Under the watchful eyes of Jedi communists
Whether you’re an Axe-saturated teen on a date or a developing Northern Cambodian river town, first impressions matter. Seeing that Todd and I have arrived in Kratie, Cambodia after several days in Laos’ 4,000 Islands – days without electricity, hot water, or pavement – Kratie should have triumphed simply from the advantage of unfair comparison.
Surprisingly, the grass is not much greener on the Cambodian side of the Laotian-Cambodian border (to be fair, there’s not a whole lot of grass in either place). From the little I’ve seen so far, I can already tell that it will be a challenge to suss out what life’s like in Cambodia.
Before this round-the-world trip, I had thought of Southeast Asia as a monolithic thing – that the countries would be fairly similar due to their proximity and shared political turmoil. Cambodia has had more than it’s fair share of grief, even compared to some other countries in the region. Yet, that doesn’t quite explain the little weird things going on here.
Primary colored, cartoon character-speckled pajama sets are inexplicably popular as all-day wear for village women and kids. Motorbikes carrying a whole family, farm animals, or both are bullied off the road by showy silver Lexus SUVs stickered with foot-high logos, both speeding down roads paved like a three-year old would ice a cake. Kratie’s local market is intimidatingly rustic – even for street food savvy travelers like me and Todd – not least of all because of the conspicuous many-hours-old pile of fish guts, chicken feathers, and skin bits from a menagerie of creatures, itself a funky island surrounded by a puddle of blood and stagnant water. Ubiquitous billboards promote a trio of communist leaders, their figures shown floating against a blue background and surrounded by a glowing halo, resembling the end scene of Return of the Jedi where Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, and Obi-wan’s ghosts return to check out the Ewok-Rebellion rave.
Even in small Kratie, Cambodia’s notorious corruption is evident. At the area’s main tourist attraction, a half an hour boat ride to see the Mekong River’s critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins costs $9 US a person. In a country where one-third of the population makes less than $1 per day – you’d imagine this price and plight would garner a well maintained tourist spot, employing local people, with informative displays about the future of the freshwater dolphin.
In reality, the Irrawaddy tour spot is a shabby gravel parking lot edged with a few tchotchke touts and a bunch of napping boatmen. The site’s poor reputation has made it so under-visited that high school kids use the riverside benches as a place to illicitly hold hands and touch knees. Little of the admission fee seems to make it to locals to try to give them reason to help protect the few dolphins left.
But, unlike our two tigerless safari rides into Ranthambore Park, India, this time Todd and I actually see the animal attraction. As our boatman begins to paddle away from shore, we’ve already spotted the dorsal fins of a half dozen dolphins breaking the river’s surface. It’s an increasingly rare sight – pollution and inbreeding are quickly killing the less than 90 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong River. It’s foreseeable that in less than a decade, the last dolphins will die out in Cambodia, leaving Kratie without its “it.”
As Todd and I bike the long miles back to town, we roll past small homes atop stilts, leaving plenty of room beneath for super-sized hogs and the inevitable roosters. We sidetrack to a Buddhist temple, hauling up a long flight of stairs to gawk at a series of graphic Hell murals, painted with more attention to the nude female body than is usually seen in Buddhist art.
My legs are shaky from our 20 mile ride on gearless bikes and my hands are shaking from hunger. Exhausted, we make our final stop at a riverside vendor for some sauce-slathered pork skewers, thick segments of sour pomelo we dip in chili salt, and krolan, a mix of sticky rice, beans, and coconut cooked inside a bamboo tube. As we scarf our food with a view of the sun beginning its pastel descent over the Mekong, I have no thoughts of the future or of the past. Just of here and now.
If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.