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Text and pictures by Bernhard Heiser

    Part 5:  Up the Mekong to Kampong Cham, Kratie and Stung Treng
For the next few days I plan to go up the Mekong to explore the north-eastern part of the country. I have to wait about an hour at the Phnom Penh Sorya bus terminal (near the central market, psah thmay). All buses are completely booked out today as everyone is going back after the waterfestival now. I take the modern, french aircon bus at 10.30 am (6.000R), run by the Malaysian Ho Wah Genting company. We reach Kampong Cham in only two hours on a really good road. I enjoy my little snack at the riverfront (picture) and take a room in the huge Mekong Hotel (5$, TV, aircon, clean, almost no guests).
The piers in the picture above belong to a Japanese bridge project, the second bridge in Cambodia spanning the Mekong. 
I take a nap in my new room and then walk over to the market. It offers a rich choice of food and other household articles.  I walk on and pass  some beautiful french colonial villas. The dinner in the Hoa An restaurant is disappointing. The town is very quiet at night, nightlife only consists of a few karaoke bars with integrated brothels. I go back early and spend the evening reading.
I enjoy sunrise from the terrace and have breakfast in the hotel. After only a short trip by moto I reach Wat Nokor, a 11th century sandstone temple with many stupas and artificial lakes in a little park. The main temple hall is decorated with colourful paintings (picture). Our next stop is at Phnom Srey, a little hill with a temle on top. Fresh wind is blowing in my face and I enjoy the good view over the flat surrounding landscape with the brown waters of the Mekong at the horizon.
I put a few hundred riels into the donation box and walk down the naga-decorated stairs. Back in Kampong Cham I check out transportation for tomorrow. There is no direct bus or taxi service to Kratie, the road is too bad.

For the afternoon I plan to go to the other riverside. By moto it's easy to drive around the big bridge building site. 

The car ferry takes me over the Mekong and I start my walk along the riverside.
I pass the bridge and the old, dilapidated french observation tower (not worth a photo). Many people walk along this narrow path returning to their homes.

Little houseboats and fishing boats in the warm evening sun.
After a spectacular sunset I don't want to walk back the whole way and I'm not sure if the ferry is still in service. A fisherman with his small daughter  gives me a lift back across the river in one of the small boats.

In the evening I meet Willi again and we agree on taking the speedboat to Kratie the next morning.

The next day. Our speedboat leaves on time at 7.30 am after blowing the horn for a couple of minutes. The fare is 15.000 R for the 4,5 hours trip. We sit down on the roof and relax in the cool breeze. The Mekong landscape isn't too exciting on this lower part of the river. However, the trip is interesting with a few short stops in little villages. We reach the boat landing in Kratie at 11.00 am (left boat in the picture).
We choose the Star Guesthouse as our new home. They offer huge and clean rooms for 4$. A little walk  south along the riverside takes us to another little village. In a Wat we spend about an hour talking with three monks who show us around in their temple. One of the  temples is already 200 years old and a little bit run-down but still spreads a mystic atmosphere. Willi speaks a quite good Thai and we are surprised how many people here know at least a few words of their neighbour's language.

The woman in the picture sells "Kubik" (?), a traditional meal with rice.

Back in town we watch a funeral procession. With a police pick-up and armed soldiers in front, a large number of people and some cars do a round trip through Kratie. The last opportunity for everyone to say goodbye to the ashes of the dead man.
At the riverfront the most beautiful girls of Kratie sell delicious food and fruit shakes (picture). 
Across the street there is the restaurant 30.December, where we have dinner part II. My chicken with noodles, vegetables and much chilli is excellent. The friendly woman who owns the restaurant speaks good french. On benches at the riverfront locals sit and watch the sunset.
Kratie is a small and relaxed little town with 60.000 people living here. Although smaller, it reminds me at Luang Prabang in Laos (see my last trip). Definitly a place I want to come back some day. 
At the evening I read an old report about a dangerous boat expedition on the Mekong to the Laotian border some years ago (see "Overland Laos to Cambodia" in my Cambodia FAQ). I wonder if we can go there and if the conditions have changed now.

The next morning we get up at 5.30. A fresh baguette and a hot tea with lemon for breakfast and here we go. Tickets for the Stung Treng express boat are sold at the small harbour. We decide to take the "Seng Lee Travel" boat and pay 20.000 Riel. The boat leaves short before seven and we go inside this time. The boat is smaller and slower than the day before. Further upstream the Mekong splits into several arms and the landscape is getting more and more fascinating.

Later we take our usual place on the rooftop. Around noon the sun gets incredibly strong. When will we finally arrive? We pass little islands, rapids and huge rocks. After more than seven hours we can see the little town of Stung Treng at the confluence of the Mekong and the Sekong river (Tonle San). After negotiating the price down to 7$, we decide to share a double room in the Hotel Sekong. Must have been a busy place when the UNTAC still was here. We go to the market and find a good place to have lunch (picture). We have much fun joking around with the two girls who run the stall.
Today we have breakfast in the restaurant "Angkor" south of the market. Then I go to the little office of Royal Air Cambodge and make a reservation for the tomorrow flight to PP (49$). I simply write my name in a little book, that's it. I can see that I'm passenger No. 5 on that flight. After a long search we suceed in renting private bicycles from locals. Number one (brand-new) is from a family with a little child, who always shouted an extremely loud "hello" when we passed by before, so they already knew us. The owner of my bike is an old barber, who has first to be convinced by his son. We agree on 5.000 R per day, they don't ask for names or papers. We drive to the confluence of the two big rivers and then turn south. The small, unpaved road is quite good and we pass numerous little villages at the border of the Mekong. We stop in a village after 10 km ride and have a walk to a nearby lake in the jungle. Nothing special, but a very nice walk there.
We return the same way along the ricepaddies (picture) and make another stop at a "coffee-bar", a simple wooden roadside shack. The Vietnamese guy sitting next to me spent a long time as a forest worker in Germany, less than 20 km away from the place where I live. We have an interesting conversation, he invites us for the drinks.
We stop again at the viewpoint at the Tonle San river to watch a spectacular thunderstorm approaching before we go back and return the bikes. 
This evening we have a good claypot dinner in a restaurant near the hospital.
My flight is at 3 pm, so we have almost another day in Stung Treng. We're up early in the morning and take the ferry across the Mekong (600 R) to Thala. We wander about the village, pass the sandstone ox in front of a temple, little shops (picture), visit a school and finally return to the ferry. The road looks more like a little river after the strong rainfall yesterday. No problem for this oxcart (picture below). 
Back in Stung Treng, we have lunch at our favorite market foodstall. Then we return to the hotel and I pack my stuff. We can borrow the motorbike from the hotel to go to the airport. The guy from the neighboring room wants to go with us, so we are three and a big backpack on a small honda, no problem. We find the very basic airport just a few kilometers outside. We wait outside. The plane is late, but finally appears in the sky above us. There must be important passengers on board, many people are waiting, including photographers and  little girls with flowers in their hands. I say goodbye to Willi and walk over to the aircraft, a French 60-seat ATR 72. With only a handful passengers we start our flight over endless jungle and large flooded areas. Two hours later I find myself on the backseat of a moto heading to Phnom Penh city.

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