In remote Cambodia, bridge extends promise of change

Proposed project could boost local towns' prospects - and help link traditional rivals Cambodia and Vietnam

International politics and technology arrived in this bustling Mekong River village in 1973 when it was devastated by a US bombing raid, an episode dramatized in the film "The Killing Fields." These Cambodian villagers think their next major encounter with globalization will be better.

Life both here in Neak Luong and in Kampong Chamlang, a village just across the river, ebbs and flows with the ferries that shuttle people, trucks, and goods from one to the other.

But residents on both sides hope the announcement last month of a Japanese plan to build a bridge connecting the two towns, located on the road between Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, will improve business in the depressed area, where children play in piles of garbage and swim naked in the ferries filthy wake.

The prospect nonetheless comes at a difficult time for Cambodia and Vietnam, which have never shared a warm connection. While official results have not been announced in Cambodia's July 27 national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen, almost unanimously supported by the ethnic Vietnamese community, appears likely to remain in power, according to early returns.

Still, several populist opposition parties based their campaigns on xenophobia, accusing Vietnamese businessmen and illegal immigrants of exploiting Cambodia's forests and rivers. At least one minor party called for the expulsion of ethnic Vietnamese from Cambodia.

In this tense atmosphere, Nguyen Duy Hung, Vietnam's ambassador to Cambodia, says a bridge could help boost tourism and trade across the border.

Though a good road connecting Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is, at least on the Cambodian side, far from completion, the local villages stand to benefit from the project, a speck on a proposed Asian highway network that might eventually connect Seoul to Singapore. And over time, the increased flow of people could ease longstanding tensions between between the two countries.

A transcontinental highway is little more than an abstraction in Neak Luong. Residents here are simply excited about the bridge's promised convenience and benefits. It would enable them to cross the river free. Ferry tickets cost 100 riel (3 cents) for people and up to 8,500 riel ($2.12) for vehicles, prohibitive sums for many locals. When the ferry stops running, crossings can be made only on private boats, which are less frequent and charge more.

Mao Vantha, a ferry worker whose smart khaki uniform contrasts sharply with the town's overwhelming poverty, knows that the town's development would leave him unemployed. When the bridge comes, he says, he doesn't know how he could earn a living. "I'll go on government compensation," he jokes bitterly.

Also worried are those who depend on the rhythms of the ferry, like the hawkers who sell grasshoppers, frogs, lotus pods, and other snacks.

"No one will need us to carry their belongings," bemoans Pha Rith, a bicycle courier who makes up to 7,000 riel per day on the ferry.

But the overwhelming mood in the towns is optimistic, people worry only that the bridge will not come fast enough.

Mom Saren, a truck driver bringing rice, fish paste, and people who cannot afford the bus east to Vietnam, says the bridge would make his work easier. "I won't have to spend time here," he says.

In an address broadcast on Cambodian radio, Prime Minister Hun Sen thanked Japan for the offer and asked them to build it before the bridge linking Cambodia and Laos, another Japan has offered.

In an e-mail, Mitsue Tamagake, program assistantat the Japan International Cooperation Agency's (JICA) Phnom Penh office, which will oversee construction, says the study will begin this fiscal year to determine the bridge's exact location, design, and cost. She estimates construction will 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, according to Tamagake.

In 2001, JICA completed a $56 million bridge crossing the Mekong in Kampong Cham, about 130 miles upriver. The governor there, Cheang Am, confirms the highest hopes of those waiting for the bridge here in Neak Leong. Calling it a "great asset," he says land prices, outside investment, and tourism have increased regionally since the bridge's completion.

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