A nervous traveller’s guide to the far east: Week 7 – Kratie before Vietnam

Kratie, Kratie province

How do you beat hanging out with elephants, spiders, gibbons, scorpions, cicadas, cats, Americans, Danish, Swedes, Canadians, Bunong, Khmer and Germans? Well...you don’t. You can try, but in my opinion, Sen Monorom was a hard place to top. That’s not to say you can’t, and we did try when we headed to Kratie in central-east Cambodia.

A cow says hello

The ultimate photobomb

Kratie town (pronounced “Kraachie”) is small and located on the east bank of the Mekong river. The area is one of the few places in the world you can find fresh water dolphins and we were excited to spend some time trying to spot them in a kayak. Kratie is one of those places still largely untouched by tourists and many of the locals speak Khmer only. You can still find hotels, homestays and hostels that are more than accommodating though, and we found a great one just off the river. This was just as well, as my stomach decided to take a holiday of its own the day we arrived.

Operation: Uh oh...

I had been advised on many occasions before our trip, that it is almost impossible to not get ill at least once when travelling around Asia for an extended period of time. You can be protected against Hepatitis, Rabies, Malaria, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Typhoid, Measles, Mumps, Rubella and have countless other inoculations...but sometimes something as simple as a stomach bug is enough to take you down for a week, big time.

Up the Mekong without a paddle

Kayaks on the Mekong

The calm before the horror

Truth be told, I hadn’t been feeling great the day we left Sen Monorom. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that by the time we got to Kratie (average temperature 38 degrees) I was ready for a bit of a lie down. The hotel we were staying at was a training venue; one of many that employ people from impoverished backgrounds, providing a stable income whilst training them up in service standards so they can start their own business if they choose. The hotel staff were lovely and gave us iced tea the moment we arrived saying “It is a bit warm today.” Now when a Cambodian says “It’s a bit warm today” that means it’s hotter than hell and your skin will cook faster then a pancake if you stay out in the sun for longer than five minutes. On a more positive note, when you see the locals hiding in the shade and generally doing everything they can to stay out of the heat, you tend to feel less embarrassed about looking like an oiled up extra from Baywatch minus the abs.

Swim don’t sink

My first warning that perhaps I shouldn’t go kayaking arrived when I sat on the toilet for the 6th time the previous evening. Being a stubborn bloke, I refused to admit that I was anything other than peachy. I was on holiday and there was no way I was going to let a little thing like diarrhoea, cramps and unstoppable sweating stop me from enjoying myself. Jess kept asking if I was okay. I vaguely remembered dripping a lot and saying “Fine, fine!” whilst blinking madly and wondering if the bloke I had just seen walking across the street in front of me was was Mr Spock or a figment of my imagination.

Things took a downhill turn shortly after getting into the kayak.

I’m fine

An island in the Mekong

Good thing you can't see what was going on behind the camera.

Ever tried kayaking when you feel a bit dizzy?

Ever tried kayaking when your stomach is threatening to go on strike if you don’t pack it in?

Ever tried kayaking when you feel a fart brewing but aren’t entirely sure if you press the release valve, it won’t morph into something very unpleasant?

Trust me when I say:

You should never ever attempt to kayak if you have any of the symptoms described above.

Of course, I’m an idiot and was convinced that I’d be fine. Sadly, I’m an idiot and wasn’t fine at all. There were about 8 of us split across 4 kayaks plus Ben, the Khmer guide. The sky was clear, the water calm and I actually did feel fine...for the first 30 minutes. Jess and I were getting used to paddling our kayak together and delighted to discover that we weren’t the worst in the group. Unfortunately the energy we spent just getting to the first stop on a small island in the middle of the Mekong, was when my stomach decided enough was enough.

Whilst everyone else was enjoying a cooling dip in the river, I was busy throwing up on the sand nearby. Ben advised me to keep drinking water but Jess told me afterwards that he was looking a bit concerned. Five minutes later and seeing that my upchuck reflex was still going strong, Ben decided to put me in his kayak and tether it to the one Jess and I had been using. He asked if I was okay to continue and I stupidly said “yes'', because I wanted to see the dolphins. A good example of clear thinking.

Our journey continued as I was cheerfully puking in the river and drinking bottled water in between to try and stay hydrated. Whilst that was happening Ben continued to paddle us down through the flooded forest towards the dolphins and keep his eye on another couple who were struggling with their kayak. There’s a few black holes in my memory after that because apparently I passed out a few times. The next thing I recall is feeling a bump as our kayak hit a sand dune that Ben had deliberately run us up against. 

The flooded forest

Jess's photos. I have no memory of this.

Paddle faster

“PADDLEPADDLEPADDLE...Oh f**k!”

“Sorry,” I mumbled, thinking I was supposed to be doing something before blearily opening one eye.

I looked over at Jess who was looking over at another small clump of trees on an island about 50 feet away. I could tell from the way her shoulders were shaking that my wife was trying hard not to laugh.

“What’s going on?”

“That other couple have just driven their boat directly into those trees and they’ve capsized. Ben’s just gone to rescue them.”

“Who shouted ‘Oh f**k?’”

“Ben,” my wife said now barely trying to contain her laughter. “He kept telling them to paddle away but they just went straight into the trees.”

I was going to ask where Ben had learnt the English for “f**k” but my stomach decided that the unscheduled stop was a great time to empty itself out again.

As I was busy redecorating another part of the Mekong (and part of Ben’s boat) with what was left of my stomach lining, Ben was busy being GI Joe. Jess said he had literally run our boats aground and secured them in less then five seconds before jumping into the river and swimming faster then Aquaman towards the newly immersed couple.

The next time I regained consciousness we were floating quietly in an open section of the river. All was calm and the other kayaks were bobbing peacefully about side by side. For a brief moment I thought perhaps the other couple had drowned and everyone was waiting in respectful silence for the tourist police to come and recover the bodies. Then there was a collective intake of breath from everyone – including the capsized couple – as a dolphin surfaced less then 20 feet in front of us before snorting and diving back under the water. I’d like to say it was a magical experience, but I was too busy trying not to ruin things by throwing up again.

At least I got to see the dolphins.

Nervous Traveller Rating: 4/10

Obviously I would've have enjoyed this more if I wasn't so focused on keeping my stomach lining secure. Jess had a great time though.

Wedding Ring Status:

Clinging on. If I had dropped that in the river, I think Jess would have dropped me at the nearest border.

About the Author

John is an award winning science fiction, horror and fantasy writer. He is also a public speaker and consultant and has worked with Time to Change - a campaign to end mental health stigma - and for Wellment - an organisation that delivers mental health at work training. He loves science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and novels. His work has appeared in Vector Magazine, Ink Pantry, Sci-Fi Bloggers, The Huffington Post and more. His short fantasy "Thanks for Applying" won an Honourable Mention Award in the Writers of the Future competition in 2017. HIs short horror "By the Boiler's Hand" was longlisted for the 2018 James White Award and won an Honourable Mention in the Writers of the Future competiton the same year. John has spoken at several events including the Nine Worlds Geekfest in London, Bristol Con 2018, and the Moorfields NHS Trust. He has delivered masterclasses on ending mental health stigma in the workplace for Time to Change. He lives with his wife and a pile of books in the UK.

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