It’s hard not to love playful and clever dolphins. No matter how old you are, the sight of these fun-loving sea mammals jumping out of the water gleefully definitely brings a smile to your face. That’s why I made seeing dolphins in Cambodia a priority — and was thrilled to spot some of the loveable and unique Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie, Cambodia.

Irrawaddy dolphins are a unique species found in South East Asia, mostly in Bangladesh. Smaller populations can be found elsewhere, including in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. In Cambodia, there’s estimated to be about 100 dolphins in total.

The dolphins have very unique faces, especially if you’re used to seeing the common bottle-nosed dolphin. Irawaddy Dolphins are known as “smiling dolphins” and have flat faces and wide mouths that curve upwards. They are incredibly cute.

They are also very smart – just ask the old fishermen of India! In the mid-1900s, many fishermen would have a special call that would be a signal to the nearby Irrawaddy dolphins to help chase fish into their nets. In return, the dolphin would be rewarded with some fish of their own – now that’s “symbiosis”!

Sadly, as small fishing boats have been replaced by massive trawlers, the relationship between fishermen and the Irrawaddy dolphins has not been as good.

The chance to spot Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie is definitely the main draw of the province.

About Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia

Irrawaddy dolphin jumping out of the water
By Dan Koehl – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Before we talk about how to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning a few more things about them.

Most importantly, Irrawaddy dolphins are sadly at risk of extinction. By far the largest numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins are in Bangladesh, but there are thought to be about 100 in Cambodia.

One of the main reasons that the population is so small is that hundreds were killed during the Khmer Rouge era. During this time, many dolphins were killed to extract oil to run generators and for other purposes.

The other main threat to the Irrawaddy dolphin population is fishing. Dolphins are not eaten, however, they often get tangled in nets or hit by large fishing trawlers.

Luckily, Cambodia’s Government and the local people of Kratie have put measures in place to protect the Irrawaddy dolphins. Fishing nets are now banned from the stretch of the Mekong where most of the dolphins live. There are also more than 50 guards dotted along the coast, to make sure that no-one breaks this law.

This has been quite effective in protecting the Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia. Happily, numbers have risen recent years. However, it is still important to be aware of how critically low the Irrawaddy dolphins’ numbers are.

I’m stressing this in my post not just to show off my impressive Irrawaddy dolphin knowledge (I am so much fun at parties…), but because I really do think it’s important to know. This is because it is so important that tourist activities do not make things worse for the Irrawaddy dolphins.

Kratie, the best place to see Irrawaddy dolphins in Cambodia

This beautiful video gives a great idea of what it’s like to see the dolphins in Kratie.

If you want to see Irrawaddy dolphins, you should go to Kratie.

That’s Kra-chee, by the way!

In reality, the dolphins are actually best spotted in Kampi, about 15 kilometres away. However, most tourist amenities like guesthouses, restaurants and tours are located in Kratie. It’s a great base, and actually a very pleasant town.

Kratie is located in eastern Cambodia, about 260 kilometres from Phnom Penh. Kampong Cham is about halfway between Kratie and Phnom Penh. Siem Reap, of Angkor Wat fame, is about a six hour drive away (and I think that’s being optimistic!)

I actually really liked Kratie. After the breakneck pace of Phnom Penh, I loved the relaxed and sleepy atmosphere of the riverside town. Plus, it is one of the best preserved French colonial towns in Cambodia. Kratie is quite pretty, especially with its river views.

How to spot Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie

Your best bet to find the dolphins is to go on a tour. Now, I’m sorry to harp on about this, but it’s important to find an ethical company.

The fact that there are armed guards up and down the river definitely helps in making sure tour companies do the right thing. I am pleased to report I didn’t see any particularly bad behaviour when I was there. That said, you should still look for a reputable tour company.

Getting on the boat to see the Irrawaddy dolphins
Mum and me!

Most tours will pick you up from your accommodation in Kratie. You can also arrange a boat ride yourself, by getting a tuk-tuk or bicycle to the boat ramp in Kampi. Personally, this worries me a little as it gives you less chance to “vote with your dollars” and support eco-friendly operators.

