The Mighty Mekong Dolphins

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River dolphins are a very rare, and few places in the world have them. When I was fifteen I was lucky enough to see the rare pink dolphins in the Amazon. So imagine my excitement to find out that there were fresh water dolphins that live in Cambodia. Better yet, they were near the Laotian border, our next destination. The Irrawaddy dolphin is not a true fresh water dolphin, but actually live in brackish and salt water. Brackish water is a mixture of salt and fresh water, normally occuring when rivers meet oceans, where the two mix. They can live out in the ocean, and then travel in land via rivers and bays. But they are not the same as the pink Amazon River dolphins, which live strictly in fresh water. In the world total there are estimated about 5000, though in Laos and Cambodia it is estimated that there are no more than 80 to 90 dolphins. They are very endangered because of threats from gill fishing, and other harmful methods of fishing. In Burma, some of the Irawaddy dolphins had been trained to actually chase fish into men’s nets, using whistles and such to control them. Then the dolphins are given fish as a reward. How cool is that. Now this is not really used any more, but a 100-years ago it was very common.

Before we could see the dolphins though, we had to get there. A seven-hour bus ride brought us back to Phnom Penh, where we spent two days in a nice hotel near the museum. We used our time here to update our movie collection at Rogue Video, had some wonderful food at non-profit eateries, and checked out the museum. The museum building is phenomenally gorgeous, having the most intricate Cambodian roof pattern I have ever seen. There’s a large courtyard inside, with a geometric garden, koi ponds, and a nice gazebo in the center. The exhibits here are not labeled that great, and you really need a guild to understand it all. But there is an impressive display of artifacts from all over Cambodia. There’s no air-conditioning here, so don’t count on it as a respite from the heat.

It was not long when we were back on a bus heading to Kratie. We pretty much went all the way around Tonle Sap Lake during the dry season, 2800 kms. During the wet season it expands to15,000 kms.

We pulled in late, after a god awful long and uncomfortable bus ride. It was probably around 9, but there were no lights besides the buses. Our bags were chucked off, and the bus drove off leaving us in a cloud of dust. Now, I was excited, but we had few options, and the only people around were totes, trying to drive us god knows where. We finally chose a guy whose place was not far away. We got there and it was tiles everywhere, which would be easy to clean, if they actually ever chose to do it.  Children’s toys and mismatched furniture surrounded by scooters and what not cluttered the lobby. An old guy with a cig sticking out of his mouth was arguing loudly on his phone, while picking his nose. The imagery was a bit distasteful, but we were tired, and really needed to bunk down. The room was on the next floor, and clean would not be a word I would use to describe it, but it was passable. I checked the mattress for bugs and what not, finding none, we tossed our bags in the corner.

There are very few places left in the world to see the dolphins and this little colonial dust-bowl of a town was one of them. Our standard rule was to spend a few days, then move on. But as hard as we tried, we really could not justify it here. It just was not all that nice, no matter how tired we were. Plus, our visa was ticking away, and who knew what we would deal with at the border of Laos.

We wandered out that night, and I have to say, it was a bit creepy. Our options for dinner seemed to be near nil, and it was looking like a beer might not even be possible. We passed a health clinic that was completely open to the elements, with lots of sick people sitting in beds, IV’s attached to them. It was a depressing sight.  But we turned a corner and there was only one spot was open. Of course it was filled with expats, but at least we were able to get a beer.

Exhausted after our whirlwind tour, we decided to take things slow and get our bearings the next day. Town was really small, just a few side streets off the river, with the market being in the back. There was an old plaza that with some dried out fountains. It felt more like a ghost town than anything else. Further down the road were some old colonial mansions that were government buildings now. We rented a scooter and drove to see the dolphins. It was about a half hour from town and the road is next to the river, so you really can’t get lost.

Being the dry season, everything looks a bit burnt and crispy.  All the houses along the side of the road are built up on poles, for the seasonal floods that strike. It’s interesting to see shacks right next to some really swanky homes. I love all the different buildings and seeing how everyone lives. The one thing I could not do with out is screens, because mosquitos get nasty, but no one has them.

We pulled up to a dried out farm field with a bunch of tuk tuks parked at it. There’s a large billboard with whale on it, which is funny seeing how we were here to see dolphins, not whales. We paid our entrance fee and walked down the cliff to the waters edge and hopped on a boat with an Israel couple. I was pretty stoked, we paddled out to the middle of the river, which at my best estimate is about three miles wide here, and spotted a dolphin in the distance surfacing for air. It was too far to see very well, let alone get a picture. So we chilled out, occasionally repositioning. Its funny, you stare so hard at the water, checking out any ripple, hoping to see something, that your mind plays tricks with you. Sound is actually the best way to find them, because when they surface they make a loud pfuffttt sound as they exhale the water out of their blowhole. It was not long before we saw pods of two or three surfacing for a few minutes, then disappearing back into the murky water. They practically rammed one boat before diving under and resurfacing on the other side.

The dolphins congregate here because there are deep trenches for them to swim in. No matter how hot it gets, these areas still have cool water, and plenty of fish. We watched a pod of dolphin’s chasing schools of fish, spraying water everywhere next to a boat. The boatman’s arm darted into the river, and pulled out a large half eaten fish. So that’s what the dolphins were chasing, and the boatman just scored himself a pretty nice lunch. The Cambodian and Laotian people consider the dolphins to be lucky, so they generally do not hunt them. But with the destruction of small villages and fishing life, and the advent of a more western way of thinking, more and more of the dolphins are getting killed. It’s a real shame because they are so majestic.

After and hour of hanging in the center of the river we made our way back to shore. We had seen at least thirty dolphins surfacing, though if they were the same 7 or 8 dolphins we will never know. When we came up the cliff all the locals were playing volleyball, so I joined in. The players ranged in age from ten to sixty. Their setter looked to be about 8 years old. I was expecting when the ball came to him that he would not be able to hit it. Boy was I wrong, he did a perfect set. He still did not have the strength to hit it far, but his twenty-year old partner nailed it, making me dive into concrete hard dirt. Well I will never underestimate a little man again. I played for about an hour, but my stomach was rumbling, so we headed back to Kratie.

We ate at the best restaurant in town and I got a great french craft beer. So I was a happy man to say the least. The rooms there were over 100 dollars a night, can you believe that. We could live for a week on that out here. No way I would pay that.

The next day we were up at 6 AM to catch our bus to the border of Laos, and on to 4000 islands. Nothing more exciting then a new country!

5 responses to “The Mighty Mekong Dolphins

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