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There are a couple of places in Southeast Asia where it's possible to see the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins in their natural habitat. One of the most reliable is in the Mekong river near Kampi - a town a few kilometers north of Kratié, Cambodia.
If you don't know what Irrawaddy Dolphins are.... no worries. I didn't either.
Irrawaddy Dolphins are brackish water dolphins. They are incredibly cute, and look like mini beluga whales.
This post will be your guide to Kratié & Kampi, as well as taking a tour to see the irrawaddy dolphins.
This is also the post where I tip my hat to wildlife photographers. It took me about 10 minutes of photographing rare dolphins to realize I had no clue what I was doing.
Instantly, my vision of capturing a dolphin playfully breaching the Mekong River dissipated. To anyone who has ever captured a lion hunting or monkey howling ....well done.
WHAT TO DO IN KRATIÉ, CAMBODIA :
Kratié is much bigger than Kampi, where the dolphin tours are actually located (ie: Kratié is a town and Kampi isn't). Most people spend the night in Kratié, and travel to Kampi in the morning to see the dolphins.
It is very easy to find companies online offering "dolphin tours" from Kratié. However, if I have learned one thing from booking tours online in SE Asia... it would be don't.
You can usually figure out the "tour" on your own by hiring a driver for much cheaper.
If you're in town to see the dolphins, it is worth your time to spend a full day or two in Kratié, as it is a special place.
Kratié is bustling in a very Cambodia-esque way. There are tuk-tuks cutting off motorbikes which are cutting off vendors. Naked children screaming at you from store fronts. Motorbikes gently nudging you at market stalls as their drivers pull up beside you. Perpetual honking. No good place to stand. Southeast Asia.
Kratié is not a huge town, but it has a pulse of its own - at least until around 10pm, when the entire place flatlines. The dirt roads give it a very 'wild, wild west' feel. It has beautiful colonial homes (also coated in dirt), with balconies providing front row seats to the chaos unfolding below.
One of the few things to do in Kratié is to take a short ferry ride across the river to Koh Trong Island. A lot of people also spend an extra night on Koh Trong.
Restaurants and food.... well... there really isn't anything of note. Your guesthouse will most likely have a restuarant, and it will be as good as any. I suggest finding some cheap street food.
There is a street market that looks like other Cambodian street markets. The street next to it sells produce, meat, and some prepared street food. Mostly it is a great place to people watch.
GETTING TO KRATIÉ: Any hostel or guesthouse can book you bus tickets to Kratié, or you can find them online, departing from any major hub.
Now, onto the dolphins!
GETTING TO KAMPI:
Every single guest house in Kratié offers deals for tuk-tuk or motorbike rides to Kampi to see the dolphins.
Truthfully, any person in Kratié will offer you a ride to see the dolphins.
Lonely Planet says it should cost around $10 round trip, but I paid $15 because my trip also included a stop at 100 Column Pagoda (kinda worth it), and Phnom Sambok (definitely worth it). The entire trip lasted about 4 hours, and $15 felt fair. A tuk-tuk will cost around $20, but if you have more people, you can split the cost to make it will be cheaper. You can also rent a motorbike for yourself.
Your driver will drop you off at the front of the dolphin center. I suggest getting there as early as possible. I arrived at 8:30AM and I was the first person there for the day. Once the other people start coming, they don't stop.
It costs $9 for 60 mins of dolphin viewing in the dry season, and 90 in the wet season. The best time to view the dolphins is early morning or late afternoon in the dry season. You hop in a large, motorized boat and head out 10 mins into the center of the Mekong River.
Pretty much instantly you will start seeing dolphins, especially if you are the first boat there for the day. Now, don't expect these dolphins to be balancing balls on their nose and doing flips in the air. Irrawaddy dolphins do not behave like this. They rarely breach the water. If you see them roll of and put a fin in the air, you should consider yourself lucky.
Mostly, they just come up for breath. You will probably hear them before you see them. The experience is incredible. They travel in pods of about 2 or 3, and it is always fun seeing where they come up, wait, and then being surprised a few moments later when they have swam behind you or over to another boat. Even as a non-ecologist, non-dolphin fanatic, it was well worth the trip to see these rare dolphins in their natural habitat.
THE SAD TRUTH:
The Irrawaddy dolphins are classified as a critically endangered species. There are less than 80 dolphins living in the Mekong River (though several thousand live in the Bay of Bengal).
While it was fun to view the dolphins, I couldn't help but to feel... guilty. The dolphins clearly hate the boats, and fled anytime we came close. Our drivers often chased them down and circled them, just so we, the tourists, could take a picture.
It is known that Irrawaddy Dolphins do not like boats. They do not bow ride and are very sensitive to sound. Loud noises (such as those coming from motors), can seriously harm or potentially kill them.
We by NO MEANS rowed out quietly to observe the dolphins. Three gigantic boats, each holding 1-2 people chased them down with loud motors. The motors were only cut when we were a few meters from the dolphins. The people in the three boats could have easily fit into one boat. Heck, double the amount of people out there could have fit into one boat.... and yet we took three?
Tourism poses a large threat for the already endangered Irrawaddy Dolphins. As word of this opportunity spreads, I fear for their safety. If I could do it again, I would kayak out to the dolphins. It is more money, but a much more sustainable way to see them. I encourage you consider it as well.
UPDATE 2018: Some baby dolphins were discovered in Kampi in late 2016... woohooo!
If you have more questions about this experience, please feel free to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. More information on Irrawaddy Dolphins can be found on the WWF website, where you can even adopt a dolphin (*wink, nudge* mom and dad, Christmas).
Click to read: I Didn't Drive a Motorbike in Southeast Asia - Here's why
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