Kratie – Home of the Irrawaddy Dolphins

Our final stop in Cambodia was in Kratie, a small city located North-East of Phnom Phen.   We booked our transportation ahead of time with Cambodian Pride Tours and I was glad we did.  It was a 6 hour drive from Angkor National park, and I was happy to not have to do it in a crowded van!   Being in a car also meant that we could appreciate the countryside more, which was really nice.  I feel like we got to see so much of Cambodia while we were there!

Kratie is located right on the Mekong River.
Kratie is located right on the Mekong River.

Kratie is a lot less touristy than Siem Reap, and it was nice to get away from the crowds.  Kratie is both the name of this small city and the province where it’s located, and there isn’t a whole heck of a lot to see here, based on what the internet has to say anyway.  Other than the Irrawaddy Dolphins (which I’ll get to in a bit), Kratie’s biggest attraction is that is runs along the mighty Mekong River, and there are lots of great sights as a result.

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One of the first things we saw in Kratie! This was right in the city…I don’t think anyone was herding them either…but nobody seemed to care much!
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We met this little heart-breaker at the hotel, hanging out with the Tuk Tuk drivers. He asked me for a kiss within about 2 minutes of meeting me. He settled for a picture and the use of my camera
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Taken by my new beau. With that helmet and that face, who WOULDN’T be asking me for kisses?? hahaha!
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People getting around by tractor

As happy as I was to get away from all the tourism though, I was just as happy to discover that our hotel was clean, comfortable and uber cute.  Also, our hotel had a pool, which we took advantage of in the Cambodian heat.  Have I mentioned it was really hot while we were there???  Because it was!!! I especially loved all the pets we had in our room 🙂

One of several Lizards in our room. It was through no fault of the hotel...these little guys are EVERYWHERE! I found this one to be especially adorable...he was hanging out on our door frame.
One of several Lizards in our room. It was through no fault of the hotel…these little guys are EVERYWHERE! I found this one to be especially adorable…he was hanging out on our door frame.

We only had 1 full day in Kratie, and it began bright and early when our tour guide, Sithy, met us at our hotel.  Before going further, I need to say that Sithy is one of the most passionate and fantastic tour guides I’ve ever met in my life.  I honestly didn’t know a tour could BE that enjoyable.  If you are reading this because you are visiting Kratie, please do yourself a favor and get in touch with this man.  He started this company on his own and does basically everything himself.  His prices are fair, he cares greatly about the quality of his tours and he tries very hard to give back to the community.  You can check out his website here. or go to http://www.cambodianpridetours.com

This is Sithy. He's about as nice of a guy as you'll find. I don't typically work as an advertiser on my blog, but for this guy...I will.
This is Sithy. He’s about as nice of a guy as you’ll find. I don’t typically work as an advertiser on my blog, but for this guy…I will.

One of the cool things about this tour is how laid back it is.  We rented a scooter for the day and rode around the countryside, stopping now and then to see what country life in Kratie province is like.  We were able to see how noodles and whiskey are made in rural Cambodia, and we even had lunch with Sithy’s family (his mother provided us with traditional Cambodian food.  It was fantastic!).  It was a very personal tour for Sithy as he seemed to know everyone in the area.  Everywhere we went, children came running out of their homes to say hello and squealed with excitement when we returned the greeting.  It was a lovely morning and afternoon and surely not one I will soon forget.

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A typical noodle ‘factory’ in Kratie.  These women sort through noodles, separating them into meal-sized portions, before selling them at the market.
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These are rice noodles, not the wheat kind you’re used to back in North America. First, they grind the rice up into a powder here
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Then, after adding lots of water into the ground up rice, they put the mixture in these bags and place rocks on top of them to push air out
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Then they press the resulting goop into this noodle making machine.
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A nice complete view of their little shop. It’s located under their house (the stilted homes provide a nice cool working area during the dry season
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Some chickens hanging out while their owners make rice noodles to sell at the market
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Rice is also used for making alcohol here. This is where the rice is sorted
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Here, the rice is fermenting, slowly turning into alcohol
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Rice Wine!!

