The Irrawaddy river dolphins inhabit a 118-mile (190km) stretch of the Mekong River. These odd and delightful creatures are in danger of extinction and the Cambodian population was recently estimated to consist of a mere 85 animals. For years the dolphins were killed in now illegal fishing practices, and hunted by the Khmer Rouge for sport, but they are now fully protected under Cambodian Fishery Law and their appeal to tourists is bringing in welcome foreign dollars to the region. The dolphins have become a symbol of hope for the sleepy northeastern town of Kratie and the money paid to view them supports the local community as well as the conservation of the dolphins.
The animals themselves are shy and intelligent and their perpetual grins make them very endearing. They are sometimes easily spotted from the riverbank but many tourists opt to rent small boats to get closer to them. The local oarsmen retain a healthy distance from surfacing animals but viewers can get close enough to recognise individual characteristics and see the famous dolphin smiles. Kratie is accustomed to budget travellers, with a choice of cheap guesthouses and small hotels. All of these offer motorbike drivers for the scenic nine-mile (15km) drive to the dolphins' river home, a tiny fishing village called Kampi where the houses are raised up on stilts to prevent annual flooding.
Address: Kratie, about five or six hours from Phnom Penh