It wasn't our first choice of destination in Cambodia however Kratie does have the fresh water Irrawaddy dolphins and, more importantly, was our base for some charity work with ActionAid. We already sponsor a child in Mozambique and wanted to do the same in Cambodia. Before doing so, we asked ActionAid if we could visit their project(s) in the country and they suggested a visit to Kratie.
The 6-hour bus journey from Phnom Penh was accompanied with DVD after DVD of Cambodian karaoke. One of the disks appeared to have the Cambodian equivalent of the Chuckle Brothers taking a starring role. We can report that it was, to our surprise, less funny than the UK equivalent. We didn't think this was possible. Bring back the Chuckles, all is forgiven!!! The relentless out of tune singing on the DVDs sent Mark to sleep (or was it a coma). Unfortunately, this didn't last for long as a laptop bag fell out of the rack across the aisle hitting him on the head and shoulder. The women across the aisle apologised (well we think that was what she was saying in Khmer) and then continued to tuck into her bag of fried cockroaches!!!
We were the only non-Cambodians on the bus and kept getting stares from the locals. We weren't sure if it was because of our skin or the fact that we were bothering to go to Kratie. Anyway, we arrived in town after navigating through the free-for-all of mopeds, cars, buses, dogs, cows, oxen and people that were all vying for space on the road. We had already booked a guest house but as we approached it looked closed as it was pretty dark. Then again, the whole street looked pretty dark. It transpires that the local power station had been struck by lightening the day before. Only a few buildings had lights on as they had invested in back-up generators. We decided not to bother with the Balcony Guest House and moved instead to the Oudom Sambath Hotel (which was cheaper) as they had a generator. Fortunately for us, it also turned out to be where the ActionAid coordinator was staying.
That evening, we met up with Chhonn from ActionAid; you couldn't meet a nicer guy. We had dinner and were chatting for ages. This was the start of a good friendship. The next day we were up early as a taxi had been booked to take us to a remote school about 30km away. ActionAid were working with the school and local families to try to improve education standards and attendance levels. Most children in Cambodia start working early as they need to generate money to help their parents and the wider family. Consequently, with jobs in the fields needing to be done, education has sadly taken a back seat.
We walked outside the hotel and Chhonn announced that our taxi was waiting. We walked to the road and could only see a beaten up old car. Perhaps the taxi had just left? No, that was our taxi for the day!!! We got in to find that the seats and ceiling cloth were all ripped up. It looked like the last passenger was either Freddie Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films or Edward Scissorshands. The car was a right mess and only being held together by the rust. Anyway, somehow it managed to get us to the school. We arrived to find 35 kids and a few adults starring at us. I don't think they have ever seen a white face (red in Mark's case). That morning we taught the children some English and drew pictures of animals. The idea was to teach the children English words by pointing to the ears, eyes, legs etc of our drawings. The main problem was neither of our pictures looked remotely like the creatures we were suppose to draw (Lisa a cow/ Mark a buffalo)!!! To create a bit of healthy competition, Chhonn suggested we had to learn the same words but in Khmer. As embarrassing as it is to admit, the children were better than us!!! They kept laughing at our pronunciations. We felt like a couple of right losers. Anyway, we had loads of fun and so did the kids. The morning ended with us giving the children some sweets and saying our goodbyes. We had lunch and then moved on to a second school in the afternoon. This school seemed to be better run and, like the first school, we got the chance to speak with the head. The children (about 55 this time) were just as adorable and, through Chhonn's translation, said they really enjoyed being at school. It looks like the work that ActionAid and the local NGO (Non Government Organisation) was beginning to work. Education standards had reached rock bottom after the Khmer Rouge ruled the country so there is a lot of work to be done.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the river side, jumped in a boat and went to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. Mark had his camera poised for some amazing action shots. Now, either the dolphins were a bit lazy or the photos we had seen in brochures had some serious photo editing software enhancements. Either way the dolphins certainly weren't jumping 20 feet out of the water. We still managed to get a few shots though. We were pretty wet by the time we got back to the taxi as it rained for the entire boat journey. We arrived back in Kratie to find that there was still no power in the town.
On day 2, we had a better taxi which took us along some terrible mud roads, knee deep with water from the relentless rain the day and night before. The driver had to keep jumping out to check the depth of the water by standing in it before charging through with his car. We were 2km shy of the village we were due to visit before our luck ran out. There was no way the car could go any further so we had to walk. At the village, we learnt about the work that was being done to stop companies taking land from the locals. Many "deals" had been struck by these companies with the local Government without asking the local villagers. The upshot was that the corporations were basically taking away all of the land, and with it the livelihoods, from the villagers. It was really interesting speaking to the village chief through Chhonn and understanding what was happening and how the charity was helping them. This was the second village chief we had met during the charity work.
During our time with ActionAid, we also got to see some of the crops that had been grown by the villagers with help from the charity who were giving advice on how to best use the land. We also went to the home of a local NGO worker and met her family. It was a great experience which reinforced our wish to donate money to help the people we met. Cambodians really are the nicest people you will ever meet; they are rich in personality but poor in wealth and assets. Their warmth and friendliness shone through despite the hardship they have to endure.
The rest of our time in Kratie consisted of checking out the town, which had little to offer, and trying to get around the streets at night with no electricity. The power still wasn't working when we left the town bound for Phnom Penh. To make matters worse, our laptop went wrong big time. The screen kept corrupting which made typing a nightmare. This has continued to delay our blog to the extent that we are considering sending the laptop back to the UK and investing in a small laptop notepad.
Few tourists venture to Kratie but we are so glad we did. It was now time to go back to the capital city......this time by taxi rather than bus. No karaoke DVDs.....yippee!!!