MY WEEKEND ESCAPE TO KOH TRONG ISLAND (KRATIE)
By Ruby Cray
With only one day to explore Kratie, I was searching for a local experience on limited time. The day before I spotted dolphins further afield from Kratie. I was hoping for something a little different. Koh Trong Island blew me away, a hidden gem only a stone’s throw from Kratie town. After a lazy breakfast in Kratie, I bound a surprisingly cheap Koh Trong Ferry. I had to wait 15minutes as the ferry gathered more people. Then, we set off across the shimmering waters of the Mekong. Only five minutes later and I stepped into peaceful, rural Cambodian, island bliss – thank you Koh Trong!
I visited during the dry season, so sand was aplenty. After hopping off the ferry, I made my way to the information office. It was only a ten-minute walk across sand dunes that stretch far north and south along the island. From here I hired a bicycle. I had the option of motorbike, horse-cart or ox-cart but I wasn’t feeling too adventurous!
The office has a handy map of the island. Pagoda’s, pomelo orchards and the Vietnamese floating village were on my list of things to see. Although based on other’s recommendations I was hoping to discover rare fruit bats and birds too. Having booked in advance for a local lunch with a Khmer family, I still had a few hours to spare.
Koh Trong Island has a single pathway that loops most of the island. I discovered it gets quite sandy, and somewhat disappears at the southern end. I rode past palm trees, farms, orchards and old ladies on bicycles and it was nothing other than perfect. There is something about Koh Trong Island that is gentle and warm. Smiles are genuine and I received many as I made my way around the island.
Reaching the southern tip of the island, I discovered what’s known as the Vietnamese Pagoda. The views are lovely from this end, and you can look back across to the Kratie mainland. Parking my bicycle I headed down a challenging set of sandy steps to the Western side of the island. Here is a 500m stretch of houses, floating atop the Mekong river. The floating village, is a Vietnamese community, with a long history on the island. I wandered past weather-worn boats upturned on the sandbank. An old man smiled at me as I watched him repair his boat with focused attention.
After five minutes he gestured at me, pointing to a boat the right way up, floating a few metres into the water. With a few English words, I understood. Next minute I was wading into the water, climbing into the boat with the man a few paces behind me. An impromptu boat trip followed. I visited the ‘village’ by paddle boat, marvelling at the houses and the difficulty of life on the water. Life goes on. Vegetable gardens, cats, dogs, cooking and washing. It was a lovely experience. The man paddled me back to shore and I hopped back onto the sand. I thanked him for the ride, handed him a small roll of Khmer riel notes and headed back up to my bicycle.
I discovered that the pathway disappears on the south-west side of the island. So, I cycled back along to the information office and took a left turn instead. I rode past Khmer houses, rice fields that had turned golden in the April heat and fruit orchards of pomelo. On my left, I had glimpses of the Mekong river and wooden boats humming past.
Next, I visited Wat Tay Param: a small pagoda complex surrounded by trees. I parked my bicycle under a Bodhi tree and wandered around the buildings, admiring the vibrant coloured paintings. I had heard about Koh Trong’s ‘Regeneration Project’, part of eco-tourism on the island. For a small donation, visitors have a chance to plant a tree. Behind the pagoda are rows of trees, with placards to show who planted them. A sweet idea, and something I would do on a return visit. The forest is also home to a large colony of fruit bats. Wandering deeper into the trees I watched for 15mins as the rare species circled in the trees above me. Checking the time, I headed back to my bicycle bound for a delicious Khmer lunch in a local homestay.
Each homestay is clearly signed on the island and so it was easy to find Homestay Number 3. Large pomelo trees framed the entrance. The house was typically Khmer: wooden, with a grand staircase to the upstairs level. First, my host showed me to her garden and boy was I impressed! Each house along the concrete pathway backs onto a small plot of land. Crops galore! Long beans, banana palm, herbs, tomato….it seemed everything was growing here. No wonder they call Koh Trong a market garden.
Afterwards, I sat down for lunch. Fried vegetables and beef with rice. It was delicious! There’s something about knowing where your food comes from that makes it taste that much better. Desert was a sweet and juicy pomelo, a mixture of grapefruit and orange. I since discovered Koh Trong has won awards for its pomelos, and I know why.
After lunch, I purchased a cold drink and relaxed in a hammock strung up under the house. My host was super friendly. Despite only speaking limited English, I still experienced generous hospitality from the moment I arrived. She also told me about a greening project being organised by the local community, where visitors can plant a tree to support the ongoing environmental efforts by the local families. This keeps the Koh Trong Island both green and also supports the income for local families. Very last minute, she helped me to organise this activity with the tourist office and went with me to plant my tree. I would suggest that you book in advance as this was a bit rushed, last minute arrangement.
After planting the tree, I thanked my host before cycling back to the information office. I returned my bicycle and wandered back down to the ferry.
Koh Trong provided an awesome day and I left with a big smile on my face. I wished I had more time to spend on this island, as it would have been awesome to stay overnight at the local homestay.