Kampong Cham’s bamboo bridge is one of the province’s most popular attractions and a sustainable feat of engineering. But with a modern government-funded bridge being built up the river, this could be its last year
With every dry season, the waters of the Mekong River separating Kampong Cham town from the roughly 1,000 families on Koh Paen recede, becoming too shallow for a ferry. Each year, for decades, the island’s residents have employed a unique solution: building a seasonal, kilometre-long bamboo bridge until the rains swell the river, then tearing it down again.
Aside from a few missed years due to war, the bridge has been an iconic annual fixture of life in the province.
That is likely to change after this year, however, when modernity finally catches up to the tradition. Two kilometres south of the bamboo bridge, a team of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces engineers is putting the finishing touches on a new government-funded concrete bridge. Once the river rises, the bamboo bridge is likely to come down for the last time.
While the bamboo bridge inspired little romanticism among locals interviewed this week, it has become an object of fascination among foreigners and Cambodians from the rest of the country.
“It is an important attraction in Kampong Cham,” says Yung Oun, the current bridge owner. “Both local and foreign tourists come here. Losing the bridge means losing a lot of tourists.”
But with the construction of a permanent bridge, the cost of building and maintaining the bamboo structure which requires constant repairs will no longer be worthwhile for Oun.
Made from mature bamboo stems from Kratie province that cost $1 to $2 per piece, the bridge’s construction and maintenance requires about $50,000 to $60,000 a year, Oun says.
That cost is recouped throughout the dry season from tolls, which bring in 1 to 2 million riel per day (about $250 to $500). Already the increasing irregularity of the seasonal patterns is making the business hard for Oun, who during the wet season operates the ferry crossing to Koh Paen.
Speaking to Post Weekend, moto driver Yong Sarim says that though there are downsides to losing the bridge, the practicality of a modern alternative is hard to overlook.
“It will be easier to travel with the new bridge, especially at night and we do not have to pay for it,” he says. But standing on the rickety bamboo bridge overlooking the river, the 32-year-old betrayed a sense of nostalgia at the prospect of its disappearance. “I have been using it since I was a child, [and] it is also a great tourist attraction spot, which exists only in my country.”
For local residents, the bridge has been a backdrop to daily life since they can remember – only disrupted between 1973 and 1986 with the civil war and emergence of the Khmer Rouge – though the specific history of the bridge has all but vanished.
Prior to 1973, the bridge was owned collectively by a company of 14 villagers from Koh Paen, according to Nai Seang, 74. She joined the company in 1964, purchasing two shares for 7,000 riel (about $1,500 after adjusting for inflation). Back then, it was only a foot and bicycle bridge built from locally sourced bamboo, with a 1 riel toll for pedestrians, or 2 riel for a bike (about 750 and 1,500 riel today, respectively). As the youngest in the company when she joined at the age of 22, she is the sole surviving member.
“The knowledge would be passed down from one generation of builders to the next,” she says. While Seang says she never asked the older members of the company about the bridge’s history, she remembers it when she was an infant, which means it dates back to at least the 1940s.
That the bridge has become a tourist attraction is a strange curiosity for Seang. “I did not know the bridge has become such a tourist attraction. I was very young when I bought my shares, and to me it was just a thing that helps people cross the river, and a business,” she says.
Srun Srim, 70, was the first owner following the collapse of Democratic Kampuchea, and won the rights in a public auction in 1986, holding them until 2004. He says that even in his time the bridge became a costlier endeavour once bamboo had to be sourced further afield, and that the end of the bridge is simply a fact of progress.
“This is development. If the business cannot catch up with modern times it will come to an end,” he says. “This is how it’s going to be.”
Even Oun says it’s been harder with each year to find workers, as the families who used to build bridges have with the development of the Kingdom taken jobs in offices or moved to Phnom Penh.
Though the day-to-day repairs are relatively simple, the bridge itself is a small marvel of engineering, with the support structure consisting of a crosshatch of thousands of sturdy bamboo poles, held together by metal wiring. The surface, meanwhile, consists of four layers of split bamboo matting, which Oun says is capable of bearing as much as 4 tonnes of weight.
Gordon Evans, a technical adviser for the local NGO Buddhism for Development Action, who also has an engineering background, says that bamboo warps under pressure, meaning it “bounces” rather than breaking due to passing cars. As such, the experience of driving a car or motorbike over the bridge is like riding a wave, accompanied by the percussive and deafening rattling of the deck under the tyres.
“The deck is also a sacrificial structure, meaning that it is constantly failing under the point loads,” Evans wrote to Post Weekend. “Hence the permanent maintenance team required to keep it patched up. They’ve been doing it so long that they’ve probably developed an optimal cost/use balance for the structure; they certainly only patch up when they absolutely have to, but I don’t think anybody ever fell through it up until now.”
Weighing the benefits
Villagers on Koh Paen are of two minds about the new bridge. The location of the old bridge, which connects to the northern tip of Koh Paen, is considered by many to be far more convenient than the new site, and better serves the majority of the island’s population which is clustered towards the northern beachhead.
Hour Sothida, who sells sugar cane and fruit juices on the road outside her home in Koh Paen Kor village, the closest town to the bridge, says that like many villagers she will likely have to rethink her business model when commuters and tourists are no longer passing through.
“Some villagers want it, and some don’t,” she says. What’s more, for villagers without transportation – the elderly in particular – who would otherwise walk, the new bridge is far, “and we have to spend more on travelling, although we do not have to pay for crossing it”, she says.
Village Chief Tiev Meng Ean, 76, says it’s a matter of practicality. Villages on the south side of the island, where the new bridge connects, are happy about the modern replacement. However, the loss of tourism will definitely have an effect on the whole island economy, he says.
“[Villagers] are selling fruit to the tourists, and making quite a lot of money,” he says, adding that moto drivers, tuk-tuks and horse carts that carry tourists all benefit from the tourism the bridge brings. But as far as bridge owner Oun has noticed, the local government has expressed no interest in trying to preserve the bamboo bridge for its tourism value.
“It depends on the provincial government. I can’t afford to do it. The cement bridge may be a bit farther, but the tourists want to see this bamboo bridge. They also want to rest in the cottages, play on the beach and swim,” he says.
Oun, whose rights to the bridge extend for another two years, notes that he also won’t be compensated for income lost from having to abandon the business. His plan is to simply become a businessman in town and sell off the bridge materials and ferry boats.
Reached yesterday, Deputy Provincial Governor Sy Vantha says she does not know if Oun will abandon the bridge, but said that despite its value, there’s no thought being put into a plan to keep it, such as a subsidy.
“I am afraid the government will not pay anything to the owner to keep the bridge,” she says.
“I acknowledge the tourism value of the bamboo bridge, as well as its status as the signature landmark of Kampong Cham. I will be sad to lose it,” she says, although no actual estimate of the bridge’s economic value exists. However, she adds, the authorities believe that value is outweighed by the transportation benefits of the new bridge.
“The people will be able to travel faster and more safely with the new bridge, which will also help them in emergency situations, for example when a woman has to deliver a baby. Plus, they do not have to pay for it either. Moreover, the new bridge will help create more business operations as more people and cars would be able to travel in the region.”
For 72-year-old Hok Om, who lives in Koh Sotin village, it can’t come soon enough. “I am so happy with the new bridge . . . my family and the other people could travel more safely and anytime. I wish it would be finished soon,” he says.
But Sarim, the motodop driver, wishes they could have it both ways.
“It will be good if we can keep it, but I am afraid we could not do anything.”