Koh Paen residents aim to keep bamboo bridge tradition alive

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Each year, Koh Paen residents built a seasonal, kilometre-long bamboo bridge for cars and pedestrians to cross the Mekong when the water levels were too low for a ferry. Pha Lina

Koh Paen residents aim to keep bamboo bridge tradition alive

Connecting the island of Koh Paen to Kampong Cham city in Kampong Cham province is a giant 779m concrete bridge, opened in March last year, able to carry loads of 20 to 30 tonnes across the Mekong river.

Is it functional? Perhaps. Does it have any charm? Absolutely not.

But 2km south down the Mekong used to sit another bridge fulfilling a similar function, less robust and practical, but exuding an antiquated charm by anyone’s estimation.

Each year, for decades, the island residents of Koh Paen built a seasonal, kilometre-long (1,000m) bamboo bridge for cars and pedestrians to cross the Mekong when the water levels were too low for a ferry. And each year, when the rains swelled the river, the elements would tear it down again.

For local residents, the bridge was 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 remains hard to pinpoint.

Prior to 1973, the bridge was owned collectively by a company established by 14 villagers from the island, according to 74-year-old Nai Seang, speaking to The Post back in 2017. She joined the company in 1964, purchasing two shares for 7,000 riel (approximately $1,500 after adjusting for inflation).

Back then, the bridge 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 (equivalent to $0.19 and $0.37 today, respectively). As the youngest in the company when she joined at the age of 22, she was the sole surviving member.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The bamboo bridge also serves as a major tourist attraction for both local and international visitors. Pha Lina

“The knowledge would be passed down from one generation of builders to the next,” she said. 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 indicates that it dates back to at least the 1940s.

That the bridge has become a tourist attraction was 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.

But back in March last year, as the concrete monolith neared completion, for the first time in decades the residents of Koh Paen decided against building their bridge as a river crossing for vehicles.

Yung Oun, the owner of the old bamboo bridge, told The Post that it served as a major tourist attraction in the province, for both local and international visitors, so the loss of the bamboo bridge signalled a loss of money for the area too.

To avoid this, last year enterprising locals decided to keep the tradition alive on a smaller scale by building a tourist friendly, pedestrian only bridge as a replacement.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The new 779m concrete bridge, opened in March last year, connects Kampong Cham city to Koh Paen. Pha Lina

“Last year, our new bridge was only 700 metres. This year, we will construct it up to 800 metres,” said 60-year-old Bun Dara, a former Institute of Technology of Cambodia engineer and owner of the new bamboo bridge.

The bridge, built using more than 20,000 bamboo sticks, was officially opened on December 1. It is open from dawn to dusk, including weekends and holidays.

“On a normal day, I see about 30 to 50 people walking across the bridge,” said Dara.

To cross the bridge, pedestrians cost 2,000 riel, a motorbike costs 5,000 riel, a vehicle or tuk-tuk costs 10,000 riel and a larger vehicle costs 20,000 riel.

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