For many people, the rare Kratie dolphins are high on the list of must-see things in Cambodia. This post covers the best ways to see the dolphins and what to expect from your visit.
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One of the big reasons most people go to Kratie (pronounced kra-chey) in Northern Cambodia is to visit the adorable snub-nosed Kratie dolphins – more properly known as Irrawaddy river dolphins.
(Don’t miss: Our Cambodia itineraries — 3 great ways to spend 2 weeks in Cambodia) →
About Irrawaddy Dolphins
Though Irrawaddy dolphins live in a wide area, from the Ganges all the way to the islands of Indonesia, there are relatively few that inhabit fresh water rivers. Most live in coastal areas, preferring the brackish waters of river estuaries.
There are thought to be fewer than 100 Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia and Laos, where they can be found playing and swimming in the fresh waters of the Mekong.
The biggest threat to the species is the fishing industry. People don’t fish for Irrawaddy dolphins directly, but they are often caught in fishing nets by accident and end up as collateral damage.
(If you’re wondering why Stephen and I don’t eat fish, this is why. According to the WWF, “a staggering amount of marine life—including turtles, dolphins and juvenile fish—is hauled up with the catch, and then discarded overboard dead or dying.”)
There are about 20 Irrawaddy dolphins living near Kampi village in Kratie Province, and for a few dollars, a yellow motor boat will take you dolphin-spotting.
How to get to the dolphin viewing area near Kratie
I was really looking forward to seeing those goofy little dolphin faces, all snub-nosed and smiley. I pictured watching them play and leap happily around in the Mekong as I watched from a silent and elegant boat.
It may have been one of the most disappointing activities of my travel career.
The day started promisingly enough, as I cycled out of Kratie town on my rented bike, through small villages and past what seemed like hundreds of kids, all shouting “Helllllloooo!” as I cycled past. I rarely feel as full of life and bonhomie as I do cycling in the sunshine on my way to a place I have anticipated seeing for years.
(Don’t miss: Find out more about cycling in Cambodia in our Cambodia cycle touring journal) →
The launch point to see the dolphins is about 11 km north of Kratie, in Kampi village.
If you’re not open to cycling, you can rent a motorbike for about $5 in Kratie. The road is a typical Cambodia road, full of holes and sections where the paving gives way to dusty red dirt, but it gives you the opportunity to experience a slice of Cambodian village life.
If you don’t want to drive yourself, hire a tuk tuk driver. It will cost about $10-15 round trip or a little more if you want the driver to take you to see some other nearby sights. Try to find a driver who speaks enough English to act as a tour guide.
(Related: Here’s help if you’re looking for other things to do in Kratie) →
What can you expect from a visit to the Kratie dolphins?
Watch the video to feel like you were there with me!
I arrived at the dolphin launch early, before 9am, and was one of the few people there. I plunked down my $7 — a hefty amount in a country where you can get a top-notch dinner for less than $5 — and headed to the “dock”, a concrete staircase leading down to the wide, brown river.
The four people ahead of me were just climbing into a wooden longboat and I attempted to board behind them. But no, I was shunted into the next empty boat. So for no reason, except to spread the work around to various boatmen, I had to take my own boat with space for about 10 people.
Not ideal when visiting an area that should be focussing on conservation.
The boat ride itself, as a boat ride on the Mekong always is, was pleasant. We buzzed quickly along to the dolphin swimming hole. I was glad to see that when we got close, the driver shut off the noisy motor presumably to be less irritating to the dolphins.
In dry season, the Kratie dolphins stick to a fairly small area where the river water is deepest. In wet season, which this was, they roam further, since the water is deeper all around.
Playing a game the dolphins always win
It was only a few minutes before my boat driver said “Yes, yes.” I quickly looked to where he was pointing, in time to see a rubbery grey something slip out of sight beneath the water. It could have been a dolphin… I guess.
For the next 45 minutes, we repeated this one-act play again and again.
“Yes yes,” the boat driver would say.
My head whips around.
A dolphin disappears.
I started to get good at spotting disappearing dolphin backs all on my own and even managed to snap a few pictures just moments after they descended below the surface.
I’ve been told that in dry season the dolphins are far more active and can be seen leaping and playing in the water. However, a Google search turned up very little photographic evidence of this. Most travellers seemed to have the same experience I did.
After a little less than an hour the driver asked “Go back?” Realizing that I couldn’t expect to see much more, I readily agreed.
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How to see the Kratie dolphins a better way
If you really want to see the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie province, don’t despair! There is a much more satisfying way to see the Kratie dolphins, one that doesn’t involved buzzing them with loud, disruptive motorboats.
Unfortunately, my stay in Kratie wasn’t timed right for me to take this trip.
If you’re in the area from November to July, you can skip the whole motorboat circus and go see the dolphins by kayak.
Photo property of Sorya Kayaking in Kratie, Cambodia
Sorya Kayaking offers a half-day dolphin trip, which takes paddlers through riverside villages and allows them to see Cambodia in a far more peaceful way than usual.
If you happen to be in Kratie during wet season (July to October), just skip the dolphins altogether and take Sorya’s half-day Te River trip instead. I wish I had done this!
Where can you see Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia?
The Kratie dolphin boat launch is about 11 km north of Kratie, on the river road out of town near the village of Kampi.
You can also combine dolphin viewing with a homestay on the island of Koh Phdau, near the 100 Pillar Pagoda. This gets you to a less touristy venue for dolphin viewing.
When to go see the Kratie Dolphins
By all reports, dry season is the time to go see the dolphins in Kratie. They are gathered in a smaller space and are more active, so you might get a better look at them. Late afternoon is supposed to be the best time for viewing, as the weather is cooler and the dolphins are more active.
Photo by Dan Koehl (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons
Where to Stay in Kratie / Kratie Hotels
I really liked Le Tonlé Guesthouse, which is a training centre for underprivileged Cambodian youth. The upstairs rooms are simple but great. The downstairs dorm rooms are pretty cramped (though it was fine for one night). Arun Mekong, a comfortable resort on Koh Trong Island, is the closest you’ll get to luxury in a Kratie hotel.
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♥ Happy mindful adventures, Jane & Stephen
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