I went to Lao to see the incredibly rare Irrawaddy Dolphins and yet in the end I had to leave the country before I was able to catch a glimpse of the bizarre purple mammal. The Irrawaddy Dolphin is distributed in discontinuous populations throughout South and Southeast Asia, with the Mekong having one of the larger and more accessible populations. Some viewing can be done above the border, in Lao, just near Si Phan Don. But the best viewing is in Cambodia, north of the town of Kratie (pronounced kra-chay).
I woke early and headed for Don Det’s north beach, which serves as the island’s port, and waited around for half an hour with a group of travellers until the boats were ready. It was only the first of many irritating periods of waiting that day. The next would come on the other side of the river, on the mainland, when we had an hour and a half to wait for the bus to the border. Of course, this is perfectly normal in Lao. It is incredibly rare for a vehicle to leave or arrive on time, and there is, of course, never an honest explanation given. The journey from Don Det to Kratie took some eight hours, and yet there was only about three hours of actual travel time.
So it goes in places like this. I spent the past winter in Africa, where everything moves at a leisurely pace. But at least there they have the decency to say, “We’ll leave eventually. There’s no rush, man.” In Southeast Asia they’ll always try to bullshit you.
Despite the extended periods of unnecessary waiting, and being ripped off at the border by corrupt officials, the journey went largely as expected, and I alighted from the bus at 4pm on the scenic riverside of Kratie. Once again, I was standing on the eastern bank of the mighty Mekong. The nearest hotel was Oudom Sambath, and I checked in for $7 per night. I knew I could’ve gotten a better deal someplace else, but sometimes you have to wonder whether it’s worth it for what would’ve ended up being only a dollar or two.
I love hotels in Southeast Asia. Outside you so often have a French Colonial exterior, and inside there are remains of the original building – ornate windy staircases and intricate cornices – but then of course it’s also fused with the local flavour, and all too often left into a state of total dilapidation. The rooms are invariably dingy and unclean, yet with just a faint reminder of former grandeur.
I woke up at six o’clock without an alarm and headed down to the lobby to negotiate the hiring of a motorcycle for the day. I managed to rent a Honda Dream for $7 and soon I was flying up the road towards Kampi – the little village where the locals thrive on dolphin tourism. It felt exhilarating to be back on a bike again. Between 2013-14 I lived in Cambodia and rode my motorcycle all over the south of the country. By that point I’d been riding motorcycles for seven years across countless countries. You see, I have a major addiction to these machines, and the only reason I don’t ride them anymore is the fear that perhaps I like them too much… There is no greater thrill than pulling back the throttle and bolting along the road, overtaking trucks and dodging cows, potholes, and the like.
I rode a bike last year for a few nights in Thailand, but I was on a small island and I hardly had any use for it. I would just take it out after a few beers and feel the chill night air rush by, taking dark corners and blind hills with the confidence that comes from being on holiday in a strange land, feeling invincible. Here, though, on the banks of the Mekong River, I started off slowly. I had a lot of road ahead of me and after a few kilometres just getting a feel for the bike, I opened it up and started to enjoy myself. Periodically I would slow and take in some of the sights, but the experience of the bike itself was enough to keep me entertained. Roads in Cambodia are notoriously dangerous. Where do you even start in describing the dangers – the dry dust and the wet mud are equally fatal; the drunk drivers, the herds of cows wandering unchecked; the children and adults alike sauntering into the streets; giant potholes and bridges with slats rotted through… I could go on. When I lived here, I’d hear nearly every week of someone who’d died on these roads. Yet a mix of caution and confidence makes these stretches not only rideable, but fun.
Fifteen kilometres north of Kratie I found the dolphin boat dock. It was not signposted, nor did it make itself at all visible. There was only a large empty parking area, which attracted my attention, and then a small stone dolphin. Once inside, I had to ask around, but was eventually pointed to a man in a little yellow boat. He didn’t speak a word of English except for “hello,” which was used every time he wanted me to do something. His long boat was painted bright yellow, with the number eleven painted on the front. I gathered that in the high season, or perhaps even later in the day, there were enough tourists to fill at least that many boats. For now, though, it was just me. I had come early because I figured that’s when it would be best to see the dolphins – on a tranquil river without other boats.
We puttered out onto the river and headed north for forty-five minutes against the fast flow of the water. It was an overcast day, but beautiful in its way. Ominous clouds hung over the trees on either side. We saw men fishing with large woven baskets. The river seemed high – I suppose this is wet season, after all – and there were seemingly tall trees only just sticking out above the water level. The fishermen used these to anchor their boats or baskets.
