Roxanne and I found ourselves excited at the Phnom Penh bus station, ready to get away from cities and experience the real Cambodia. It was whilst sitting on our backpacks waiting, where a monk approached us and laced us with dozens of bright red cotton bracelets, blessed us and continued on his way. Happy with our new bracelets, anklets and backpack decorations we armed ourselves with snacks from the local shop, ready for our supposedly 5 hour journey to Kratchie – it actually took 8 (meaning we didn’t buy half enough snacks!).
We arrived in Kratchie to a few local men with cardboard posters all competing to get us into their hostels, slightly disappointed with the obvious tourist touts we chose our accommodation and decided to get a double room due to the dirt cheap prices of $2 each a night. Our room had a giant brightly coloured fish painted on the wall, bright wacky bedding and a relatively clean bathroom, it was also home to several giant jumping beetles. A species I had not seen before and was not particularly over the moon about meeting whilst lying in bed. Our accommodation featured a rooftop restaurant which offered a brilliant view over the town, of the sunset and later in the evening of the lightening thunderstorm which erupted around us. My first meal in Kratchie was here in the rooftop bar, consisting of fried spinach with steamed rice and chicken, it was eaten in the dark due to the lack of electricity, with only a battery powered torch on the table providing light.
The next day was filled with a motorbike trip along the river, we drove for hours through many villages and towns, children running out of the wooden homes to wave to us and shout hello. We stopped regularly, searching the river for the infamous Irrawdy dolphins and practicing our limited Cambodian language skills of Sou Dey! (Hello) and Ah Khun (thank you). The views were brilliant over the river, these wooden neighbourhoods lined the banks and were bustling with local people about their daily business, sweeping the roads and occupying the many children playing in the grass.
We later decided to spend the night on the little island Koh Trong just over the river, we had read about available homestays with local families and decided to check it out. After packing miniature overnight bags and securing our large backpacks in Kratchie we boarded the dingiest boat possible for just a few minutes over the river. Upon arrival we were left alone on a giant beach, furnished only with wooden planks leading up into a mass of jungle. Assuming that was the only way we followed the wooden path and eventually found a wooden building from where we hired the oldest, rustiest bicycles possible for just $1. We had two options once on the main path, deciding to head right we peddled past wooden and iron homes, seemingly full of families, dogs and cows. Again, we were greeted by the children running out to shout hello, and cycled onto the grass regularly to avoid colliding with the many carts pulled by giant cows.
We stumbled upon our chosen home stay, where we were greeted by a large friendly family, made up of several women, a young baby, 3 dogs and a few men. Our beds were 2 mattresses beneath mosquito nets on the floor of the large living/dining area, opposite where the baby and mother slept. Again, we were greeted by dozens of the giant jumping beetles, which flew into us and got caught on our nets.
We continued our bicycle trip around the island, got caught in a bit of rain, and stopped many times along the jungle path to simply to admire the view out over the river. There were points where we stopped and were engulfed by children, all eager to play and say hello, it was wonderful to be a part of, and catch a glimpse into their way of life. Still being relatively new to biking Roxanne had a little slip, which resulted in her foot being engulfed in cow pat and mud, (HA!).
After making our way around the entire island within a few hours we dropped our bikes off, and started to walk back along the dirt path towards our home for the night. It was a highly stressful journey back, with me nearly in tears as the many stray and family owned dogs barked and followed us back. It took longer than expected, as is always the case with Roxanne and I, and upon arrival back at the hostel, thankfully, dinner was served.
The family cooked meal consisted of fried morning glory, egg and fish soup, rice and meat, it was shared with a Cambodian man, keen to practice his English and share his knowledge and experience of the Khmer Rouge. It would have been nice to have had the family share the meal with us, but we understood they were attending to the young baby. Feeling tired from the full day of activities we were both asleep for 10pm, safely tucked away inside our beetle infested nets.
It was an early start at 6:30am, as is the way with locals in Cambodia. With the usual breakfast of egg and bread we thanked the family and headed back towards the boat departure point. Again, this was a stressful walk due to the dogs growling and coming towards us. I am not quite as brave as Roxanne when it comes to these dogs, and not wanting to face my fears anymore we jumped onto a local woman’s motorbike and got dropped off by the boat. The boat back was packed full of school students, who offered us fresh watermelon and lots of smiles, finishing what was a wonderful experience on Koh Trong.
I was so glad we made the journey up to Kratchie, it was exactly what I needed after spending the last week in hectic cities, the people were all so bright, friendly and truly showed me the kindness of the Cambodian people. We hopped back onto the bus, and headed for Kampong Cham, a place where we had a brief 1 night stopover on the way down to Kampot. We did not do much here, we stayed at the Mariya hotel, had a few beers, food outside and enjoyed catching up on our favourite English television shows whilst spread eagle on our own double beds. Perfect.