How to See Dolphins in Kratie, Cambodia 🐬

Dolphin fin in water

While more popular with tourists than in years gone by, the small riverside town of Kratié in Cambodia is still relatively under-visited. But as word of the town’s unique selling point spreads, more and more visitors arrive to glimpse the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins for themselves! 

Trips to see the dolphins in Kratié are readily available to book at hostels, hotels, tour agencies and online in advance. They cater to a variety of travellers, with boat cruises and kayaking trips available. 

I have visited the town of Kratié twice over the last ten years and have seen the Irrawaddy dolphins both by boat and from a kayak. If you’re also hoping to spot them, listen up. I’ll tell you everything you need to know, from the best time to go, the ethics of visiting and how to arrange your own unforgettable experience. 

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A Guide to Seeing Kratie’s Irrawaddy Dolphins 🇰🇭

A Brief Introduction to Irrawaddy Dolphins 🐬

Despite their name and making a home in the mighty Mekong River, Irrawaddy dolphins aren’t true river dolphins. They’re oceanic dolphins that choose to live in brackish water in bays and rivers. They are renowned for their slate-grey colour, small size, and unusual stub noses, setting them apart from other dolphins.

The Irrawaddy dolphins have become somewhat of a poster child for Kratié province. While these dolphins were once abundant across the coastal areas of South and Southeast Asia, they now face extinction, with less than 100 left in the wild.

Kratie, Cambodia – header
The town of Kratié is most famous for the Irrawaddy dolphin population nearby.

During the time that I have been writing for South East Asia Backpacker, these beautiful aquatic mammals have already sadly gone extinct in Laos, where a small population lived around the 4000 Islands, and just a few remain in Kratie’s section of the Mekong, close to the Kampi rapids. 

There have been many threats to the Irrawaddy river dolphins over recent years, namely posed by the fishing industry. The dolphins drown after becoming tangled in nets or get killed by blast fishing techniques (using explosives to wipe out everything in a specific area). While this practice has now been outlawed in Laos, there has been no attempt to stop it in Cambodia, where most of the remaining dolphins are. Habitat loss is also another risk to their survival, as well as the ever-enduring threat of climate change. 

In both Khmer and Laotian cultures, dolphins are viewed as sacred animals, not to mention that they are vital for the health of the Mekong River. As such, much conservation work is going on to save the remaining dolphins and prevent them from going extinct. 

WWF works alongside the Cambodian Mekong Dolphin Conservation Project to conduct research monitoring the impact of climate change, ecology and mortality on the remaining Irrawaddy dolphin population. Using this information, they work with locals to restore their habitat and promote sustainable tourism practices. 

Unfortunately, tourism is something that can also harm the well-being of the dolphins. This is why it is super important to do your research before you go to visit them. Don’t fret, you can see them in an ethical way (which we’ll get into below)! 

Kayaking Irrawaddy dolphins 2
It is important to see the dolphins in an ethical way.

Best Time to See Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie, Cambodia 📅

Cambodia’s dry season, from November to February, is the best time to see dolphins in Kratie. The waters are calmer during this time, so it is also possible to kayak most days. Late afternoon is often touted as the best time to see the dolphins but their behavioural patterns don’t vary much, so any time of day is good. 

Bear in mind that in the late afternoon, it will likely be very hot which can be unpleasant for travellers. Kratié gets busy during the weekend with visitors from Phnom Penh, so this can be a good time to visit if you are hoping to join a dolphin group tour, however, you should expect the river to be busier.  

How to See Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie, Cambodia 🚣

There are three main ways to see the dolphins in Kratie. 

1. Independently 

As you walk through Kratie, you will likely have tuk tuk drivers call out to you and offer to take you to see the dolphins. This tends to cost around $10USD return. They will transport you to the river close to Kampi, where you will then hop onto a boat (around $8USD each depending on group size) and speed off to the place where the dolphins are often seen. Your Kampi trip will usually last between an hour to an hour and a half. 

When I first visited Kratié back in 2014, this is how I saw the dolphins. It is the cheapest way to experience this section of the Mekong but not the most ethical. Previously, boat captains would motor out into the centre of the river where the dolphins are. When I visited this way, I got super lucky and had a good time with a guide who spoke a surprisingly good amount of English. He turned off the engine whenever we got close to the dolphins and at this point, there were not many boats on the river. This had all changed when I returned in 2024! 