We spent hours cruising around the countryside, stopping to see local homes and seeing the sights in every-day Cambodia.  I loved being on the back of that scooter, seeing the rural countryside fly by us and smelling the fresh air.  The breeze was refreshing and it was so wonderful being away from the crowds.  I was smart enough to catch some of it on video 🙂

The guy riding in front of us is Sithy and when he pulled over, it was so that we could see an old tobacco drying barn.  It’s no longer in use, but tobacco used to be one of Cambodia’s biggest exports.  The tobacco industry has since been replaced by factories as a primary source of income for the country, so drying sheds like this now stand empty.

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This old shed used to be used for drying tobacco
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The tobacco leaves used to be hung from the rafters up top
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This used to keep the fire going that would dry the leaves before they were sold
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Sugarcane is another plant grown in Cambodia. They don’t export much of it, but they use it to make tasty beverages at roadside stands. They add a little bit of freshly squeezed orange to bring down the sweetness. Very refreshing!!

After spending the morning and early and afternoon seeing the sights, we boarded the ferry to get to the Irrawaddy Dolphins.  The ferry leaves every 20 minutes or so and is the only way to cross the river (where we’d spent a lot of the day).  Because bridges are so expensive to build, and Cambodia is so poor, ferries are used to get people across the wide Mekong.  Sithy hopes that there will be a bridge built in Kratie before long.  Kratie is becoming more and more of a popular place for tourists to stop, so with the rise in tourism, hopefully a bridge will be built, resulting in an easier life for locals.

The ferry we took to get across the Mekong
The ferry we took to get across the Mekong

After disembarking the ferry, we hopped back on our scooters and drove for several kilometers, to a place where dolphins are known to hunt for fish. When we arrived at the feeding pool, we boarded a small wooden boat with a guide and were given an hour to experience the dolphins.  Sithy had mentioned on the website that seeing the dolphins was a guarantee but I did not expect to see the number of dolphins we did!  There are roughly 25 of these magnificent mammals in this portion of the Mekong, and sadly, that is about 35% of their whole population.  The number of Irrawaddy Dolphins have dropped drastically in the last hundred years.  Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed many of these beautiful creatures to use their fat as weapon cleaner, and many dolphins are killed every year by plastic fishing nets.  And to add to the troubles the adult dolphins face, calf mortality rates are very high, so there is a very good chance that these animals will disappear from the earth forever within our lifetime.

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I stood on the end of this boat to take videos….so I apologize for some of my shakier shots. We were moving most of the time I was filming!!
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Happy as clams to be out on the water
Our tour guide for the hour. He has to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet!
Our tour guide for the hour. He has to have one of the coolest jobs on the planet!

Dave spotted the first dolphin within minutes of being in the boat.  I missed it and was furious; worried that I’d missed my opportunity to see these rare beauties.  But within another few minutes, we saw several more, some far away and some close by.  Often, we’d hear them blowing water out of their blowholes before we actually saw them.  The experience was amazing and altogether one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done in my life.

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They were very difficult to photograph, as they are very shy. Unlike Bottlenose dolphins, who love attention, the Irrawaddy dolphins avoid humans. Luckily, this means awful companies like SeaWorld have no interest in enslaving them.
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One of the only other decent shots I got
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There were many boats out looking for these beautiful animals
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Whether you are Monk, child or Canadian tourist, your reaction is the same when you see the dolphins come up for air:  amazement and excitement!

I will leave you with a video I put together of the footage I managed to get with our small camera.  My biggest regret is that I didn’t have better equipment to capture this incredible experience, but I did what I could with what I had.  I hope you enjoy it!  And if you’re trying to place the music…it’s from “The Island” soundtrack.

I’ll be back soon with some final posts from Guiyang!  We’re coming home in 18 days!!!

