kompong cham town, Kompong Cham province – In most provincial towns, people are quick to say hello, or how are you, but in Kompong Cham town, there’s a new greeting.
“Have you seen the new bridge?” asks a hotel maid, looking up from her mopping and forgetting to say hello.
It took two and a half years and $56 million to build, but now the Kompong Cham bridge shines like a towering monument over the Mekong River,.
The costs will be made up by what the bridge will do to revive the once-thriving economy of Kompong Cham and eventually connect the province to the products and markets of the northeastern provinces as well as Vietnam and Laos. By then, officials hope that no matter how people greet you, this town won’t be so sleepy.
“It’s a very critical bridge there,” said Sok Siphana, secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce. “That bridge will pretty much open up the other side of the Mekong.”
Kompong Cham has 1.6 million people, many of whom work fertile volcanic soil that year after year produces bananas, cashews, sugar cane, rice, rubber and many of the products the country exports. But so far, the eastern half of the province and four other provinces east of the Mekong have been accessible only by ferry.
The ferry is slow, only able to carry four or five large trucks at a time, and only runs during the day. If a truckload of goods coming from Phnom Penh is late, the ferry is closed and the driver and passengers are forced to spend the night in Kompong Cham town, losing time and money.
“There are a lot of people who will save some money from not using the ferry,” said Mao Phirun, second deputy governor of the province. “People east of the Mekong will not waste time with the ferry anymore. They can come to Kompong Cham or Phnom Penh immediately if they want to.”
Ly Seng, a 35-year-old truck driver, is happy to see the bridge, knowing he can make the trip from Phnom Penh to eastern districts faster. He drives from Soung district, east of the new bridge, to Phnom Penh and back everyday. The ferry costs him 26,000 riel (about $6.50) per day. So the new bridge will save him some money in addition to time.
“This will help me take people faster,” he said. “I can come at any time from Phnom Penh.”
While truck and taxi drivers may be excited about being able to start their afternoon trips later, economic analysts are hoping the new bridge will get farmers up and moving earlier. When the bridge opens, a Mondolkiri province avocado grower will be able to bring his goods to Kompong Cham town and trade in the market with Svay Rieng province pig farmers.
Access to the northeast provinces remains difficult. Just half a kilometer east of the the bridge, a well-paved, Japanese-engineered road turns into a typical provincial obstacle course, full of potholes, unpainted, the median crumbling.
The Japanese construction company Taisei has plans to renovate that road. In the coming years, smooth roads will push farther north and east, eventually linking Kompong Cham to Vietnam and Laos, Sok Siphana said.
“It’s only about 90 km from Vietnam,” he said. “Eventually it will link southern Laos to Cambodia.” That means goods from Laos can travel a relatively easy path all the way to Sihanoukville and from there be shipped anywhere. Cambodia has a free seaport trade agreement with Laos, Sok Siphana said.
The bridge is the most important piece of a “growth corridor” that will stimulate the economy of other provinces, according to Sok Siphana. In turn, analysts say that could spark a revival of Kompong Cham’s own economy. That could mean more people moving back to Kompong Cham, which used to be a cultural and educational center.
“Kompong Cham has everything,” said Bun Rithy, an analyst in Kompong Cham who works for the Khmer Institute for Democracy. “[But] the authorities have not promoted this province strongly enough. It has not been able to find a way to create more jobs for the people.”
In its heyday, would-be teachers came from every part of the country to Kompong Cham to receive training. Preah Sihanouk University used to educate people in a wide variety of fields.
The province is still rich in tourist sites. On Phnom Pros and Phnom Srey mountains, pagodas overlook the vast fields and plantations surround the provincial town. Just a couple kilometers west of town is Wat Nokor, a blend of modern pagogas constructed among pre-Angkor era temples, with carvings and ruins just as intricate as those at the famed temples in Siem Reap.
But because few people in the national government have promoted the area, mostly locals visit those sites, Bun Rathy said. Local kids and cows mingle with the monks freely, running from ancient temples through modern pagodas with lavish paintings depicting Khmer folk stories.
Due to its past dedication to culture and education, Kompong Cham has launched many of the nation’s leaders. “Keep in mind,” said Sok Siphana, “Kompong Cham has produced more ministers than the other provinces combined.”
Now those same leaders are not doing a good job of promoting the province, Bun Rathy contends.
There are trade schools, computer schools, English schools and 30 to 40 local and international NGOs, Bun Rithy said. Waterfalls and temples go unadvertised, forgotten except by locals and a few visitors from Phom Penh. Combined with agricultural and industrial potential, those attractions should be enough to bring prosperity and people back to Kompong Cham, Bun Rithy said.
“Whatever Phnom Penh has, we have quite enough of the same here,” he said. “Kompong Cham has enough labor, enough raw material, to develop it. What is deeply needed are new ideas concerning business and development.”
Clean water and power are still expensive because there is no competition, Bun Rathy said. The only available power plant is owned by Hun Neng, brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen. “Here the meter moves very fast,” Bun Rithy said.
Electricity costs 850 riel (about $.22) per kilowatt hour, which is “quite expensive,” according to a Ministry of Commerce economic report on Kompong Cham. About 75 percent to 80 percent of the residents of the provincial capital have access to pure water. Without water and electricity, investors will not come, Bun Rithy said.
Despite such obstacles, there are some manufacturers based in Kompong Cham. British American Tobacco has a tobacco factory , where the leaves are dried and cut. Those leaves come from the province itself; BAT says their local cigarettes are made with about 70 percent local tobacco. They hope that percentage will keep rising as new leaves are introduced that provide the proper blend of tobacco.
Lumber for furniture is exported to Vietnam. With the right technical assistance, that finished furniture, the expensive type that shows up in glossy Japanese magazines, could be manufactured in the province.
Rubber is gathered and molded into latex, and despite a drop in the world rubber price, it still provides employment for many families. More bananas are grown here than in any other province. Sugar cane and soy beans, corn and peppers and cashews are all grown There isn’t much that Kompong Cham doesn’t grow in the way of produce.
Bun Rithy has his own formula for Kampong Cham province’s future success.
“With better law and no corruption from the authorities, the investors will come here,” Bun Rithy said.