A Plan to Unite Two Communes on the Mekong River With a Bridge Could Mean Better Economic Conditions for Some Residents, and an Uncertain Future for Others

PEAM RO DISTRICT, Prey Veng province – Life in the communes of Neak Loeung and Kom­pong Chamlang ebbs and flows with the ferries that shuttle people, trucks, and merchandise from one side of the Mekong River to the other.

But residents on both sides hope Japan’s announcement June 17 of plans to build a bridge between the two towns, and by extension Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, will improve economic conditions in the depressed area.

While a high-quality road to connect the two cities is, at least on the Cambodian side, a twinkle in a bureaucrat’s eye, Prey Veng province’s Neak Loeung and Kandal province’s Kompong Chamlang stand to profit from the bridge. A proposed speck on the highway network connecting Seoul to Singapore, the bridge would end dependence on the ferry that makes between 25 and 30 trips daily between the banks.

Residents here say they are excited about the bridge’s tangible local benefits. The bridge would enable them to cross the river free of charge. Ferry tickets cost 100 riel for people and from 5,800 to 8,500 riel for vehicles, prohibitive sums for many locals.

When the public ferry stops running at 9 pm, those who need to cross the Mekong can only take private boats, which are less frequent and can charge significantly higher prices.

Chum Ran, 54, who runs a stall in the bustling Neak Loeung market on the east side of the river, said nighttime crossings are particularly inconvenient when her children need medical attention in Phnom Penh. “Private ferries can be so slow if they are not paid extra,” she said.

People can wait up to an hour to make a crossing. The bridge would reduce that time to about five minutes for a pedestrian.

For Mao Vantha, 39, a ferry worker whose smart khaki uniform was a sharp contrast to the town’s squalor, knows that the town’s development would leave him unemployed. When the bridge comes, he said, he won’t know how he will earn a living.

“I’ll go on government compensation,” he said, and laughed bitterly.

Similarly worried are those whose livelihoods depend on the rhythms imposed by the ferry, like the hawkers who sell grasshoppers, frogs, lotus pods and other snacks to the waiting crowd.

“No one will need us to carry their belongings,” bemoaned Pha Rith, 24, a bicycle courier. He said he makes up to 7,000 riel per day.

But the overwhelming mood in Neak Loeung and Kompong Chamlang was optimistic. The people only worried the bridge would not be built fast enough.

Kol Sam Ol, governor of Kandal’s Leuk Dek district on the river’s west bank, said subsistence workers like Pha Rith would find increased opportunities once the bridge is completed. He said 99 percent of people on both sides favored the project.

He was particularly excited for his district’s farmers who would have a larger market for their rice, soy beans and corn.

Also enthusiastic about the convenience and lack of charges on the bridge was Mom Saren, 42, a truck driver bringing a cargo of rice, fish paste and people who cannot afford the bus east toward Vietnam.

He said the bridge would make his work easier. “I won’t have to spend time here.”

In an address broadcast by Apsara radio on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked Japan for the offer and asked them to build it before another bridge in Stung Treng province that Japan has offered which would link Cambodia and Laos by road.

Yutaka Aoki, first secretary at the Japanese Embassy, was also enthusiastic and said Japanese government would begin a feasibility study “as soon as possible.”

Mitsue Tamagake, program assistant at the Japan International Cooperation Agency, which will oversee construction, said the study will determine the bridge’s exact location, design and cost. She estimated construction would begin in 2005 and last two years.

Potential obstacles to construction include the unsound earth in the area and “resettlement” of people and businesses along the river, which might be necessary for construction, Tamagake wrote in an e-mail.

The proposed Neak Loeung bridge is not the first public works project in Cambodia undertaken by JICA. In 2001, the agency completed a $56 million bridge crossing the Mekong in Kom­pong Cham, about 210 km upriver from Neak Loeung.

Cheang Am, provincial governor of Kompong Cham confirmed the highest hopes of those waiting. Calling it a “great asset,” he said land prices, outside business and tourism, have increased regionally since JICA completed the bridge.

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