Flatbed trucks flooded into Neak Loeung yesterday morning bearing villagers, monks and bands of raucous children banging on metal drums in an unofficial parade toward the opening ceremony for the Tsubasa Bridge.
In the distance, the winged, modern spires of the Japanese-funded structure glowed orange on the horizon but its roads stood empty and untouched.
For the past 36 years, travellers have relied on four ageing ferry boats to travel across this segment of the Mekong River, once the site of a misdirected American bombing run that killed more than a hundred civilians.
Now, the gleaming 2,200-metre span, which links Kandal and Prey Veng provinces along National Road 1 and cost the Japanese government $127 million, is expected to cut travel time significantly.
By 7:30am yesterday, an estimated 10,000 people had gathered in rows of plastic chairs. They tore apart government-distributed baguettes while awaiting the arrival of Prime Minister Hun Sen and Akihiro Nishimura, the Japanese state minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. A live band crooned the ’70s American classic I’d Love You to Want Me.
“I’ve hoped to have a bridge for many years, so today my dream came true,” Hun Sen said when he took the stage. On behalf of himself and “Cambodian people nationwide who benefit from this bridge”, he thanked Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Japanese people for their contribution.
The prime minister emphasised that the bridge, seen as a vital trade passage between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, will be instrumental in the development of the region and for all of Cambodia.
“From now on, Cambodian people no longer need to wait,” he said.
The premier was jovial in noting the bridge had been completed in time to accommodate travel during Khmer New Year. However, Hun Sen also advised caution, appealing to heartbroken Cambodians not to use the bridge as a place to come with suicidal intentions, to avoid overloading its roads and to respect the Traffic Law.
While a number of locals employed on the ferries and in related commerce told the Post in January that they feared their livelihoods will be compromised by the dramatic infrastructural change, most spoken to yesterday were simply eager to experience a quicker commute. What was once usually an hour journey – though sometimes taking up to 10 hours due to holiday-period jams – can now be completed in five minutes.
“Before, sick people had to wait for the ferry,” said Khmao Rum, a 65-year-old from Preak Dach commune. Rum recalled the terror of relying on uncertain ferry service when his child had a high fever.
“The bridge will save time and money for villagers who transport their agriculture, but most important, it will save the lives of Cambodian people,” he explained.
Mok Koy, 50, a primary school teacher, agreed: “Now we can travel faster and save money. The site will be booming in business”.
For 16-year-old Lonh Srey Nead, who is able to get a better education across the water from her home, missing hours of class due to ferry delays should no longer be a problem.
After the prime minister’s remarks, dignitaries marched to the mouth of the bridge, where a red ribbon was stretched. As the tape was cut, uniformed girls released bands of coloured balloons into the sky.
Within minutes, the road grew thick with the first vehicles to use the bridge. Many teenagers drove with their phones held in front of them to film the ride.
Despite the premier’s warning, the area quickly congested and made the crossing into a half-hour trek.
But commuters remain confident.
“I am happy,” said Neat Samoun, 55, who has lived on the Kandal side of the bridge for two decades.
“From now on, I don’t have to worry. I can travel any time.”