Phnom Penh – Our Introduction to Cambodia

We opted for a change of scenery today, and have settled in at Cafe Void for the evening, a small coffee shop in Zhong Tian Hua Yuan.  The rainy season has begun in Guiyang, and although the temperature is much better now, we are getting several thunder storms a week.  A fairly severe one hit while we were having supper tonight at our favorite hot pot place (it’s never too hot for hot pot!!) when it started thundering.  Starbucks is about 20 minutes away by scooter, so we chose to stay close to home instead.  Void’s got a great atmosphere anyway, and it’s nice to switch it up now and then anyway 🙂

Now, I know I never got around to finishing all of my posts about Thailand, but I think they’re just going to have to wait.  I wrote about most of the major stuff already, and the 2 posts I have left to write (1 on the elephants at ENP and one about nightlife in Thailand) can wait until I’m done with our latest trip:  Cambodia!!

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Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and the Gulf of Siam. It’s most famous for Angkor National Park, which I’ll be getting to in my next post 🙂

Cambodia is amazing for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, it’s incredible exotic…even for people living in China.  Unlike Thailand, which is basically Canada’s ‘Caribbean’, Cambodia hasn’t been open for tourism for very long.  They have a rather ugly modern history, and until the late 1990s, people simply didn’t go there to visit.  But I’ll get to that in a bit…First, I’ll tell you a little bit about our first stop:  Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh

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Located on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is very different from the rest of the country

Phnom Penh is a fairly modern city.  It isn’t a rich place, but compared to the rest of the country, it has a booming economy.  There are plenty of sights to see in Cambodia’s capital, including several markets, monuments and temples and Cambodia’s National Museum.  There’s no shortage of places to visit and we had to limit ourselves to a few top choices as we only had 2 days to see the city.

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The national museum was one of our stops. Unlike the grand palace and the temples, there was no dress code here, and with the +40 heat, I was glad to not have to wear long sleeves!
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I like that they used shrubs for this elephant’s body 🙂
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Some very nice architecture at the museum!

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Still, there is extreme poverty here.  Many children don’t go to school and instead beg on the street or sell bracelets to tourists.  The city is also very dirty, which is common in poor countries.

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We saw this type of thing both in the city and in rural areas. This was a particularly bad area, on a river bank. Nearby is a fishing village built entirely on stilts
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The garbage provides income for families who are too poor to send their children to school. Although education is free (and compulsory) in Cambodia, families keep their children at home to help earn income to keep everyone fed. This young girl was looking for things she could sell in town.
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Similarly, these children are sifting through plastic and garbage, looking for anything valuable that has the potential to earn them some income.

 

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We met this group of boys in Kratie. They were very friendly and very excited to see foreigners. We saw them on the weekend, so I don’t know for sure that they don’t go to school, but we saw many groups of children just like this during the week, who asked us to buy things from them so that they COULD go to school.

And when it comes to helping the poor in Cambodia, there is a catch 22 for tourists.  On one hand, if you don’t buy the things they are selling you feel like a terrible person.  $2 isn’t much to a Canadian, but it’s a small fortune for a family as poor as some that we saw.  But on the other hand, by giving in and purchasing items from these kids, you are telling their parents ‘yes, sending your children out to sell things is a good idea.  I could say no to you, but I can’t say no to them’.  I felt awful every time I gave in, but I couldn’t say no, and Dave and I ended up with a lot of bracelets, postcards, books and magnets.

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We met these children in Kratie. They were so cute and so shy. I kept making faces at them to make them laugh, trying to get them to come over and say hello (they were hiding behind some boxes trying to get a glimpse of us). I eventually got them to come over and I asked them their names and taught them a little English. When I left, they came running out and said ‘Goodbye, Teacher!!!’. I met another group of girls who were selling flutes. We bought one flute from each of them ($1 a piece…) and I asked them what their names were and how old they all were. They all lit right up when I gave them that little bit of attention. I doubt they have many tourists ask them about their lives. More often than not, they are just shooed to the side.

I'm not sure what's worse...sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage...Either way, these kids don't have the life I wish they did...
I’m not sure what’s worse…sifting through garbage, or being treated like garbage…Either way, these kids don’t have the life I wish they did…

But it wasn’t long ago that children in Cambodia suffered a much worse fate than a lack of education.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, Cambodia has an ugly past.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, and the people suffered one of the worst genocides in world history.  Millions of people died through starvation, torture and execution and this ugly man was the brain behind it all.

