Boats have plied the Mekong crossing at Neak Loeung for generations, providing work for drivers and food vendors alike. With the looming completion of a multi-million dollar bridge, the community eyes an uncertain future
After pulling up in the dusty waiting lot of the Neak Loeung ferry port, motos, cars, trucks, minibuses and full-size tourist buses are all mobbed by sellers bearing baskets of peanuts, fried grasshoppers, lotus pods, soft drinks, shrimp and other snacks.
Four hulking ferries – named Ta Prohm, Vishnu, Santhapheap and Samaki – ply the busy Mekong River crossing on National Road 1 between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City.
From the boat, passengers are given a perfect vantage point to watch progress on the Japanese-funded Tsubasa Bridge, a couple of kilometres upstream, construction of which began in 2011.
When it opens in a couple of months, the 2,220 metre bridge will be the longest in Cambodia. Motorists will be able to whizz by in five minutes – rather than waiting up to an hour or longer for a boat.
But it will also replace the ferry and threatens to put everyone who relies on it for their livelihood out of work.
Among them is Poch Sarath, who has been captain of the Ta Prohm for more than 20 years. In a cabin high above the deck, Sarath, 51, steers the ferry using two wheels attached to a panel of switches and red warning lights.
The setup is mirrored behind him and he slides between the two on a chair on rails, depending on which direction he’s going.
He said it took about a week to get the hang of it, learning from his father, who was a ferryman from the Sihanouk era until the late 1990s. “It’s easier than driving a car,” he said. Sarath’s brother captains the Santepheap and his brother-in-law is a ferry parking attendant.
Sometimes, the ferry has to stop operating during bad weather, when wind and rain makes capsizing a real possibility – although Sarath has never had an accident.
In the past, the brakes on cars have failed and they have ended up in the water. In June last year, two women drowned when their Toyota Hilux drove into the Mekong while boarding.
There have been minor accidents, and occasionally motorists get into fights. “Sometimes, people in expensive cars don’t listen to the ferry staff and get angry,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do about it because they are rich and powerful.”
Sarath is worried about what will happen once the ferry has gone. The government says it will be relocated, but has not revealed where.
“This job is my food bowl,” he said. “I don’t know if they will be able to give me another job like this nearby. I’ve just got to wait and see.”
Ferries have carried people across the Mekong at Neak Loeung, on the border between Kandal and Prey Veng, for as long as anybody can remember.
Sitting on a couch made of an old car backseat at her home near the ferry dock on the western bank of the river, 80-year-old San Saron said she used to catch the ferry when she was a little girl.
“I was so happy when I first took the ferry with my mother to bring groceries to sell at the other side. It was loud and slow.”
Back then the ferries were smaller and made of wood, more like barges, and people used to take groceries - mostly sugar, cigarettes, salt and MSG - across to sell to the Vietnamese.
Between 1975 and 1979 when the Khmer Rouge were in control of the country, the ferry continued to operate but was restricted to uses authorised by the Khmer Rouge cadres, mainly carrying soldiers.
“We were very happy when we were allowed to use the ferry again,” Saron said.
After the fall of the regime, Saron began selling pork and rice at the ferry port, and now seven of her family members work in different food stalls there.
Her granddaughter Soun Sophanna, 31, sells Khmer noodle soup to waiting motorists making up to 20,000 riel profit per day.
“I’ve worked here since I was 11,” Sophanna said. “It’s a shame the ferry is shutting down. It’s going to put a lot of people out of work.
“I’ll probably move my stall over to the village market.”
Not everyone is unhappy about the new bridge.
Chea Pov, 50, has been a truck driver for 10 years bringing goods – such as clothes and beer – from Vietnam to Phnom Penh. He uses the ferry every day, paying $15 each time.
He said it added at least an hour and sometimes much longer to the trip.
“Sometimes we arrive at the ferry after midnight when it stops, and we have to wait until 5:30am when it starts again,” he said.
“If we have the bridge, it will be easier for me to cross anytime and no need to wait.”
Pov can thank the Japanese government – which spent 9 billion yen (about $80 million) on the bridge – for making his daily haul a little easier.
When Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the bridge with Japanese vice foreign minister Kazuyuki Nakane on January 14 to announce that the bridge would be opened before Khmer New Year in April, he officially dubbed it the Tsubasa (which means bird wings in Japanese) Bridge, as a gesture of appreciation.
“The bridge is part of the ASEAN highway, which links the western part of Kandal province and the eastern part of Prey Veng province toward Vietnam,” he said.
“It will facilitate cross-border transportation and tourism between Cambodia and Vietnam.”
Hun Sen also revealed the bridge would feature on the new 500-riel note alongside another Japanese funded project, Kampong Cham’s Kizona bridge.
Kim Borey, director general of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, on Thursday said no decision had been made on where the Neak Loeung ferries would go once the new bridge was opened.
“We have not decided where to transfer the ferries yet but, of course, we will run it in the new site with new or former officials who have experience in this work,” he said.
There are hopes that the bridge – the longest suspension cable bridge in Cambodia – could become a tourist attraction and create work for snack sellers.
Takayoshi Kuromiya, counsellor of the Embassy of Japan, which has overseen the project, said some people would find the design of the bridge interesting.
“In fact, bridges similar to the Tsubasa Bridge are famous tourist destinations in Japan,” he said in an email. “We understand that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport has a construction plan [for] a ‘roadside station’ nearby the bridge.”
But most of the dozens of stallholders and sellers are expected to scatter once the bridge is opened.
Some will set up stalls elsewhere in the area, others will move away to seek work.
Ngi Sary, a Prek Tonlab commune chief, said most of the sellers were local people and had been informed of the ferry’s impending closure years ago.
“They have prepared themselves to move, change, sell or continue their business in different places such as the nearby Neak Leoung Market, or other markets in different provinces,” he said.
“I felt sorry for my local villagers, but this is called country development, so that we need to lose one and get one. It means that we cannot take both benefits at the same time.”
He added that some people might be able to move over to sell to tourists near the bridge, but not as many people would stop and buy snacks.
Chailong Sereymom, a 27-year-old with two children who lives in Neak Loueng, rides the ferry all day selling peanuts from a basket that she carries around on her head.
“I’ll try and find another job – maybe in a garment factory,” she said. “I’d like to save up some money and open a shop at my own house.”
“I can survive here easily making 5,000 to 10,000 riel a day, but now I’ll have to move far away from my family to find work.”
Most of those who make a living from the ferry accept that, while they will suffer from its loss, the bridge will benefit the country as a whole.
“I don’t blame anyone,” said Neang Mom, 42, matter-of-factly, even though she earns nearly twice as much selling seafood from her stall on the eastern side of the Mekong than she could in Phnom Penh. “It’s the government policy and we are the citizens, so we’ll just have to adapt.”
Additional reporting by Taing Vida.