When friends from home visit and we remember that not everyone is quite so enamored with the sustained bustle of Phnom Penh life quite as much as we do, we like to plan a few days of respite outside of the city. We’ve visited Kampot, Kep, and Koh Dach; Otres, sadly, is no longer an attractive option, and travel to the islands takes too long for a short stay. This time, we headed to the lesser known destination of Chhlong, located in Kratie province, often referred to as the Cambodian home to the Irrawaddy dolphins.
Where to stay
When deciding where to go, our criteria was a hint of luxury without the associated price tag, and a degree of ‘wow’ that doesn’t involve arriving via zip-line (with all due respect to Shinta Mani Wild). Searching for a destination for an early New Year getaway, I settled on a review of Le Relais de Chhlong, a rather grand-looking colonial retreat by the Mekong between Kampong Cham and Kratie that promised comfort, quiet, and cooling river breezes.
Some three-and-a-half hours’ drive northeast of the capital, we found the French-owned hotel commanding a rustic bank of the Mekong. Once installed it was hard to believe the main road through the town ran directly behind us. Screened by its tropical garden, Le Relais de Chhlong boasts glorious views across the river and various appealing, secluded seating spots from which to enjoy them with only clucking chickens and the inevitable nearby wedding (who doesn’t love Khmer pop at 5 a.m.?) to disturb the peace. Yes, it would fit the bill nicely.
The hotel’s manager, the romantically-named Adonis, newly-installed in December and a friendly, informative, and decidedly hands-on host, told us the mansion had once been the provincial governor’s residence. Built in 1916 for an affluent family of Chinese-Khmer timber merchants, the property suffered bomb damage during the Vietnam war, was likely occupied by the Khmer Rouge, and lay in a semi-ruined state for a couple of decades before finally opening as a hotel in 2018, painstakingly restored and tastefully fitted out with antique and period furniture, photographs, and curios.
We took three of the four suites in the elegant main house — a further six are located in a second building carefully constructed in the style of the original — the two bedroom “River View Suite” and two studios overlooking the internal courtyard, each with a double bedroom and small sitting room. At $130 and $120 respectively, it’s not cheap for a provincial hotel, but then Le Relais is not your typical provincial hotel.
Our suites all had a balcony (though in our case not entirely private) with table and chairs and a glamorous, monochrome, period-style bathroom with walk-in shower and roll-top bath. The beds were firm, the pillows soft; a good-sized pool with plenty of loungers and some welcome shade lay below us on a peaceful riverfront terrace that also housed the hotel restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The relatively small menu had sufficient choices for us, as non meat-eaters, to enjoy a different, very tasty fish dish on each of the three nights we stayed, plus several vegetarian options. One in our party voted the fish amok the best he’d eaten. Breakfasts were simple — eggs, fruit, baguette, and croissants — and generous, and the restaurant staff spoke good English. The bar was suitably well stocked — we were pleased to find both rose wine and Prosecco by the glass as well as bottle — with a bijou cocktail selection.
Things to do in Chhlong and Kratie
The Relais de Chhlong website suggests a number of tours and attractions, from turtles to temples, that the hotel can either book for its guests or advise on, most of them in or near Kratie, a 30 km (19 miles) or so drive away. However, we were there to chill and make the most of the refined comforts of Le Relais. Bike hire was available but we opted to stroll the riverside track to the local market (where our friends made one stall-holder’s day and others envious by purchasing a particularly hefty bundle of sarong fabric!). Then we headed to nearby KC Coffee for a western-style caffeine fix and walked around the colorful, neighboring wat.
The Chhlong area is home to several notable temples, including the hilltop Wat Hanchey and 18th-century Roka Kandal pagoda, which, along with a number of now mostly decaying colonial buildings, are a reminder of the town’s former eminence as a trading port and center of business and religious activity.
However indolent our inclinations, we couldn’t leave the area without introducing our friends to the Irrawaddy dolphins. It seems that two-seater Indian tuk tuks have cornered the market in Chhlong too, but Adonis rang around to find us a Khmer-style vehicle to accommodate our four-person group. The driver charged us $20 each way, a typical price, apparently, for the lengthy but scenic three hour round trip with a stopover on Kratie’s riverside for lunch. We were deposited right at the pay booth where we handed over $7 each ($9 each for groups of one to three people), pretty good value, we felt, for an hour on the river in a covered, long-tail fishing boat.
Moored up with engine off so as not to disturb the endangered creatures, we caught way more glimpses than we’d expected of their funny, blunt faces and sleek bodies as they arced in and out of the water (Irrawaddy dolphins are shy creatures, you won’t find them actually leaping). Sheer luck perhaps, or maybe because the population is growing despite an unfortunate increase in the number of dolphin deaths during 2019.
Late last year conservation officials reported the presence of about 110 dolphins in the Mekong compared to 80 in 2015 when we were last there to spot them. Another new (to me anyway) development was the prominence of guided kayak tours, organised by either Dolphin Kayaking or Sorya Kayaking, that looked like an interesting way to see not just the dolphins but more of the Mekong itself.
All told, the getaway to Chhlong was just what we’d hoped for: an easy, lazy few days in a comfortably serene setting and our friends declared they’d happily do the same trip all over again next visit. I suspect, though, we’ll end up racking our brains for another, equally impressive destination to surprise them with — suggestions welcome!
The hotel’s website states a car from Phnom Penh to Chhlong should cost between $80 and $120 — they can book the ride back but not a car for the outward journey, but an SUV taxi can be booked online in advance for $110. We decided to use PassApp for convenience, which in hindsight I would not recommend as it cost us $140 after some negotiation (and in recognition of our driver’s long way back without a fare). For our return, the obliging Adonis booked us a local taxi for just $70, bringing the total cost of our round trip to a reasonable $210 for four people.
It’s possible to make the journey by bus — the hotel is on the Phnom Penh to Kratie route — but, as of January 2020, some major and apparently lengthy bridgeworks are underway that mean the road through Chhlong is only passable by mini bus, so it’s wise to check the situation with transport operators.
If you’re looking for more travel information, check out the Kratie travel guide on Travelfish.
Le Relais de Chhlong
Road 308, Chhlong, Kratie Province
Tel: +855 (0)12 347 309
Open daily, 7 a.m to 9 p.m.
Street 03, Phsar Veng Village, Kratie
Tel: +855(0)88 799 8039
Preah Suramarit Quay, Kratie
Tel: +855 (0)10 285 656