While doing some additional research for this article, I found that there is a kayaking tour to see the dolphins. I was not aware of this when I visited Kratie, but it sounds like a far less invasive way to see the dolphins. I can’t vouch either way for this tour, but it does have good reviews on Tripadvisor.

What to expect

Once you arrive at the boat ramp in Kampi, you will see lots of colourful wooden boats with small outboard engines. If you are going on a boat tour, then they can get pretty crowded depending on how many people are there. We didn’t do it, but I’m almost certain you could negotiate a private tour if you wanted to.

The boats then head out along the river. It usually doesn’t take long before there is an excited shout from the boat driver.

If you have seen bottle-nosed dolphins jumping about in the wild, you might need to lower your expectations a little for the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie. They are a little more timid and you’re more likely to see them bobbing than jumping.

Irrawaddy dolphin and boat
Photo by Bernard Dupont , CC BY-SA 2.0

That said, I have read a few reports from others who sounded disappointed with their experience. I can’t say this was mine, in fact I found them quite fun and loveable. It was definitely easy to identify that they were dolphins, and I got a good look at their cute little faces – albeit it from afar.

I suspect one of the reasons some people are a bit disappointed is because you don’t get very close to the dolphins. However, I think this is a good thing, because the boat’s motor can hurt the dolphins and the noise can cause them stress. Overall, I was certainly not disappointed by the experience.

A glimpse at the Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie
This was our best effort. At least it proves we saw them!

Tip: bring a zoom lens!

I was, however, pretty disappointed with my photos, hence why I’m relying heavily on other peoples’ here. Pro tip: if you want good pictures of the dolphins, a phone or point and shoot isn’t going to cut it. You’ll need a Mirrorless or SLR with a BIG zoom. Otherwise, you will end up like me, squinting at the photo going ‘I think that’s a dolphin?!’

In total, we were out on the water for about 45 minutes. I felt like this was plenty of time, although I do have a short attention span.

Is it ethical to go on a boat tour to see Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie?

One concern that I had visiting the dolphins in Kratie was whether it is ethical to do so. There are plenty of terrible dolphin tours all over the world, and I didn’t want that to happen in Kratie.

Overall, however, the tour seemed fine. They are very small boats, and they keep a distance from the dolphins. I didn’t see anyone feeding them or getting too close, although I have read differing experiences with this unfortunately.

Plus, the fact that the dolphin population has actually increased over the last several years is, in my view, an indication that the local Kratie community is doing well in looking after the dolphins. Of course, there is always more that can be done.

Of course, money talks (especially in Cambodia) and the key is that tourists actively discourage harmful practices. In particular, you should never support companies that engage in the following:

  • Feeding the dolphins! This is a huge no-no. Not only does it lead to a dependency on humans, but it can make the dolphins extremely sick.
  • Harassing the dolphins by following them or getting too close. I know it’s tempting to chase the dolphins for a better look, but this causes them stress and they are likely just to swim off.
  • Making too much noise. Irrawaddy dolphins are sensitive to noise, and going too close can cause them distress.
  • Swimming with the dolphins. To be honest, I think the dolphins would just bail – but the Mekong is pretty gross looking, so I certainly wouldn’t be jumping in!

Tips for spotting Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie

Here are some tips to make sure you have the best experience in Kratie.

Go early in the morning or late in the afternoon

You can see the dolphins in Kratie all day, however, you’re like to have a better experience early or late. There’s likely to be less tourists, and you might even spot a lovely sunrise or sunset over the river.

Don’t forget your insect repellant

Good lord, I nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes in Kratie (side note: organic mosquito repellant sucks). Make sure you wear long clothes to cover up your skin and bathe in repellant.

Two Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratie Cambodia
PIcture by Ronan Crawley, CC 2.0

Put the dolphin’s happiness before your own!

Yes, I’m going to take one more opportunity to drill this in. No matter how tempting it is to ask your guide to go closer or to shout in delight, please don’t. It’s such a privilege to see the dolphins in their natural habitat but they could be lost forever if we don’t look after them. Make sure everyone can enjoy seeing the dolphins, and be respectful!

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