Cycling the Mekong Discovery Trail in Cambodia
This post is about the Mekong Discovery trail in Cambodia. The Mekong Discovery trail is a community based tourism initiative to promote the beautiful places along the Mekong river. The 180 kilometer trail runs from Kratie all the way up north to the border with Laos at Stung Treng.
The Mekong Discovery trail offers visitors a chance to experience the natural beauty, cultural heritage, and local life along the Mekong River. It includes a range of activities such as kayaking, cycling, trekking, and visiting historical and cultural sites. For me it was also a chance to discover a more quiet and less touristic part of Cambodia.
Why Cycle the Mekong Discovery Trail
The Mekong Discovery Trail was one of the highlights of my trip to Cambodia. Most of all, because it a rather quiet region that sees few visitors. But also the beautiful scenery, the picturesque islands and authentic rural villages where life revolves around the Mekong river.
The Mekong River is the cultural and spiritual heart of the country. Cambodians lived alongside the river for centuries as it has always been an important resource providing water for irrigation, agriculture and fishing. Even to this day, the Mekong defines life of the thousands of people living on its shores.
Unfortunately climate change and dam construction made life around the Mekong river more difficult. Water supply is not as reliable as before and at the same time floods are more common. The river communities in this region are unfortunately also one of the poorest in the country.
The Mekong Discovery trail project
The Mekong Discovery trail project was developed in 2006 by the Cambodian Tourism Office in collaboration with local communities, tourism operators, and government agencies. The idea is that tourism could be an additional source of income for the river communities along the Mekong.
The Mekong Discovery Trail project organized different activities such as kayaking, biking, traditional home stays, trekking, dolphin spotting and camping. Although funding stopped in 2012 many of these activities are still possible.
Adventure Travel Cambodia still offers a range of tours on the Mekong Discovery Trail. However, it is also easy to travel along the Mekong Discovery trail on your own like I did.
The best way to explore the Mekong Discovery trail is by bicycle or public transport. I chose to rent a bicycle in Kratie and cycled in one day to the scenic island of Koh Pdao where I stayed in a homestay. The next day I cycled back to Kratie and then took a bus to Stung Treng before c rossing the border to the 4000 islands in Laos.
The project managed to bring more attention to this part of Cambodia, but you are still traveling well off the beaten path making it a genuine and authentic experience. Below I will mention the things you can see along the way.
Things to see on the Mekong Discovery Trail
Kratie town is the gateway to the Mekong Discovery trail and a good place to start your adventure. It is an easygoing place with a number of good hotels and restaurants. There is not so much to see in the town itself and most people only come here to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.
I would recommend staying at least one or two nights in Kratie. Kratie has several agencies where you can rent your bicycle to cycle the Mekong Discovery Trail. After you arrange your bicycle you should not miss Koh Trong island, which is just opposite Kratie town.
From Kratie you can take the local boat to Koh Trong. A very peaceful island with farms, rice fields and beaches and wonderful views over the Mekong river. There is a 9 kilometer loop around the island that you can either hike or cycle.
The charm of the island is in its obvious slow pace of life. The moment you step on the island you feel the relaxed atmosphere. There is honestly not that much to do other than enjoying the beautiful rural scenery.
I visited Koh Trong on a day trip from Kratie before I started my cycle trip on the Mekong Discovery Trail. I liked the island a lot. If I had more time I would have liked to stay one night in one of the community based homestays.
Time: half day trip from Kratie with the possibility to stay overnight in a Khmer style homestay
Most people visit Kratie to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Irrawaddy dolphins are a species of toothed whale that inhabit shallow waters in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Mekong River. They are characterized by their unique rounded heads.
The population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River near Kratie, a town in northeastern Cambodia, is estimated to be around 92 individuals. They are considered to be critically endangered, with their population declining due to various threats, including habitat loss, pollution, and accidental entanglement in fishing gear.
A community-based ecotourism program has been established in Kratie, which offers visitors the opportunity to observe the dolphins from a distance and learn about their conservation. Kratie remains the best place in South east Asia to see freshwater dolphins.
There are several tour agencies in Kratie where you can book a dolphin tour, but you can also cycle on your own to the boat landing point in Kampi (11 km north of Kratie). There you can go with a wooden longboat into the river.
I saw several dolphins, but only for a short while when they quickly popped their round beak above the water. Still, it was a lovely experience to be on the Mekong river.
Sustainability: it’s important to respect the Irrawaddy dolphins and their habitat by following responsible ecotourism practices, such as keeping a safe distance from the animals and avoiding any activities that could disturb them. Ask your boat driver to turn off the motor once you are in the river.
Insider tip: the dry season is the best time to see the dolphins because of the low water level. The best time of day to see the dolphins is typically in the early morning or late afternoon.
Time: boat tours at Kampi take about one hour
Not too far from Kampi are a series of rapids in the river that are very popular among the locals. They come here to relax and swim in the river. In the dry season there are wooden platforms above the Kampi rapids where you can buy street food and souvenirs.
When you are cycling the Mekong Discovery trail it makes a great stop for a small break. Buy a drink and a snack and enjoy the rapids. I did not bring my bathing suit, but a dip in the river is also very refreshing after 12 kilometers of cycling from Kratie.
