Down The Mekong in Cambodia – Kratie and Kampong Cham

The road south beckoned and the next day our police-arranged minivan turned up on time at the hotel. We must have made a good impression on these guys as we had the entire van to ourselves, the driver was professional, and nobody else or their household furniture was picked up on the two-hour journey.

Kracheh or “Kratie” as it is spoken is a small Mekong town on the way south. Aside from a couple of colonial buildings, a sweltering all-day wet market, and a rather bland riverfront with very little activity, there wasn’t much of note here.

The heat was punishing and we were all suffering a little travel fatigue by this, the halfway point in the trip. The only redeeming feature our ‘Heng Heng Guesthouse’ had was a large shared terrace overlooking the Mekong. Even at 17.00, it was still over 35 degrees and too hot to venture out so I made the most of that terrace and the sunset with some Dengue Fever Khmer rock on the speaker and a cold tin of ABC.

Nobody was in the mood to do much exploring and Kratie was a bit of a disappointment after the excitement in Siem Reap and Stung Treng, so we decided to move on the following day. The town was pretty much shuttered up by 20.30 so we enjoyed the empty riverfront with a bottle of Pastis. I inquired about the possibility of a ferry down the Mekong to the next town but was told that they don’t run at this time of year due to the low water.

Kampong Cham
Taking public transport in Cambodia is a bit of a lottery. The guesthouse had arranged our minivan to the next town two and a half hours south. However, when the already full wagon turned up, we were a little bewildered as to how we’d all fit in. Three French girls, the only other foreigners we’d seen in Kratie, were also already tightly squeezed in.

A crush wasn’t even close to describing this circus as the driver continued to stop to shoehorn more people in. One passenger was even sitting on his lap as he drove on with eleven people sardined into a seven-seater. This is the way in Cambodia.

After another hellish Cambodian road journey, and a couple of cheap Chinese guesthouses, we all decided on some luxury for a night at the four-star LBN Asian Hotel in downtown Kampong Cham. In Thailand, a hotel of this quality would cost upwards of 2,500 baht per night, in Cambodia, it was the princely sum of $40. The room was huge with probably the best view I’ve had from a hotel in as long as I can remember.

Kampong Cham is a much bigger and livelier town than Kratie. The riverfront was a hive of activity in the late afternoon as the sun and scorching temperatures dropped. Food vendors, aerobics moms, joggers, cyclists, couples, families, friends, and tourists all came out to enjoy the evening Mekong.

We found a little sky bar that was serving ridiculously cheap drinks so used that as a vantage point to take in the scene. It turned out to be the hotspot for the young hip and trendy Cambodians who want to see and be seen. Most of them were friendly and approachable, wanting to practice or show off their English, something that is rare in modern-day Thailand.

I was starting to feel my age on this trip, and not just because Cambodia has a very young population. The language barrier was more pronounced in the non-touristy places and I was at a loss having been so used to rambling away in Thai and being understood. I think I may have also mentioned the heat, which was far hotter than anything I’ve experienced in Thailand with the possible exception of Kanchanaburi on Anzac day!

Included in the hotel price was the entrance to its spa next door so after enjoying the breakfast there, we checked it out. We were the only people in the sauna, steam room, and hot and cold baths and an hour was all you needed there – it was physically draining.

We were all on different budgets so couldn’t spend too long at the LBN. Fortunately, there was a half-decent hotel just 100 meters away with a similar view over the Mekong. Another siesta was in order once we’d moved and the heat of the afternoon started to build … must be that age thing creeping up on me.

The following day prompted a walk to Kampong Cham’s primary tourist attraction, a bamboo bridge spanning the Mekong. This is the longest bamboo bridge in the world apparently and it gets washed away every year in the monsoon season. Remarkably, the bridge is rebuilt again for the dry season when the river subsides.

There was hardly anyone on it when we crossed and very little on the other side which is an island with a small community living there. What was evident was the depth of the river, the water was clear due to the Chinese dams blocking the sediment flow upriver, you could see the bottom in various places, and there were a lot of sandbanks. The heat started to build again so it was time to retire to the hotel for a couple of hours after the morning’s hike.

Kampong Cham had a good vibe and I’d like to have stayed longer, rented a motorcycle, and explored it a bit further but the road south was calling and Phnom Penh awaited.