Kratie is a town like Liverpool with a long promenade stretched along one bank of a river, the roads easy to follow since the layout is determined by the presence of the river, there is a ferry to the other side and shipping passes through every day, oh yes, and there’s a hospital.
I guess the likeness ends there because the Mekong at Kratie, over 300 miles from where it enters the sea in Vietnam, is a lot wider than the River Mersey where it enters the Irish Sea at Liverpool, there are no docks in Kratie although there is a little motorised sampan that visits all the passing merchant junks and exacts a toll from them for passing through this way, the roads are mostly dirt roads with not a lot of traffic (and no traffic lights) and you could pass through the town from one end to the other in little over 5 minutes, the ferry goes to an island village in the middle of the river rather than to another city and it costs only 50 cents to go there even with your bicycle, there are dolphins in the river every day and the hospital is one you wouldn’t want to work in.
I arrived in Kratie on Saturday evening after a four-hour minibus ride from Phnom Penh. I had come to visit Remy, a Dutch Obstetrician Gynaecologist who has been in Cambodia 4 weeks longer than I have and I hoped to learn something about what he’d been doing and teaching that might help me focus in my final weeks, and also to visit his hospital.
The journey from PP was much the same as any other I’ve made on a tarmac road here until after Kampong Cham where we crossed the Mekong on yet another beautifully simple, single-arched Japanese road bridge whereafter the scenery changed dramatically. Instead of being utterly flat, the countryside was undulant and the tarmac road ran through green parkland for mile after mile. For a time, for 100 yards on either side of the road the land was uncultivated with trees and shrubs growing haphazardly. Beyond them were fields with no walls or fences, and the occasional small settlement. There were no roadside dwellings or food stalls, and where houses occurred they were wooden, on stilts, with no real enclosure of any kind, set back from the road with rough open ladder-like steps to the living platform and open doorway. Always an odd number of steps I’m told, which is odd even if you understand the reason why, because I counted one set and they seemed to be even and I couldn’t make out whether the ground floor level or the upper level were to be included in the count.
The traffic was the usual mix of vehicles, motos and carts and once we neared the river, every so often a tributary of the Mekong would be crossed by a single lane girder bridge with a steel-plate roadway as it flowed slowly into the main river away to our left. Several sets of rumble strips either side of these bridges made the minibus rattle and shake horribly, waking any dozing passengers and reminding the driver he may need to give way to oncoming traffic. Where we could see the river, rafts were moored along the bank with small thatched huts on deck and an array of bamboo poles rising at crazy angles high into the air to carry nets for the busy fishing industry which feeds most of the populace hereabouts.
After Hanchey commune the more usual roadside features reappeared – the modest houses interspersed with better dwellings in gated compounds belonging to the favoured few; food stalls, the Wat, a few pedestrians, motos, cycles and some cars; bottle petrol stalls, the school, a private clinic; coconut and sugar palm, mango and banana trees; faded parasols and plastic chairs; the ubiquitous orange ice boxes and haystacks on stilts like the houses. The river in flood must be an amazing sight with the water extending throughout this region and only the road high enough to remain passable. We left the river for a while and when it reappeared we began to pass village after village more closely linked to the waterway than to the road, with the riverbank irrigated and cultivated, the houses surrounded by trees. The river has been the life force for thousands of years providing trade, food, drink and pasture and only lately has the road been good enough to compete.
We entered Kratie town at 5pm, an hour and a half before nightfall. Heng Heng guest house was ready and waiting, overlooking the promenade and river and I checked in, showered and changed before setting out to hire a bike and meet with Remy. A short bike ride later and four of us ended sitting on the promenade as the darkness set in, enjoying milk from green coconuts or coke from a can and watching the few lights appear on the island where some were fortunate enough to have a generator. After the aperitif we crossed the road to Joe’s where we ate a hearty meal and exchanged medical stories which included Amy, a Belgian midwife, and her partner Kevin.
The best place to see the river dolphins is a 15km ride by tuk tuk north of Kratie – it’s also 15km by moto, bus or walking but a tuk tuk ride with four of us was the most pleasant way to get there. Some people are sympathetic to unpaid volunteers so we produced our VSO cards and hired boat and driver for $7 each person for three of us and the fourth was thrown in free. The ticket was thrown in not the volunteer. I mean nothing was thrown in the river, just the ticket. Oh, never mind, it was good value!
We cruised around for an hour or more with a couple of other boats. Here the river has numerous small islands and the channels around them must be a good feeding place for the dolphins which surfaced often with arched backs, first making their presence known with a small snort and puff of air as they exhaled and then, after taking a silent breath, slipping back below the surface to continue feeding and whatever else they do out of sight of visitors. The occasional one would emerge higher or make a half-hearted jump but none left the water fully nor made any splash to speak of. It reminded me of New Zealand where we watched the whales off Kaikoura and had to keep our eyes peeled not to miss the best performance. We saw plenty here but no great drama, and photographs of anything other than the dolphin men and dolphin boats were disappointing. This is one for National Geographic – I mean to get a DVD of Irrawaddy dolphins when I get home!
