By Female Savvy Traveller

Pream Rumkel sits in one of the most remote and northern parts of Cambodia. Standing in the village, on the bank of the Mekong river you will be less than 100 meters from the Lao – Cambodian border. My husband I went to see the ecotourism site with the premise of hopefully seeing the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong. I really loved the idea, however, he was not that keen. With us not having so much time he was worried that this place is too far, plus we have read many blogs with tourist travelling to see the dolphins and being disappointed, as they could not find them on the day. On the other hand, we have read some really amazing reviews, so armed with lots of optimism we headed for a few days at Preah Rumkel Community-based Ecotourism site.

As we both love genuine local experiences, we decided to go with a homestay in the Preah Rumkel CBT ecotourism project as our accommodation option. We were pleasantly surprised that unlike many other projects, at Preah Rumkel you can choose between a traditional homestay – staying in a private room within a large private Khmer house, and a community guest house run by one of the two local families specialising in this type of accommodation. In both cases, you can choose between being on the bank of the river or within the village. Since we were a little curious about the concept of a community-run a quest house we chose this option. And, we loved it! You kind of still stay with a family, but you have your own privacy. Along with amazing views from your room.

This is a great option if you are planning to stay for several days as it provides you with more flexibility. On the other hand, if you have never stayed with a Cambodian family, I recommend you choose the family house option, you get the warmth and hospitality living with a genuine Cambodian family with the awesome Mekong river as a bonus.

As our mission was to see the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong, we wanted to make sure we did it right, so we had the best chances of seeing them. Luckily, Mr. Lim who works for WWF (an environmental NGO that works toward protecting the local population of the Irrawaddy dolphins) was at the homestay when we arrived. He was happy to share his knowledge with us, he doesn’t speak very much English but with the young people living in the house helping to translate, we learnt that it’s best to get out early as the dolphins sleep during the night and become active in the early mornings.

Armed with this knowledge, super keen to ensure our success of seeing the dolphins in their natural environment, we booked our dolphin watching boat tour scheduled for 6am. The next day, and without breakfast, we were picked up at our homestay. The sun still wasn’t up, but at the crack of dawn we left to go upstream to see the dolphins. If you’ve heard about some of the poorly rated tours in Kratie, with several tour boats competing to get as close as possible to the dolphins, this is totally the opposite experience. Here you have; the river, you and the dolphins.

The river was totally silent, with the exception of a few birds you could just hear above the gentle hum of the engine of the boat. As we reached to the viewing point – the Anlong Cheuteal Irrawaddy dolphin pool where the dolphins are typically seen, we switched the engine off and just paddled to navigate the current. We didn’t really go anywhere, only ensuring that we stayed in the same spot. So, try to recreate this picture in your mind: total silence, you and your loved one on a boat that just moved ever so slightly with the current, the sun just coming up colouring the Mekong river with the amazing colour palette of orange, pink and red – tranquillity, peace and calm… then you catch the sound of exhale coming for the water. At this point you cannot see the dolphins yet, but you know they are close and your heart beats faster as you get excited. This is what you have been waiting for. Within several seconds you know where they are, and suddenly you are drawn to this magical experience of seeing Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong river at sunrise. Truly breath-taking, a once in a lifetime experience!

We stayed for a while, and in total 3 dolphins came to greet us. We have been told that if you are very lucky they might follow your boat, this did not happen for us, but seeing 3 river dolphins jumping in and out of the water is more than what we’d hoped for. They come close enough for us to see them, but you need to be super-fast to take photos. If you have a camera with a powerful zoom you might be able to get more close-up shots.

If you are wondering if I think this experience is worth travelling almost across the entire length of the country and spending hours on the bus to “JUST” see dolphins? Then yes, I wholeheartedly agree. I think that if you have the time to make this trip it will be one of the highlights of your trip to Cambodia. If you are lucky enough to be travelling in South East Asia over several weeks, passing between Laos and Cambodia, this is truly a MUST stop, as the border crossing is only 20-30min away.

When we returned from our dolphin watching trip, we headed to the local market for a traditional Khmer breakfast – noodle soup. Once we’d eaten, it was time to explore the local area. We have hired a local guide to show us more of the local area, he suggested we visit several of the local small subsistence farms and hiked through the forest to the great Mekong Waterfalls. The rapids are an awesome display of nature’s force, especially in the wet season.

It goes without saying, that this trip was even better than we hoped, this place is magical. The fact that we’ve been fortunate enough to see Irrawaddy dolphins, and so close to us, just adds to the truly magical experience.

My last words, don’t be lazy, get up early and leave at 6am for your dolphin spotting trip – you will be rewarded by the most spectacular views, the breath-taking sunrise on the Mekong river and the best chance to see one of the worlds endangered spices – the Irrawaddy dolphins.

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