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Meet Pol Pot: the world’s 6th most murderous dictator of all time.  In just 4 years, he killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population.

As North Americans, we grow up hearing about Hitler and his atrocities. The Khmer Rouge, however, was completely foreign to me, which is strange given how recently the Cambodian genocide  happened.  After all, I consider myself to be a worldly minded person…I read the news and keep track of the big things that are happening in the world.  But this one I hadn’t heard of.  And that’s probably because so little was done by western powers to stop this man.  We can’t be proud of bringing down this assailant, like we brought down Hitler, so Cambodia’s story just doesn’t make the cut in our history books.

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One of many famous quotes attributed to Pol Pot.  Another depressing one: “It is better to kill 10 innocent men than to let 1 guilty man escape”.

When the the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, Pot had big plans for its citizens.  He believed in a perfect communism that was based on agriculture.  Pot thought that anyone educated or anyone who lived in the cities was the enemy and he treated them as such.  Many of those people were sent to S-21, one of the many schools that the Khmer Rouge turned into torture compounds.  We toured the old school and saw some of the things  accomplished there in those 4 terrible years.

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This is S -21…the most infamous prison of the Khmer Rouge period. It’s since been turned into a Genocide Museum in an attempt to educate people about the genocide here and give voice to the victims who died in these walls.

There are several buildings in S-21, each with their own brand of horror.  Our first stop was a building where high-status inmates were held.  This is where they kept people who were suspected of working with the CIA or other foreign intelligence agencies.  It’s said that the Khmer Rouge would arrest anyone who wore glasses, because glasses, after all, are a sign of intelligence.  And intelligence was not to be trusted.

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This is the bed an inmate was given (there was never a mattress). But that was the least of it. The people who were kept in these cells were tortured on a daily basis…water boarding and beatings were a regular occurrence. And the female prisoners were raped and forced to eat their own excrement. All because they had an education…

After seeing many rooms like the one above, we moved to another area of the prison where groups of prisoners were kept.  The quarters here were far worse…

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Because this was originally a school, S-21 didn’t have cells right away, so the Khmer Rouge had them built. This is one of many that we saw
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When they weren’t being tortured, prisoners were left alone in these cells. It was forbidden that they speak to other inmates and if they were caught,t hey were beaten further.

 

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Cell 18

The last building we saw told stories of individuals who survived S-21.  In total, it is estimated that 17,000 people were kept here, tortured and beaten.  Of those 17,000, only 12 prisoners survived.  We met two of them while at S-21 and bought their books.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read them.  The things we saw here bothered me a lot.  I couldn’t sleep for several nights without dreaming about the things I read.  The fact that humans could do this other humans is beyond me.

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Some prisoners would have been able to see some of the yard from their windows.
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Stories from the prisoners of S-21concentration camp

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Like any camp of this sort, the inmates had to abide by a list of rules set by the guards.  Some of them are impossible for me to understand…

You must immediately answer my questions without wasting time to reflect.”

While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all.

No matter how much S-21 bothered me though, The Killing Fields were much, much worse.

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The Memorial Stupa in the Phnom Penh Killing Fields

The fields themselves are quite a thing to see.  Upon arrival at the Fields, which are just outside Phnom Penh, you are provided with an audio tour  (the recordings were very well done and available in many different languages).  Everyone has their headphones on and are listening to the stories and history behind the fields.  It is completely quiet as you walk through this massacre sight and it feels eerie.  If you look up at the other visitors, everyone has the same look on their face.  Nobody can quite understand how these things happened.  How humans could do this to other humans.

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What could be a lovely park, is actually several mass graves where nearly 9000 bodies were found. This is only one of Pol Pot’s many killing fields. In total, it’s estimated that he killed 1.2 million people in fields like this. The other 500,000 people who died under his regime died of starvation and exhaustion in the rice fields.