Eventually my boatman pointed and shouted “Hello!” which I took to mean there was a dolphin. Indeed, as I stood and steadied myself, I saw a large purple shape briefly protrude above the water’s surface and then slip back into the thick brown water. I hurriedly snapped some photos, but fortunately the dolphins – I believe there were three or more – stuck around for several minutes. The boatman said “hello” again and waved me to the back of the boat, from where I could see clearly. These odd alien creatures took turns breaching and making snorting sounds, then disappearing. Unlike their oceanic cousins, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are shy and don’t seem at all playful. They look more like small, purple Orcas with their bulbous protruding foreheads than dolphins. Sadly, these weird and ethereally beautiful animals are endangered and badly in need of protection. I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitat before it is too late.
The boatman seemed content that he had successfully delivered a dolphin – actually, at least three of them – and took me quickly back to shore. It was still early and I had achieved my goal for the day.
So what next?
I point the bike north and continued up along the eastern bank of the river, mostly going slow and admiring the beautiful wooden homes on high stilts, sometimes painted blue, and always in a flurry of activity. Kids, chickens, old women, and cows came and went freely, though all careful to keep out of the rising sun. As I headed north, the roads became quieter and yet more treacherous, in their own way. Though hardly perilous, the thick, wet mud made it a challenge to keep the bike upright, and made the going slow. On several occasions I had to support myself with my feet just to keep from falling over, and my legs were covered with mud up to the knee. I never strayed from the road, yet it was at times very much like off-road biking.
Sometimes, though, I was able to unleash the power of the little bike and whip up the road with the wind in my face, causing streaks of tears beneath my sunglasses, which dried in an instant. There were great big dragonflies in the air and periodically they smacked into my face. Once one got stuck under my sunglasses and nearly blinded me for a moment, and elsewhere, when going fast enough, one crashed into my head just beneath the helmet, and left an small, dark bruise.
I passed through small villages and towns and eventually came to Sambour, where I took some backstreets and ended up at a small temple, called Vihea Kaok. There was a mighty tree stretching in all directions, giving much needed shade to weary monks retiring from the heat. Many child monks were practicing in a building nearby, and a huge golden Buddha sat upright in the main temple building. I moved on quickly, finding another temple – this one evidently more important than the first. Whereas Vihea Kaok was sleepy, this temple was positively buzzing with activity. This was the “100 Pillar Temple,” so-called because there were many pillars holding the building up. A swarm of children begged me for money but quickly gave up and fought each other over a coconut.
I had an early lunch at a street-side restaurant near the temple, where, miraculously, the proprietor spoke enough English to take my order, and then I took off once again, heading further north. The road continued endlessly along the bank of the Mekong. Sometimes it was possible to ride fast, and at other times it would’ve been suicide. Sometimes there were just empty fields or trees, and sometimes more houses on stilts. Always, though, the big brown river to my left, the red road underneath me, the blue sky above, and dark green to my right.
I began to feel the sun had taken its toll on me and, at a random bridge – just one of many I’d crossed that day – I turned and headed back. The thought struck me to put my GoPro on my helmet and film the ride. It had been pleasant – scenic, even – on the way up. I stuck the camera on my head and took off back down the road. Halfway down, I realized it was pointing up at the sky, and then it flopped down and filmed my forehead for a while, but eventually I got it filming straight ahead. Driving in Asia has become so normal for me in some ways. I wonder if in 50 yrs I’ll look back at the insanity and laugh…
My ride came to an end when I pushed the bike too hard on an empty tank and it sputtered and died on another rickety bridge. I was able to roll it off and then push it to a nearby shop, where an old woman sold me a litre of petrol. The bike still wouldn’t start easily, and I had to kickstart it into action.
I intended to go all the way back to the hotel without stopping, but I spotted an interesting pagoda – Sombok Pagoda – on the only hill for miles around, and had to stop and take a look. I brought my bike to the bottom of a flight of about a hundred stairs and climbed very slowly to the temple. It was eerily quiet – or at least it was eerie until I spotted a sign that said this was a place of silent meditation. In any case, there were no people around. I wandered about and climbed yet another two flights of stairs to the very highest point for many miles around – a small pagoda with a few stone buddhas littered about. The view was obscured by trees growing from the hillside, but through their branches you can see for miles over the flat lands surrounding Kratie, and across the vast Mekong.
After the pagoda, I finally returned to my bike and gently encouraged it back to town. It limped and whined and eventually rolled up onto the pavement outside Oudom Sambath, completely empty of petrol and encased in solidified mud. I had dinner at Red Sun Falling and then watched the sunset from the roof of Silver Dolphin.