Boat launch point, Kratie, Cambodia
Some of the boats waiting to leave on dolphin tours.

These days, the boats transport tourists to an island known as the viewing site and drop them there. They are then able to spend around 40 minutes relaxing and watching the dolphins while the boats are moored up with their engines off. 

This is undoubtedly an improvement from the way it used to be when the boats were allowed to go wherever they liked, but it does not stop the captains from pursuing the dolphins on their way to the viewing point. On my most recent trip to Kratie, there were a lot of boats moored up – way more than I saw on my first visit to the area. 

2. Boat Trip With a Tour

This option is essentially the same as the above, however, everything is prearranged on your behalf ahead of time. It will cost more, with average prices being somewhere between $25-45USD per person depending on group size. 

Photographing the Dolphins in Kratie 📸

Irrawaddy dolphins are a little different from other dolphins you may have seen. They are generally pretty shy – you shouldn’t expect to see grand acrobatic displays like bottlenose dolphins. You’re most likely to see their dorsal fins breach the water. The best way to photograph these animals is by using the burst setting on your phone or camera. They move very quickly and you may only see a flash of them before they dive back underwater!

3. Kayaking With a Tour

The best way to see the dolphins in Kratié is on a kayaking tour. This is how I saw the dolphins on my most recent visit and seeing how many boats are now on the water, kayaking is the only way I would recommend. There are a couple of companies that run kayaking tours in the area and they all have a big focus on sustainability. 

If you book on to a kayaking tour, you will be picked up from your accommodation and transported to the river. From there, you’ll hop in your kayaks and your guide will lead the way through a flooded forest, past deserted islands and eventually to the area where the dolphins hang out. Be warned, there is a lot of kayaking on these trips – you’ll likely feel pretty tired when you’re finished! Don’t go too hard or you risk pulling a muscle!

Kratie, Cambodia – dolphin kayaking
The kayaking trips cover a big distance!

Prices for a place on a half-day group kayaking tour begin at around $50USD per person but drop as more people join the group. Group sizes are usually kept small, both for the benefit of the dolphins and also to make the guide’s job easier. Kayaks usually seat two paddlers but sometimes solo backpackers can have a kayak to themselves – be sure to enquire when you book as there may be a surcharge for this. 

Ethics of Seeing the Irrawaddy Dolphins in Kratie 🛶

While tourism ultimately brings more attention to the plight of the dolphins, there are ethical concerns about the way that it is managed. At present, there are no limits on river traffic at any given time and there is no doubt that crowded waters and loud engines stress the dolphins out. 

These marine animals are shy of boats and do not like to be chased, so boat captains should turn off the engine when close to a pod and avoid pursuing them aggressively. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen and there are no consequences for boat captains who fail to do it. I should say that on my most recent visit to Kratie, I did not see any boat captains behaving badly. 

Kayaking Irrawaddy dolphins
Kayaking is the least disruptive way to see the dolphins.

I saw a huge difference in the number of boats on the river on my first trip to Kratié and my second, 10 years apart. The river is now full of boats, though mostly these are moored up at the viewing area, away from where the dolphins are. While this offers some respite to the dolphins, the boats still need to travel to and from the site, causing a huge amount of engine noise, especially when multiple boats depart at the same time. 

Kayaks are much quieter than motorised boats and kayakers are also not able to pursue the animals at speed, giving them time and space to go about their natural behaviour. It is undoubtedly the way I would recommend seeing these animals going forward. 

Seeing the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in Kratié is a bucket list experience and one I would always recommend – when done ethically. 

Kayaking is the best way to see these magical creatures – not only does it put your eyeline much closer to the water but you’re moving through the landscape under your own steam, not merely passing through it. This, combined with the fact that kayaks are way less disruptive to the ecosystem and the dolphins themselves, makes it a no-brainer. 

Unfortunately, the number of dolphins in Cambodia continues to drop. This means it’s crucial to do your research and support ethical tourism ventures. Maybe together we can all work to save these magnificent creatures. 

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

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