Time: a break of 30 minutes will do to get yourself something to drink and a snack.
The Hundred Pillar Pagoda
After the Kampi Rapids it is a long cycle over the road to Sambour, 37 kilometers north of Kratie. The road can be busy, but the views on the villages, farmlands and rice fields on the way are very scenic.
The hundred pillar pagoda or Wat Sarsar Muoy Rouy actually has 116 pillars. It is one of the largest Buddhist temples along the Mekong river and definitely worth a stop.
Time: 30 minutes
Mekong Turtle Conservation center
Within the temple grounds of the hundred pillar pagoda you will also find the Mekong Turtle Conservation center that works to preserve the Cantor turtle. This turtle is so rare that it was only discovered in 2007, despite being one of the largest freshwater turtles. Like the Irrawaddy dolphins they are in danger of extinction.
At the center they protect the turtle eggs and the hatchlings are nurtured for 10 months before they are released into the river. This gives them a better chance of survival.
Time: 30 minutes
From Sambour you can take a small boat to Koh Pdao. One of the largest islands in the Mekong river. Like Koh Trong it’s the gentle pace of life, the relaxed atmosphere, the welcoming homestays and the spectacular Mekong sunsets that make this such a beautiful place.
Koh Pdao has a community based ecotourism programme that runs a number of homestays in the main village of the island. I had a wonderful stay at one of their homestays. For me this was really one of the highlights of the Mekong Discovery Trail. It even ranks among my favorite homestay experiences along with the Munroe island homestay in Kerala.
After my homestay experience in Koh Pdao I cycled back to Kratie the next day and then took a bus to Stung Treng near the border with Laos.
Stung Treng is not a particularly beautiful town, but the nearby Ramsar wetlands are very worthwhile to visit. The flooded forests, waterfalls, islands and canyons are probably one of the most scenic stretches of the Mekong river.
Tourism in Stung Treng is still not as developed as it is in Kratie. The best way to visit the Ramsar Wetlands near Stung Treng is on an organized boat tour.
Mekong Discovery trail travel tips
Accomodation on the Mekong Discovery Trail
When you explore the Mekong Discovery Trail it is best to start at Kratie. In this laidback town there are several options.
Le Tonle Guesthouse and Restaurant is in my opinion one of the best options. It is not only a hotel and restaurant, but also a training program where disadvantaged youth get training in hospitality. Although all employees are still students, the service was great. They also have a branch in Stung Treng.
Sorya Guesthouse is another good budget option in Kratie for backpackers. It has clean rooms and dormitories with beautiful views over the Mekong River.
For a more quiet and personal experience you can also opt to stay in one of the homestays at Koh Trong just opposite the river from Kratie. If you cycle the Mekong Discovery Trail to Sambour and Koh Pdao I can also really recommend the community based homestay program at Koh Pdao. In fact, staying in a homestay is one of the highlights of the Mekong Discovery Trail.
Where to eat on the Mekong Discovery Trail
Kratie has a number of restaurants and when cycling the Mekong Discovery trail there are plenty of opportunities on the road to grab a snack from the street vendors. Below are some Khmer foods to look out for.
Krolan: Krolan is a popular snack made by steaming sticky rice with beans and grated coconut in a bamboo tube. The mixture is tightly packed into the tube, which is then placed over a fire and steamed until the rice is fully cooked. It is eaten by breaking open the bamboo tube and peeling away the outer layer to reveal the mixture inside.
Nem: Nem is a mixture of minced pork or shrimp, vegetables, and vermicelli noodles, which are wrapped in a thin sheet of rice paper and fried until crispy. Around the Mekong they also use banana leaves as a wrapper and fillings of fish are the most popular. Using banana leaves adds a unique flavor and aroma to the dish. When grilled on an open fire the banana leaves impart a slightly smoky flavor to the Nem and can also help to keep the filling moist and tender during cooking.
Pomelo: A pomelo is a large citrus fruit that is native to Southeast Asia. The fruit has a slightly sweet and tangy flavor, and is often compared to a milder, sweeter grapefruit. Pomelos are rich in vitamin C, potassium, and other nutrients, and are often eaten fresh as a snack or used in salads, desserts, and other dishes.
How to get there
There are several bus companies that operate daily bus services to Kratie from Phnom Penh and other major cities in Cambodia. The journey from Phnom Penh takes about 6-7 hours, depending on the route and the bus company.
I took the bus from Sen Monorom where I visited the Mondulkiri project, which was a 5 hour journey by minivan. My next stop was Banlung in Ratanakiri.
When to visit
The best time to visit Kratie and the Mekong Discovery Trail is during the dry season, which runs from November to April. During this time, the weather is generally sunny and dry, with lower humidity and cooler temperatures compared to the wet season.
Visiting Kratie during the dry season also makes it easier to observe the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River, as the water levels are lower and the dolphins are more visible.
It’s important to note that Kratie can get very hot during the peak dry season months of February and March, so it’s advisable to wear sunscreen, a hat, and lightweight, breathable clothing to stay cool and comfortable.
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