Oh Delicious River Dolphin

Just kidding, we didn’t eat the rare Irrawady river dolphin, but we did get a glimpse of the cute stubby-headed mammals while we plied our way up the Mekong river from northern Cambodia into the 4000 islands of Southern Laos.

Cortney and I “bussed it” from our two week home at Siem Reap to the rarely traveled wilds of north east Cambodia. No western food, no western toilets, no westerners. Well, there were a few, but not many.

We encountered the dolphins twice. First, in a small river town called Kratie (pronounced Krachae.) We left our four dollar a night hotel and took a moto bike down the highway to the river’s edge. Here we hired a boat driver to propel us a few hundred yards over to the dolphins’ fishing grounds. After several minutes we heard a slow sneezing sound, and then a gray head appeared up river. There they were, we had just seen one of only 800 Irrawady dolphins that are left in the world. Only about 80 remain in the Mekong. They aren’t like flipper, they are shy and rarely swim near the boats. This is probably the only reason they are not extinct. When the locals stopped hunting them thirty years ago, the dolphins were still getting trapped in nets and run over by outboard motors. They remain one of the most endangered mammals in the world.

Our next encounter was anything but rare. At a rest stop we purchased our first of many bamboo sticky rice tubes, called Kao Lam. It’s the perfect roadside snack. Sticky rice, coconut milk, and mung bean are packed into a bamboo tube and sealed, before being cooked over an open fire. The best part is that you eat these delicious snacks by peeling back the bamboo, strip by strip, tearing away chunks of rice as you go. Cheap, organic, and portable.

Go Laos My Friend
It was time to hit the wilds of Laos. Another dusty bus ride, another bamboo border crossing and we were at the junction of backwoods and the boonies. Although mostly remote, there is a popular area with tourists and its called the 4000 Islands. The watery spot sits in the middle of the Mekong and comprises thousands of small islands and a few large ones. It’s over-run with a species we named – the party packer.

The party packer seeks out sunny destinations that offer cheap beer and plenty of hammocks. They have baggy pants, bad dreadlocks, and tell you how “amazing” everything is. Hippies with iPods. We heard stories that the 4000 Islands were divided into one island with these creatures and another island with old European couples. “Shit, which ones are we?”

We chose the European oldy island. It was okay but a little pricey for cheap bungalows, and the beautiful river scenery was wasted by mediocre restaurants and hostels hastily crammed together on the riverfront. These drawbacks aside, the island still had some fun activities, such as a full day of kayaking down the Mekong. We signed up and our one day paddling trip took us past crooked trees, under giant water falls, and into the breeding grounds of the northern pod of Irrawady dolphins. The excursion revealed the true islands, unspoiled by geriatric Europe or hipster party packer.

To sum up our 4000 islands experience – accommodations and conversation: mediocre. Scenery and sunsets: “amazing,” Wait, does that make us hippy party packers? Screw it, let’s have another tube of bamboo sticky rice.