Crossing the border from Laos to Cambodia went pretty smooth, except for a childishly obvious bus scam that we totally fell for, somewhere in the middle of reassuring ourselves how swift we are. While we were waiting to be picked up from Nakasang, a big bus appeared at the stop and, as expected when there’s a huge group of disoriented people, chaos ensued. The only person seemingly knowing what to do was a bus company representative, checking the tickets and directing people to the right places – an obvious source of information. As we slowly moved forward, he asked us to show our tickets, only to quickly replace them with small, pink passes from an entirely different company. According to their reputation – one of the worst companies in Laos. Apparently, all places in the big bus were already taken, so we got pushed and squeezed into a tiny, shaky minibus with no damper. Luckily, the questionable fun lasted for a couple of hours only, but then, right after the border, our (new!) bus from the same company turned out to be the one that left last, about an hour later than all the others. Then it proceeded to wait for more passengers in a different place, and as it slowly filled up, the luggage space became non-existent and the last “lucky” travelers got to spend some time with their 60L backpacks on their laps.
When we finally arrived in Kratie, we quickly discovered that indeed, these areas are not as developed as the rest of the country and there’s really not much to do. We’d love to write something about exploring the unexplored and connecting with the locals, but the truth is that for us, the city itself was just uninteresting and grey, and lacked anything interesting or unique. The only thing we did during our short stay was dolphin watching, mostly because we’ve heard that the boat operators are trained on how to conduct the trips without disrupting the animals. Sadly, that’s not entirely true. While the dolphin tourism has a big impact on the interest in their case, it’s probably not that great when it comes to the ones it’s supposed to promote and protect. There’s still too many boats and some of them don’t give enough space to the dolphins, so if we were to do it again, even though our boat was perfectly fine, we’d rather choose watching them from the shore. On the other hand, using their services might bring enough money to the venture to put more into the education and conservation… but you never know where your donations end up. That’s a dilemma you have to solve for yourself, or, like our newly met bus-friends Kate and Ruan, rent a kayak and do the exploring on your own. If dolphins don’t interest you (and that’s officially Kratie’s no.1 attraction), you can still swim around or visit the neighbouring island – Kaoh Trong – and discover the rural side of Cambodia.
After two or three days in Kratie, we moved on to Kampong Thom.
While it’s almost impossible to find a direct transport between these two towns, you can easily book a place in a bus going to Siem Reap and then remind your driver to stop at Kampong Thom after 3-4 hours. Red Sun Falling, a restaurant / cafe on the main draw, sells the tickets for a pretty good price.
Kampong Thom turned out to be a bigger, even less picturesque town than Kratie, with restaurants serving us vegetables full of larvae (and no, it wasn’t officially a part of the menu). Still, despite a pretty bad first impression, the place easily defended itself with an access to the beautiful, almost empty ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, predating Angkor Wat by more than 200 years. While the complex (divided into three sites) is not as stunning and well-preserved as some of the temples around Siem Reap, it’s still well worth visiting, especially because it’s much, much less crowded and you can feel like a proper explorer if you go wandering in the woods by yourself (there’s also an option of hiring a local guide, but we wanted to be on our own).
You could probably find more attractions in these two places, but for us this was the time of a slow food poisoning recovery and calming down after a bit too fast travels through Vietnam and Laos. For this purpose, both places were alright, but a bit too bland, except for the ruins. It was definitely one of the opportunities to embrace the non-spectacular and slightly boring side of travel – at least we’ve watched a couple of movies and finally regained our health (only to lose it soon afterwards, but that’s another story).