After having my heart melt in Laos, it took a bit of adjustment for me to get into Cambodia. The town was a bit rougher around the edges than where we were coming from in Laos. I liked it well enough, but it took a bit of time and persistence to get to the “gooey center”. The effort was worth it though – getting past the initial surface impressions led to some really golden moments.
Tourist stuff – accommodation and attractions
I mentioned in an earlier post about having to deal with touts selling their hotels the second we got off the bus in Kratie. We ended up talking to two of them; we stayed at the hotel Hap showed us, Morhautdom Hotel. We turned down the hotel Lucky showed us, but he was also a tuk tuk driver and we ended up arranging with him to see some of Kratie’s tourist attractions later on.
Morhautdom was ok, convenient central location and Hap was friendly, but overpriced at USD 15 a night for what we got (but we’ve certainly stayed at worse!). A tip – don’t agree to pay extra for air conditioning until you test it out; our A/C worked enough to blow out air but that was it.
Great about the hotel was that it was just at the other end of the block from Balcony Hotel and its totally delicious food!
Red Sun Falling had decent but not amazing food with a quirky atmosphere and (mostly) great tunes at night, and crazy Cambodian television during the day (we got to watch bits of a Khmer-dubbed Chinese movie with the staff one day during one of the frequent downpours. It involved drama and intrigue, snakes – lots of snakes, in the shower, attacking people, fighting bears, morphing into humans – and tremendously bad editing and special effects. Highly amusing!).
Owner Joe watches crazy movies at Red Sun Falling
The first place Lucky took us was to Kampi, where tourists from Cambodia and further afield alike board small wooden ships that scoot around the broad, opaque Mekong in the hope of spotting the increasingly rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We enjoyed the morning on the peaceful waters and it was interesting and exciting to catch glimpses of the dolphins cresting.
View from the prow of the boat – my flip flops have since then been demolished by the rainy season…
For me though, even more enjoyable was the drive to Kampi, along a picturesque road running parallel to the river, and the monastery we visited on the way back to Kratie.
Before I get to those, if you’re considering visiting Kratie or other locations in eastern Cambodia, this website offers some good information and trail ideas.
Finding the magic
After we got back onto dry land, Lucky took us to Phnom Sombok, a wat (monastery) located on the only hill on the area. Lucky dropped us at the base of the hill, and steep concrete steps through lush green brought us to a peaceful complex of moss-covered buildings and a colorful temple and stupas.
We arrived just at lunch time. The monks and nuns were in the main temple performing a ceremony. We peaked in from the perimeter and immediately the nuns, elderly, dressed in white and with kind faces, beckoned us in. I joined them on the floor for the end of the ceremony (Roman wasn’t feeling 100% so he stayed outside).
When it was finished, one of the younger monks started speaking with me, telling me about their daily life (including how much time they spend in meditation each day – hours and hours!!), swapping stories about Myanmar (he had travelled there to study and had great reverence for the Buddhism practiced and taught there), asking about my meditation practice (weak!!).
He and the nuns invited me to join them for lunch. I tried to protest but it was futile. The monks left to eat elsewhere (apparently monks eat only that which they collect as alms; the nuns’ lunch is cooked on the premises), and the sweet nuns proceeded to chat with me in our limited French (mine much more limited than theirs) and fill me up with all sorts of Cambodian desserts. Such an unexpected and generous encounter – I just loved it!
After I ate everything they offered me and received a handful of dried mango for the road, I rejoined Roman and we explored the rest of the compound, enjoying the lovely atmosphere and gorgeous views of the farmlands below.
“How poor people live”
We rejoined Lucky at the tuk tuk and turned back to Kratie – but first he asked if we minded making a quick stop at his home. With only a slight tinge of bitterness in his voice, he said we could “see how poor people live.” I was moved to be invited into his simple one room house, where his wife and two young children were at home to receive him. His toddler son was fast asleep in a hammock slung across the room; his older daughter shyly watched me with big eyes, but warmed up when an older, braver neighbor girl stopped by to investigate.
