Heart of the Mekong

On the island of Koh Trong in the middle of the Mekong River, travellers can explore a vision of rural Cambodian life untouched by the clamour and chaos of the modern world – and, just a short drive away, an intimate encounter with some of the Kingdom’s last Irrawaddy dolphins

words by Paul Millar

photography by Thomas Cristofoletti

Nestled in the heart of the Mekong, the island of Koh Trong lies just a ten-minute ferry ride from the old market town of Kratie, five hours north of Phnom Penh. On the riverfront, travellers can wait with a cold drink in hand looking down over the dusty steps descending to the water’s edge from Jasmine Boat Restaurant. Beneath these blue eaves, road-weary guests gaze out across the river to the lush greenery of Koh Trong, bound by a salt-white expanse of sand left bare by the turning seasons.

It is here, on the edge of Koh Trong, that a visitor to this forgotten corner of Cambodia straddles the border between water, sand and sky, where the receding river has left its white bones shining beneath the sun. Thin green shoots whisper their way through the silt and smoke of distant fires, little lives fed by what the waters left behind. A floating house hangs still in the current; on its decks, a fisherman draws in his nets by inches. And it is here, when the red sun sinks below the trees and the sky is flooded with tones of burning iron, that you will glimpse a beauty that has endured since Koh Trong rose from the river’s depths aeons ago, before the memory of man.

But all that is still before you. Now, swaying with the current in the creaking ribs of the ferry, you watch as the blue tiles of the restaurant, the shimmering spires of the pagodas, the fading roofs of Kratie’s ageing colonial outposts lose their clamour and colour and join the rest of the outside world in blurry irrelevance. Now, as your boat glides silently into the shallows, you can give yourself over to stillness.

Mother Mekong: (clockwise from top) a pilot steers his boat through dolphin feeding grounds; a ferry waits to depart for Koh Trong; a pod of Cambodia’s elusive Irrawaddy dolphins; the sun rises over the rice fields of Koh Trong; farmers bathe their cattle as the sun sinks over Kratie

The island of Koh Trong is a snatch of rural Cambodian life largely undisturbed by the baggage of modernity that lies heavy upon the cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Ox-carts clunk along dry dirt roads weaving between fields of new rice. Rows of wooden houses line the winding lanes of the island, sheltered behind home-grown groves and gardens tended by local villagers. Koh Trong is no mere Potemkin village; aside from the occasional tuk tuk sputtering between the trees, the residents go about their daily lives with refreshingly little concern for the beaming tourists trundling about on fixed-gear bicycles.

Rows of wooden houses line the winding lanes of the island, sheltered behind home-grown groves and gardens tended by local villagers

Although the island offers a number of humble homestays and a smattering of boutique hotels, the undisputed leader in luxury is Rajabori Villas. Around the azure expanse of the pool, a cluster of traditional Khmer villas celebrates the Kingdom’s ancient architectural heritage. One expansive villa painstakingly recreates an old wooden house spotted in the shadow of an old pagoda elsewhere in the province. The original has since been torn down – only its echo remains here, its spires rising towards the heavens behind a garden of native ferns and flowers.

Inside, each villa is an intimate exploration of the cultures and traditions that have risen and fallen through Cambodian history: a sacred naga carved from driftwood gazes longingly at a threshold etched with golden Chinese characters; delicate wooden webbing skitters across window frames awash with fading painted flowers. A low-slung shrine with a kneeling black Buddha draped in finery greets you in the outer room. On the walls, old posters and paintings proclaim Cambodia’s forgotten splendour – in one, King Sisowath watches his royal dancers in the ruins of Angkor, in a Kingdom now changed beyond all recognition.

At the reception by the restaurant, bar and boutique store, guests can arrange to enjoy the sights and sounds of Koh Trong in style. The best way to see the island by day is on a bicycle, which is freely available at the door; travellers can weave through the winding tracks of the island at their leisure, shaded from the sun by arching bamboo groves that meet in the sky above you like cathedral walls, the sun staining their leaves a rich emerald.

As the wind plays with your hair, you will pass through the ever-changing motion of village life: a flock of floating houses drifting just beyond the shore, roofs rich with painted patterns; a Vietnamese pagoda, where the goddess of compassion offers her gentle benediction to the reverent river; a gaggle of men and boys leaping around a volleyball pitch under the sombre gaze of white cattle. At twilight, a horse-drawn cart – available for $10 a ride – will be waiting by the ferry to usher you around the island’s western shore. Pulling a ripe mango apart with your teeth, you will take your first steps onto the white sands, and the setting sun will fix you in its eye.

From the decks of a fading old fishing boat, the streaming waters of the Mekong shiver with light

Back on the mainland, the sleepy town of Kratie still bears traces of the decades of French colonial legacy. At Le Tonlé, hungry guests will find an imaginative blend of Western and Cambodian cuisine, served in rustic style beneath hanging palm fronds touched by the rising wind. Weaving through the vibrant market streets of the old city, travellers spot fading signs of antiquity. Over the din of vendors hawking fish, fruit and fowl, we spot a crumbling tower standing high above the crowd. Up three flights of shadowed stairs, the darkness gives way to a domed spire now forgotten by the town it watched over for decades; in its shade, a single rooster scratches meaningless vowels into the dust, waiting for its next fight.

No visit to Kratie can be complete without a half-hour drive up to Kampi, where some of the last of Cambodia’s critically endangered river dolphins make their home. In the early days of the dry season, when the river curls in on itself, these sleek animals can still be found cavorting in the river’s heart.

Past lives: (clockwise from top) the bustling streets of Kratie’s old town; Rajabori Villas on the island of Koh Trong; a horse and cart makes its way across the island; the tasteful serenity of Rajabori Villas by night

Driving along the red clay banks of the Mekong past towering groves of bamboo, we weave around wedding tents resplendent in scarlet and white to reach Kampi, where the Irrawaddy dolphins feast and frolic in the pools where the river’s waters forget their urgency and laze around the leaves of sunken trees. For $9 a person, a local guide will usher you onto his boat and take you into the river to watch the dolphins at play. Once plentiful in these waters, the Irrawaddy dolphin has grown increasingly scarce – now, there are barely more than 90. In three years, our grizzled guide tells us as he rests his sun-browned foot on the tiller of his boat, there has been just one pup born to these local families – and too many have ended their lives coiled in the razor-thin nets of native fishermen. 

From the decks of a fading old fishing boat, the streaming waters of the Mekong shiver with light. Clenched around the tiller, our pilot cuts the engine and the murmur of the current rushes in to fill the silence. We don’t have to wait long. A grey sliver of life breaks through the water’s stillness, a heartbeat of motion against the tide. Soon we are surrounded, drifting listlessly with the current as a family of dolphins surges against the river, their breath curled just on the edge of hearing. You don’t see much: forget the leaping lengths of grey flesh frozen on every poster between Kratie and Kampi. But there is peace to be found here, and joy, in the effortless trembling of the water bent beneath the arching bodies of some of Cambodia’s last remaining river dolphins.

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