. Fishing boats wait at Kampi, about 20km north of Kratié town, to take visitors past flooded forests to spot the elegant aquatic mammals gliding through the water. According to WWF Cambodia, only 80 remain on a 190km section of the river, from Kratié to the border with Laos.

The Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre (MTCC) is working tirelessly to boost the once-dwindling population of the rare Cantor’s giant softshell turtle. Based in the grounds of the 480-year-old 100 Pillar Pagoda, MTCC was launched in 2011 as a breeding programme for one of the world’s largest freshwater turtles.

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Little more than a decade ago, the turtle was thought to be extinct. But a 2007 survey of the Mekong between Kratié and Stung Treng found small pockets of the species, which starts life the size of a thumb nail and grows up to six feet in length. At the centre, guests can learn more about the animal and its sister species and watch the baby turtles burying themselves below the sand in water tanks as they await their release into the wild at 10 months old.

Living with locals isn’t the only overnight option: Kratié town – the relaxed provincial capital – is home to a small but steadily growing collection of basic hotels and guest houses. Le Tonlé Guesthouse, operated by charity CRDT, is a simple but quaint affair that operates as a social enterprise, training and employing disadvantaged youth from the area in the accommodation and accompanying restaurant and bar.

Another recent addition to Kratié that is destined to plant the province on visitors’ maps is the Le Relais de Chhlong. Hidden among flourishing gardens in the small village of Chhlong, about 30 minutes from Kratié town, it is a stunning colonial mansion complex that has been converted into a delightful boutique hotel.

Dating back to 1916, the former governor’s house opened to guests in February, offering visitors to Kratié a sophisticated but intimate tropical paradise. Surrounded by mango, coconut and banana trees, three buildings house 10 spacious suites, decorated with antiques collected from across Southeast Asia. The grounds house a spacious swimming pool and restaurant that serves a range of meals and drinks with views across the Mekong.

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And there is no need to travel far to experience timeless Cambodian charm, with Chhlong village embodying just that. Here, visitors can spend time at the bustling morning market, admire the cluster of decrepit colonial buildings in the centre and explore the House of a Hundred Pillars, which dates back to 1884.

Home to history, nature and authentic Cambodian life, Kratie is the perfect place to experience the natural beauty and kindness of the people who make the country so special. It comes as no surprise that more are discovering the province is one of the country’s hidden gems.

Getting there: Kratié town is about four hours from Phnom Penh by taxi and between five and six by bus.

Tours: Cambodian NGO CRDT operates a series of community-driven tours in Kratié. crdt.org.kh

Where to stay: Rooms at Le Relais de Chhlong start at US$99 (HK$777) a night, more details on facebook.com/lerelaisdechhlong. At Le Tonle Guesthouse (letonle.org), rooms start at US$7 (HK$55) a night.