Lucky was dropping in for his lunch break – a quick meal of rice and chicken and vegetable soup that had been prepared with the simple cooking implements in one corner of the room that constituted the kitchen. He told me that the house was relatively new – earlier they had been living with his mother-in-law. The roof was corrugated iron (cheaper than natural fiber or tile roofs – but hotter when the sun was out), the floor bamboo, the walls incomplete, patched together from woven palm fronds and pieces of plastic. In the village, his was one of the simpler houses. I wonder what it would be like to live in any of the homes there. I’m grateful for the glimpse we were able to have into Lucky’s life.
Even for the relative poverty and simplicity of the villages along the river, there was a lot of beauty too. Many of the houses were sturdier wood in a traditional Khmer style and really lovely to look at. The whole road once you got further out of Kratie was lined by gorgeous massive trees; the village homes and stores enjoyed their lush, green and gold-tinted shade. I fell in love with the peaceful atmosphere and sweet scenes of every day life that we passed in the tuk tuk and resolved to come back.
Lucky’s napping son
Grabbing a quick bite to eat
I tried to find Lucky the next day but was unsuccessful, so I headed back along the road out of Kratie on my own steam (Roman was still not feeling great so I went on my own). I was aware of weather’s tendancy to get stormy towards the end of the day, so, leaving after lunch, I had to keep an eye on the time if I wanted to avoid a soaking. The journey by foot was a lot slower than by tuk tuk; I didn’t even get close to making it all the way to Lucky’s village, but I still saw loads of beauty on my three hour walk (and I made it back to Kratie five minutes into the afternoon rain – but before the real downpour opened up. Perfect timing!)
As I had from the tuk tuk the day previous, I just drank in the beautiful houses on stilts, rice paddies, massive trees and river views. But being on foot was even better – the countless number of smiles and greetings I exchanged with bemused Cambodians made the little trek just magical – especially the amazing, out-going, totally fun kids (see my earlier post for evidence ).
Other bits and pieces
I’ll post pictures in my next post, but before I finish, here are some of the snapshot-type things I want to remember from Kratie.
- The kids sitting outside a store in town eating steamed snails, pulling the meat out of the shell with toothpicks
- The television in our hotel room that turned on automatically when the power in the room got switched on. It was on a Cambodian music channel – horribly dubbed singers and musicians (honestly who ever was editing the sound to match the video wasn’t even trying) performing traditional and modern Cambodian music to a room full of dancers dressed up like they were going to the prom, dancing sedately around a table piled high with fruit. Awesome, atmospheric background music for our stay in Kratie!
- The cheeky little scrap of a dog from the hotel next door that nipped at my heels and made me scream (embarrassing! ) – not because he bit me but because he came out of no where
- Waiting for our bus in town. The bus station was right by a medical clinic. The clinic was open to the dusty, busy street. Patients would shuffle out with a drip attached to their arm to by food from street vendors. When we arrived, two men in black were sitting on funny wooden benches by the station, busily sharpening carving knives. Slightly disturbing when they finished their work and went to deliver the knives not to the nearby restaurant as I would have expected, but to the clinic.
- There was one young man I saw both during the tuk tuk ride and a couple of times during my walk outside of Kratie. Although he was walking around fine on his own, it was clear that he had cerebral palsy. I can’t begin to imagine the first thing about him or his life, but we caught each other’s eyes the last time we passed each other and I do know that his smile was so bright that it lit up my heart completely.
- The sweet guy at the cell phone shop who was really friendly and helpful. He had received a brand new iPhone from his folks who live in the States; Roman fixed his sim card and tried to help him unlock it (I love this about Roman!) – unfortunately the guy’s phone was too new to be unlocked.
- The hilarious woman at the first phone shop we went to who kept burping the whole time she was waiting on us. Now that’s customer service!
- Trying krolan, a regional specialty. It’s sticky rice with coconut milk, beans and a bit of sugar and salt, cooked by steaming it in bamboo. Total comfort food!
At the krolan stand. The tops of the bamboo tubes are stopped with coconut fibers
The sweet vendor demonstrates how to open the bamboo