The small town of Kratia is South East Asia in it's rawest form. Dirty, poor, friendly and noisy, you cannot get more authentically Cambodian than this.
When I first arrived here it was with great difficulty and effort that I finally found a room and bed. However unlike many of the other towns that I have visited, the Kratia guest houses were not full up with dollar touting tourists but rather with players and fans of the provinces best football teams who converged on the Mekong town for a popular weekend tournament.
While the town seems in many ways to be lagging a good fifty years behind even what you would expect, it does seem to be better laid out and more intact than all of the other Cambodian towns that I have passed through. Indeed the truth is that if your eyes can penetrate the black coating of soot you can tell that Kratia posseses a hidden architectural treasure that will one day be the celebration of all Cambodian tourist offices.
Like Laos, Vietnam and the rest of this very nation, Kratia was for many years occupied by the French which amply explains the colonial character to the buildings. However what makes the place stand out nowadays is that it somehow escaped firstly the onslaught of American B-52's as well as the subsequent Vietanmese bombing offensive. Furthermore in between all of this tragic chaos Kratia had the odd luck (architecturally speaking) to have been taken by the Khmer Rouge very early on in the regrettable civil war, thus leaving the town as precious standing evidence that Pol Pot failed in his primary objective to create "Year Zero" and make a complete break with the Cambodian past. Kratia is in other words the great survivor of foreign bombs and a nations attempt at self destruction. Nonetheless survivor as it may be most of the buildings, both occupied and abandoned, are on the brink of collapse with many of the facias and balconies already having crumbled away. It is thus very clear that the priority in this town is to put food on the table with tidy town judges still being a very long way off.
There is a permanent market in the center of town that begins each morning at 5 am. Farmers and merchants alike gather here to buy and sell the fresh produce on offer. Those who do not have a permanent stall, sit instead behind their bamboo baskets of wares and weighing scales on the surrounding streets. Fish, meat, lotus buds, rice, fruit and more rice are the principle goods although also available are bricks of ice that are chiselled away from a larger piece and then wrapped in a ribbon or string which serves as a handle.
Heads turned at the sight of a foreigner wandering about in the early morning and all the children would run along beside me trying to hold my hand and pointing me out to their mothers. After one or two older kids greeted me in English the younger ones were not slow to pick it up and began shouting "hello" incessantly to their own delight. The same enthusiastic reception cannot be said however of a local dog who somehow sensed that I did not fit into the bustling surroundings and hence took an immense disliking to me, following me about barking but never brave enough to approach.
I am told by locals that up until 2 or so years ago there were no roads to the town. However I take that to mean that there was of course some from of dirt track in existence. And so it seems that yet again the mighty Mekong acted as the umbilical chord for yet another South East Asian town. The river front on the town is now a large empty open space but one can easily imagine the daily chaos that the area once hosted. One person spoke of how he always went to school here by boat whereas his younger brother now has the luxury of a pick-up truck. Nonetheless while roads, scooters and buses may have descended upon the town, banks seem to have gotten lost along the route with the closest being located over four hours drive away.
My next stop is Pnomh Penh which I imagine will be a different world to the one I now occupy. I have fond memories of Kratia and have no doubt that easier days lie ahead for the people and their architectural inheritance. Moreover given their present predicament, I will prefectly understand when the fruit and lotus buds in the market are replaced by postcards and kitsch chinese made souvenirs. A sad but neccessary development.