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A ferry-tale on the Mekong

A ferry-tale on the Mekong

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Passengers take the ferry across the Mekong River at Neak Luong. But for how much longer?

I know the bridge will have an impact on my job, but it is for the nation’s development.

For those travelling between Kandal and Prey Veng provinces, the Neak Luong ferry crossing seems an unnecessary delay. Especially on public holidays, when hundreds of vehicles can queue for hours on end to catch one of the three ferries that ply across the Mekong. Within a few years, this should be a thing of the past.

Work commenced on the Neak Luong Bridge in February this year. Funded by the Japanese government at an estimated cost of US$131 million, the two-kilometre bridge should be completed by February 2015. Though it will reduce the journey time between Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese border, the bridge will also have a considerable impact on the hundreds of people who rely upon the ferries for their livelihoods.

Chhit Sopha, 46, is one of about 100 staff employed by the Ministry of Public Works at the ferry crossing. Today he is piloting Peace II.

Phlegmatic about what the future holds for him, Chhit Sopha emphasises the greater good behind the project.

“I know the bridge will have an impact on my job, but it is for the nation’s development,” he says. “We know it is the national need.”

Chhit Sopha has piloted ferries across the river at Neak Luong for the past 20 years. He earns just over $50 per month for which he works seven days a week, including public holidays.

“Many people travel here on public holidays,” he says. “Even if we apply for a holiday we don’t get permission.”

According to Chhit Sopha, all the staff are in the dark as to what will happen to them once the bridge offers an alternative to the ferries.

“Maybe we will know when the bridge is nearly completed,” he says.

Not that he is unduly worried, for as a civil servant he will be redeployed somewhere, although this might be far away from his family.

“If they transfer me to another place, I will go,” he says. “But my family will still live in Neak Luong.”

The Peace II is full of young women selling all kinds of food and drink to passengers.

Sitting beside the ferry port, Srey Mich is taking a break from her sales duties. The 18-year-old has been selling drinks on the Neak Luong ferry for two years.

“At first I came with my mother,” she says. “She sells these drinks too.” Now, Srey Mich hangs around with women her own age.

According to her, there are more than 100 vendors working the ferries. Most of them are women.

Unlike Chhit Sopha, she is happy to work weekends and public holidays.

“Saturdays and Sundays are the best days, because then many garment workers take the ferry,” she says. “We can make 30,000 riel profit.” On other days she will make between 15,000 to 20,000 riel per day.

Srey Mich too is unconcerned about losing her employment when the new bridge is built. “I will get another job,” she says. “Maybe I will become a garment worker. I want to be a tailor.”  

Although Srey Mich tells us that nobody is allowed to sell goods on the ferry, once our chat is done, she scampers off in the direction of an incoming ferry with her friends, desperate to get a prime sales slot.

Pou Ly, 52, works as a security guard around the ferry.

Employed by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, like Chhit Sopha he earns $50 per month. Although officially he is supposed to stop vendors from boarding the ferries, he takes a laissez-faire approach to his duties.

“When I see a lot of vendors crowd together and get in the way of the cars, I stop them,” he says. “One or two is okay.”

Pou Ly has worked at the ferry port since 1979. The only problem he encounters is when a vehicle’s brakes fail and it shunts into the one in front of it.

He too is phlegmatic about the future. “The bridge is in the national good,” he says. “When it is built, they will transfer me to another place that does not now have security.”

TRANSLATION BY RANN REUY

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