Up in the jungles of Kratie, on the lesser traveled side of the Mekong, a novel experiment in tourism is under way. Called the Mekong Discovery Trail, the plan promotes getting tourists off the well-trodden path, exposing them to the undiscovered awe of northern Cambodia, and delivering some of the promises of tourism to a swath of the country still waiting to cash in.
Awe is not mere hyperbole. The trail runs through the provinces of Kratie and Stung Treng, and it includes the “famous” Kampi dolphin pools, the flooded forests of Stung Treng and the breathtaking Khone falls.
Yet for all the region’s abundance of natural beauty, the project is not without some major hurdles.
Koh Trong has the trappings of an idyllic tropical island. But it’s nowhere near the sea. To get there, you must drive five hours north from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to the town of Kratie, along a potholed road scattered with oxen, bicycles, chickens and children. When you reach Kratie, find the concrete staircase leading to a makeshift boat dock.
Hold your breath as you walk the brittle plank to the old wooden ferry that will cross the Mekong River, here a swathe of murky brown water gliding towards the sea. Bring some patience: the ferry will leave only when it is full.
Safely on the other side, cross the beach and clamber onto the back of a motorbike taxi driven by a jovial middle-aged woman wearing pastel pyjamas. Your luggage can go on the front of the bike, or between you and the driver. Just hold on tight as she negotiates the “road” – a thin path of bamboo sticks suspended over the sinking sand.
And that’s just to get there. As might be expected, Koh Trong offers no running water — or electricity or hotels or restaurants or any other trappings of modern industrialized life. The only place to stay is with the locals. Amenities are sparse. Mosquito nets and public bathing are the norm.
Clearly, the Mekong Discovery Trail is not aimed at the average traveler. But if you’re adventurous, your own private Cambodia is there waiting for discovery.