Framed by the archway of the old Customs tower nearby, the new bridge rises in hi-tech splendor from the waters of the Mekong.
BRIDGE across the Mekong River at Kampong Cham is absolutely indispensable ... to
facilitate traffic across the Mekong," the French Colonial Resident of Kampong
Cham wrote to the French Resident Superieur au Cambodge in Phnom Penh on June 29,
1937. "The current ferry system is slow and inconvenient."
As a state-of-the art Japanese government/Asian Development Bank funded Mekong River
bridge project takes shape in Kampong Cham, documents recently unearthed at Cambo-dia's
National Archives reveal that a similar bridge pro-ject was first mooted by French
colonial authorities more than half a century ago.
The French advocated the construction of a Mekong River bridge as an essential link
in "la Route Coloniale" and to boost the tourism potential of the area.
Less benignly, the French perceived a Kampong Cham bridge as a tactical necessity
for troop movements between Saigon and Poipet to defend against possible territorial
incursions by Thais who, the Kampong Cham Resident emphasized, "...want nothing
less than Cambodia, all of Laos and the entire northwest of Cochinchine."
The French proposal died on Aug 20, 1937, when J. Tastet, Principal Engineer d'Arrondissement
du Cambodge decried the budgetary strain of the project "that could cost more
than FF2 million".
Sixty-two years later, the dream of the long-dead French colonial chief of Kampong
Cham is becoming a reality.
Looming over Kampong Cham's business district from the center of the Mekong River
stand the massive concrete foundations of what by 2002 will be a $62 million, 1,360
meter bridge, Cambodia's first fixed-link across the Mekong.
And while "la Route Colon-iale" is just a memory, contemporary Japanese
planners envisage the bridge project as a key component in a massive infrastructure
project that will link Route 6 and Route 7 and establish a smooth and speedy land
route from the Laos border to Sihanoukville.
"The Mekong River has always divided the east and west parts of Cambodia,"
explained Kazumasa Tada, Chief Engineer for the Nippon Koei Co. which is overseeing
the bridge's construction. "When this bridge is finished, Cambodia will no longer
be divided into east and west."
The latest incarnation of Kampong Cham's Mekong River bridge project began in 1993.
"The plan [to build the bridge] was a joint Cambodian-Japanese idea," explained
Kazuyuki Myose, Second Secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh. "In
1995, we started research on the most suitable sites, and last year the actual construction
in Kampong Cham began."
Myose predicts the bridge will significantly reduce traveling time between the east
side of the Mekong and Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville Port, spurring a boom in agricultural
development on the east side of the Mekong.
Tada, however, is more conservative in assessing specific economic windfalls from
the bridge's construction.
"Estimating the economic benefits at this stage is difficult, but study the
example of the development that occurred after Phnom Penh's Japanese Bridge was repaired
in 1993," Tada said. "Look at the development that occurred on the east
side of the Tonle Sap where previously there was virtually nothing."
According to Shigetoshi Harada, Project Manager for Taisei Corporation, the bridge's
main contractor, after a year of construction "the superstructure is almost
"We have 429 workers from Cambodia, Japan, China, Burma, the Philippines and
Indonesia," Harada said of the project that will eventually require 60,000 cubic
meters of concrete and 7,000 tonnes of steel.
Division of labor is done on the basis of nationality, Harada explained.
"The Indonesians are responsible for the boats we use on the project,"
Harada said. "Chinese and Burmese work as our office staff."
And while Harada was unaware until informed by the Post of the original French colonial
proposal to build a similar bridge in Kampong Cham 62 years ago, he claims to have
been inspired by the notion.
"We didn't know [about the French plan]," Harada said. "[But] my motivation
to build the bridge [has] become stronger than before due to [this] information."