Since the fields were discovered, the individual pits have been carefully excavated, in an attempt to understand what went on in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.  Many of the larger bones (skulls and femurs) were removed from the earth, cleaned and examined.  Some DNA testing was done to help give families closure, though many families have never found their lost relatives.  Once DNA analysis was complete, the skulls were moved into the Memorial Stupa that was built at The Killing Fields to honor the dead.

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9000 skulls can be found in this memorial stupa. They all have different coloured stickers on them, which indicate the way each individual was executed. The Khmer Rouge didn’t want to pay for bullets, so most victims were hacked to death with farming tools or with weapons made of bamboo or sugar cane branches. That’s one of the things that haunts me the most about this genocide. These were not quick deaths…

The smaller bones were left in the ground and when it rains heavily, they move up through the soil.  As a result, you are often reminded by signage to watch where you are stepping.  You can often see bones on the ground as well as the clothing of victims.

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The employees at the Fields routinely look for bones and clothes that have come up from the ground and stack them respectfully like this to remind people to watch where they are stepping.
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They also collect some of the bigger pieces of bones and the clothing and put them in display cases for people to see. Notice on the left hand side, in the front, there is a pair of children’s shorts…they’re hard to miss…

 

We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.
We saw a lot of clothing in the pits.

Some of the bigger pits, or pits that were reserved for ‘special’ groups of victims have been sectioned off.  On the bamboo posts used to section the pits off, people have left bracelets to commemorate the dead.  Many of these bracelets are recognizable from street kids who sell them in down town Phnom Penh.

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This was the first grave we came upon. Over 200 victims were found in it. The bracelets have been left by visitors.
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Women and Children were found in this grave. They were killed the same as the men…with bound hands.  They often had to watch their children die first.  They weren’t important enough to keep alive, but they were somehow special enough to have their own burial space.  So much insanity on the part of their captors…
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Many of the victims in this grave were found wearing guards clothing, so it’s assumed that they were people who had been found guilty of somehow opposing the revolution. Perhaps they tried to help a prisoner escape, or showed kindness to a woman or child.  Even the people running these camps and killing fields weren’t safe from Pol Pot’s grand scheme.
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This is the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. This tree is located right outside the pit where women and children were found. This tree was used to murder babies.

It was difficult walking around these fields.  I feel sad and depressed about it even now, as I write this post.  Nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was killed during the 4 years that Pol Pot was in power.  And because this all happened in the last 40 years, everyone you meet in present-day Cambodia has a story they can tell you.  They all have either an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, a parent or a friend who was killed.  The trials against the Khmer Rouge’s top officers are ongoing even today, and Pol Pot was never even brought to justice.  He died of old age…he spent his final years with his children and grand children: a right he took away from so many innocent people.

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The rest of the world wasn’t listening…and to keep the locals from hearing what was happening every night in this field, the Khmer Rough blasted loud ‘Revolution Music’ from speakers hanging in this tree. The end of our audio tour played that type of music, along with the sound of a generator running in the background, so that we could hear the last thing all those people heard. Talk about making an impact…

It’s taken me a long time to write this post because of how much it bothers me that these things happened.  Visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields would be similar to visiting Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen.  What happened in Europe in the 1940s is as horrific as what happened in Cambodia in the 70s, but on some levels, Cambodia bothers me more.  Not because of the atrocities themselves…but because of my government’s reaction (or lack of reaction) to the Khmer Rouge.  Refugees who got out of the country during that awful time were called liars or were accused of exaggerating.  Nobody did anything to help the Cambodians…the world didn’t care because Cambodia is so small and far away.

The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I'm not the only person who was affected by this visit.
The number of bracelets left behind by tourists is an indicator that I’m not the only person who was affected by this visit.

And that’s why, no matter how much I don’t want to think about this stuff…I have to write about it.  Through ‘knowing’, we can prevent these types of things from happening in the future.  Sure, reading the news can be a bummer, but if you know that your government isn’t taking steps to help people in cases such as this, you can write to your government representative and encourage action.  There are petitions to sign and protests to attend.  There ARE things you can do to help.  Margaret Mead’s words are something to live by:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

My next post will be on a lighter topic:  Angkor National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, and boy were there some sights to see!!