I love dolphins, with their playful inquisitive nature, I call them the dogs of the sea. So when we read about the rare freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins in the Mekong River, Cambodia we just had to investigate. There are two ways you can go and see the dolphins, on a tourist boat or by kayaking, guess which one we chose?
James tracked down Sorya Kayaking in Kratie and their half day dolphin tour. The owner Pete, is an expat Kiwi, so after days of travelling speaking pidgin English we could chat easily with him. He gave us a bit of background on the dolphins over the most delicious homemade gingerbread and coffee.
The Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit a 190km stretch of the Mekong river from Kratie to the border with Lao. With a population of around 80 and only having a baby every three years, the Irrawaddy are on the critically endangered list. There is a pod of about 20 in the Mekong just north of Kratie because of deep pools in the river here. Dolphin equation: deep pools = bigger fish. Pete warns us that unlike our friendly Pacific dolphins, these little river dolphins are notoriously shy. Tourist equation: shy dolphins = not great photos = google search for picture.
After coffee we climb into the back of the truck with our kayaks and fellow paddlers for the journey up the river. The drive is part of the fun, through rural communities hugging the shores of the mighty Mekong. James nearly falls out of the truck trying to get photos of the rustic timber houses set high on stilts. Some of these “old” houses have their dates on the front, 2002 was the oldest we found. We pick up our guide, Lucky, along the way and now we are all set for our paddling adventure.
I am delighted to see that the kayaks are two person jobs, as my boy is an excellent steerer, come paddler. I am an excellent photographer I remind him, as I leap (stumble verge on falling) into the front seat of the kayak. We start paddling out, the current is quite strong and it guides us down the river through flooded forests to an island in the middle. The landscape here, like so much of Cambodia, is flat and the Mekong is wide and brown and I really hope I don’t end up taking a dip in it. There is something quite magical about being out kayaking on one of the great rivers of the world. We have this stretch of it to ourselves and we can enjoy the butterflies, birds and the silence of the river.
We moor on one of the “sand” islands and as we scramble out of our kayaks we immediately sink ankle deep in mud. Once up on firm ground Lucky hands around our mid-kayak snacks. There is rice cooked in young bamboo stems which is utterly delicious, and then some lychees to finish. Lucky stands watching the water for signs of dolphins, when he sees movement we pile back in our kayaks and head off.
There are two small tourist boats milling around the dolphin area, but in our kayaks we feel so superior. We see quite a few dolphins but as we paddle closer they move further away. A bit of a game of cat and mouse on river ensues. James takes up paddling full time and I watch the scene through the camera, finger poised. Shall we just say that I took a lot of excellent shots of the river. So you just have to believe me when I say we did see dolphins. Judging by the quality of my camera skills and the look on James’ face, I think I am going to end up paddling next kayaking adventure!
Tips for Kayaking with Dolphins on the Mekong
We did this tour with Sorya Kayaking, whom we would thoroughly recommend. Do wear your swimmers because we could have gone swimming had it been a nicer day. Nearly did have a swim when we got a bit close to a submerged tree! You have to be fairly fit to enjoy this trip, there’s a good bit of jumping in and out of kayaks. But as the current does most of the work you don’t have to be an olympic kayaker. I must stress that these dolphins aren’t show-offs like our Pacific ones, so getting a good photo is a challenge. Dolphin photos aside we had a brilliant morning paddling on the Mekong.
We did this trip in early November at the end of the wet season when the river was high. If you did it in drier months you would see more river islands and less flooded forest.
For more general tips see Cambodia My top 20 tips