As so often, the place is made by the people. Laos was certainly a very interesting place, with a great variety of interesting things to do, and a lot of natural beauty. But – you may have guessed already – the people were not the most welcoming and open, not the most friendly and helpful. How different are the Cambodians, the Khmers, as they are ethnically known. Our first evening in Cambodia, in Kratie, we spent on the terrace of a small restaurant opposite the market, watching daily life pass by. Everybody smiling, to each other, to us, offering their wares, whether it is a tuk-tuk or some oranges, or more exotic goods like pig heads, but without being pushy – that, at least they have in common with their Laotian brethren. People go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. They seem to be very nice people.
Hard to reconcile this with the recent history of this country, by the way.
(1, 2) The Mekong in Kratie.
(3) The pig head in the market that was offered to me, not even that expensive.
Kratie is not really a tourist place, but there are a few other foreigners around, they come to see the almost extinct Irrawaddy dolphins a little further up north in the Mekong. We, too, so we got ourselves a little boat to bring us to the village of Kampie, where the dolphins are supposed to gather, in some of the deeper pools of the river. If we had expected jolly jumping fish, occasionally dancing on their tails, with a colourful ball on their noses, we were mistaken. Irrawaddy dolphins barely come up, and if they do show their fins, just above the surface, they do so for a very short time only. I thus ended up with many photos of water, mostly – you have to take my word for it – just after a dolphin had appeared. However, it was fun to watch, even if the pictures don’t make the National Geographic.
(4) This dolphin just disappeared before I could push the button, but note the splashes!, and (5) this is closest to a recognizable dolphin – be glad I left all the other photos out.
Equally, if not more enjoyable was the river trip to and from the dolphin place, watching fishing gear along the bank, the bamboo business, birds, and the various size boats, ranging from canoes to barges much bigger than we have seen so far. These are clearly made for serious freight transport.
(6) Fishing nets,
(7, 8) Bamboo being cut and dumped in the water, and prepared for downstream transport,
(9) Kingfishers galore,
(10, 11) and real barges, usually a family business charging up and down the river with whatever needs to be moved.
And last but not least, Kratie itself is a nice little town in its own right, with its river front boulevard and colonial French villas, now being used as government offices. Its old French town architecture, as well as Khmer-type wooden houses, in the outskirts of town – which is two streets behind the central market square, this is a really small place – have a run-down, but authentic feel. And just walking through town, with all these smiling people, is already a delight. We are going to like this country, I think.
(12) French buildings around the town center, dilapidated, but (13) attempts are being made to decorate the balconies, and (14) traditional Khmer houses at the edge of town, always on stilts.
(15) An alternative use for cloth hangers.