Pace of work angers locals at Tonle Sap
Tension continues to build around the development of a key port on the Tonle Sap Lake, with residents at the lakeside town of Chong Kneas saying the slow pace of construction will hurt local businesses this rainy season.
The Chong Kneas Boat Association says the tourism sector will suffer if work by Sou Ching Investment Co., Ltd on the road linking Phnom Krom with a port on the Tonle Sap Lake is not completed before the monsoon sets in.
The dusty and potholed road south of Siem Reap city will likely transform into a 7km stretch of mud too difficult for cars to pass once the rains start, according to the boat association, which represents 220 tour boat operators at the lake.
“If the tourists can’t come it will have a deep impact on our businesses,” said Thong Ty, a member of the association.
“The Sou Ching company is taking money from tourists but it’s not respecting its contract to build a parking lot, dig a canal for boats and put in a concrete road,” he said.
Sou Ching, a Cambodian company with South Korean backing, is charged with upgrading port facilities at Chong Kneas.
However, the $2-million project agreed in May 2007 has been stalled by local villagers’ protests.
The company has said it will try to finish the road and port before the monsoon but has offered no guarantees. In the meantime, it is collecting $1 from each foreigner visiting the port.
But Ty said money paid to Sou Ching by about 3,000 foreign visitors to the lake between November and March has not resulted in improved facilities or services for tourists.
“I can see that the company hasn’t made any significant developments and tourists are still complaining about how messy the port is,” he said.
“They forced me to put my thumbprint on a letter stating that all the villagers agreed to move voluntarily…”
Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said he had been told by the Minister of Tourism, Thong Khon, that the government had barred Sou Ching from collecting money from foreigners but that the company was continuing to do so with impunity.
Sou Ching officials and local authorities, however, told the Post all problems had been resolved and Chong Kneas residents were getting carried away with their protests.
Ros Chhoudeth, director general of Sou Ching Investment, said the company had been accelerating its work during the dry season and that 60 percent of the project was now complete.
He said the canal had been dug, the road from Phnom Krom to the port had been expanded and there were plans in place to develop it into a paved road.
“They (the boat association) shouldn’t be concerned about the road as it is the responsibility of the company. If we can’t finish it on time, then they can complain about us,” Chhoudeth said.
“The problems between the company and the boat association have been resolved,” he insisted.
Chhoudeth said the boat association could better serve the tourism sector by focusing on its own services and ensuring its members were properly dressed and not polluting the lake, rather than by “interfering with the company’s affairs.”
“We will make the Chong Kneas area the second most popular tourist attraction after Angkor Wat,” he said, adding, “After development, I expect to attract at least 80 percent of tourists who visit Siem Reap.”
But while the road to the 50-hectare port has been widened to ten meters, doing so has heightened tensions between villagers and Sou Ching. In January, 300 roadside homes were dismantled to allow for the upgrade.
Voan Savath, a farmer in her 40s whose home was dismantled by the company, said the promised economic boost from more tourists could not come soon enough.
She said local authorities promised 20,000 riel ($5) for each family that was forced to move due to the road upgrade, but claimed few families had received any money.
“They forced me to put my thumbprint on a letter stating that all the villagers agreed to move voluntarily and that they won’t complain in the future,” Savath said, adding that “some villagers could not rebuild their homes after they had been dismantled.”
Provincial authorities downplayed problems surrounding the port project. Siem Reap Deputy Governor Ung Oeun told the Post that the boat association and Sou Ching Investment had been urged to reach a compromise and that the company had paid compensation to all villagers affected by the road expansion.
“There is no more problem because the company has completely resolved it,” Oeun said. “We should cooperate together to attract tourists because they come not only to visit the temples but also the Tonle Sap.”
CATA president Ho Vandy said he did not care who controlled the Chong Kneas area so long as it was developed and made an enjoyable place for tourists.
“But the Sou Ching company is taking money form tourists without development so I will raise the issue at the next government and private sector forum [on April 23],” he said.
The meetings are held in Phnom Penh every six months to discuss national and location-specific tourism issues. Objections over the Tonle Sap port project were raised at the last forum in September, although little progress was made towards ending the dispute.