REMOTE ISLAND IMMERSION ON THE MEKONG
It was late afternoon when I reached Sambour, a small town one hour from Kratie town. I had booked for two days on the island of Roungneav at the Koh Pdao Island Homestay. I was looking for a chance to get up close to the rare fresh water dolphins that Kratie province is so famous for. The endangered species attracts visitors, conservationists and naturalists from all over the world. Boats frequent this stretch of the Mekong in search of the gentle mammals in larger pools of the river. Most leave from Kampi, a 15km journey from Kratie. Not keen on large crowds, I investigated getting further off the tourist track.
The journey by tuk tuk along bumpy national road 6 follows the expansive Mekong river north towards Stung Treng and Laos. On my left hand side, my eyes scanned the many tiny islands dotted along the middle. Small wooden boats floated between them. Each full of Khmer passengers with wide brimmed hats to protect from the hot Cambodian sun. Opposite the entrance to a 100 Pillar Pagoda, I stepped out of the tuk tuk. A gentle, smiling Khmer man approached me. I spoke the best Khmer I could muster – sursdey (hello). He laughed a little and then gestured for me to follow him down to the banks of the Mekong river. Here, we stepped onto a small wooden boat and headed out across the water.
The 30 minute journey from Sambour ‘port’ to Koh Pdao Homestay was immediately special. The island itself is beautiful: tall palm trees frame the edge of the island where sand meets the Mekong. As I hummed past the western coast, I watched smiling children, eyes bulging with excitement as they saw me. A herd of buffalo had stopped at the water’s edge to cool down and colourful birds darted from tree to tree. Marveling at the Mekong river’s scenery, I was looking forward to more of what the island experience had to offer.
Dolphins on the Mekong
The boat docked at the river’s edge next to an old woman washing her clothes in the water. She smiled at me as I strolled up the bank to my homestay. A small herb garden was the first thing I noticed, planted in an old tire. The ground was sandy. The house was made from wood and was elevated on stilts. Three hammocks were strung under the house and a trio of chickens pecked past. I was greeted by my homestay hosts, and despite limited English I felt welcomed. After a quick tour of the house, I headed back to the boat, ready for a sunset Dolphin-watching trip on the Mekong. There truly never is a dull sunset on the Mekong, and it is something I will never get sick of. Today was no exception – golden hues reflected from the sky onto the water. After 10 minutes travelling up river, it was not long before we spotted the first Dolphin – breathtaking. Up close, engine cut, you can hear them exhale from through the blowhole. With no other boats insight, I felt extremely lucky to be so close to such an amazing animal.
A night in a homestay
After an hour of floating on the Mekong river, mesmerized by the rare Dolphins, we headed back to the Koh Pdao Island Homestay. After a refreshing bucket shower I sat down for a delicious meal. Rice, served with stir-fried vegetables, steamed fish and home-made banana chips for desert – yum! Despite speaking no English, my hosts were extremely welcoming. With no words, they showed me photos of family and loved ones and I showed them mine. It felt a lot like a home away from home. The night sky is something special at the Koh Pdao Island Homestay. Looking up I was blown away! The sky was dark, the stars – thousands of them – shone brightly. It is not often in Cambodia that you can look up to see so many stars! I slept soundly with just the sounds of crickets outside.
Swimming in the Mekong
The next day, after another delicious home-cooked breakfast and coffee, I picked up a bicycle from the community tourism centre. I spent the morning exploring the sandy roads of the island before another delicious lunch with my homestay hosts. As the sun reached its full heat in the afternoon, I lathered myself with sunscreen before deciding on a swim in the river. I wandered down to the banks just near my homestay. The water was refreshing, and it was not long before I was joined by a gaggle of children hoping to practice their English.
After another peaceful night under the bright night sky, I woke feeling relaxed and at ease. Breakfast was freshly caught fish with rice and spicy chilies. I packed by things, headed for the boat and bid farewell to my homestay hosts. I felt sad to leave such a beautiful place. I boarded a small wooden boat and waved goodbye to the island, knowing that I would definitely be back one day.
I have spent a lot of time of the Mekong river, but every time I seem to discover something new. Each island, each canal, each person I meet is unique and that is why I keep coming back time and time again. The dolphins were amazing, but it was the genuine hospitality and island vibes that made this experience magical. The Koh Pdao Homestay was a perfect way to uncover more of what Kratie province has to offer. Only an hour from Kratie, I would highly recommend for anyone looking to discover an authentic, rural Cambodian experience off the beaten track.