Returning halfway to Kratie we stopped at a solitary hill which has three levels each surmounted by a temple. The whole hill is a monastery complex with monks dwelling among the various pagodas. Endless stairways led us from one level to the next. The first was a flat area between two smaller mounts with several buildings, one decorated gruesomely with scenes from hell very similar to those I saw in Siem Reap province over New Year. I could not take photos as they were so horrible, clearly intended to scare the living daylights out of any would be perpetrator or vice-ridden persons who might drink alcohol or indulge with women, gossip or slander. Overhead the ceiling shone with scenes of heaven, serene and peaceful meditation being the only pastime I could make out in their celestial land. I not sure I want this version of heaven either.
The view from the top after many stairs was much obscured by trees all around the hill. A circular path a little lower than the summit (which housed the highest shrine) gave slightly better views where the trees were not too closely packed. The walk around the hill took just 10 minutes but lingering on the way to see the butterflies and views took longer. As we came down a tourist party was getting one hell of a lecture and we left them to it and descended to the depths where our tuk tuk driver cheerfully waited to drive us home.
The ferry to Koh Trong had definitely not known the Mersey. A sampan of a boat, it moored against a wooden platform reached by a hundred steps built in concrete down the steep sloping river bank. In the end of the rainy season I imagine the river in flood would be much higher and access easier. As it was, I hung onto my bicycle anxious not to let it get away and sink the ferry as it hurtled down at speed. Half a dollar for half a mile landed me on a sand bank by the island where I mounted my bike and rode as best I could over the bamboo plaited hurdles laid as a pathway across the sand for several hundred yards to higher ground where the island proper started. Only there would there be any shelter from the merciless sun. I pushed the bike along the long sloping pathway leading up the river bank onto the island’s road. Here the trees provided welcome shade and I remounted and set off on a gentle tour around Koh Trong. There are no cars on Koh Trong Island though motos, bikes and pony carts were plentiful enough. Some cows and oxen pulled traditional big-wheeled carts, the ones with wooden spokes like the cart wheels of Constable days. The island was much bigger than I first thought and steady riding would take perhaps three hours to circumvent it all. I ambled along investigating each new sight and enjoying the experience of a peaceful place and gentle people who must be used to Curious Georges passing by. Sometimes I wonder who’s the zoo, is it them or is it me? I gaze and they gaze back, the birds, the trees, the butterflies; cows, haystacks, fishing traps, carts and the police post, the policeman topless lazing in his hammock under the tree; who’s watching who? You or me?
On the further side as I rode south a bottleneck in the pathway saw a cow-drawn cart return to make room for the ox-drawn version which seemed to have the right of way. Pomellos are grown round here and seeing one fallen on the path I cast about seeking the orchard where I might buy a full ripe fruit to try for flavour. The little houses in the trees called to one another until a young woman appeared who knew the way. She took me through the trees to her house and there I met her husband Sophal, her three delightful children, Hannah, Martha and Luke proudly introduced by Sophal who spoke good English and who explained they had been named from the Bible. He was raised an orphan in Phnom Penh where his adoptive father still lives and pastors a Christian church. Sophal has no Kmai Bible here though he had one in Phnom Penh and demonstrated his knowledge by reciting the books of the New Testament as far as he could, missing out a few on the way. This is the home of his wife’s family and grandma smiled down at me from her high squatting place atop the wooden steps of the house. Chantie produced an orange and a pomello and prepared it for us all. I had most as the hostess insisted, and the children joined the feast sucking happily at the juice. The green oranges are sweet despite the fact they look unripe to one who hadn’t known before green skins are normal here. A fruit seller chanced by, her cycle basket full and sold me my own pomello for 5,000 Real – the best fetch 8,000 each in Kratie so I was very happy. My hosts would not consider any payment and we chatted for a long time while Sophal put back together the moto he was working on. Little Martha intrigued and concerned me most as she chopped away at some fruit on a piece of wood with the biggest knife you ever saw in the hands of a three-year-old. We parted happily with me promising to email family photos and to make his business known – his little pony cart takes tourists round the island’s sights ably informed by Sophal’s excellent command of English. That was my best Sunday afternoon in Cambodia!
If that was the high point, the visit to the hospital in the evening was the very dregs. A small provincial town in so poor a province perhaps could be expected to have a hospital to match but I was not prepared for the dirty state of all the stairs and corridors, the wards and delivery room as well. The midwife I met smiled and welcomed us and I must say I admire what they achieve and their willingness to work in such a place despite the grime and scant resources. Remy has worked in many places and this, of all, is the worst for dirt. He has taught a lot using material he prepared over several years, chiefly in Indonesia. His teaching hospital back in Holland is light years ahead of what he faces here. He has retired too and feels perhaps this is his last assignment – at 68 he’s a few years in advance of me.
I began the long road back to Mongkul Borei at 7.30 the next morning eventually arriving home 27 hours and a night in Siem Reap later. Farewell to Cambodia’s Liverpool, to the river and the ferry, the promenade and the dirty hospital. Not long and I’ll be back home, God willing, at work in a hospital which seems to me as far removed from here as heaven is from hell.