Phnom Penh sometimes feels like one big construction site. But once you get out of the city, it’s easy to forget that Cambodia as a whole is a country in flux. Kampot has a sleepy veneer, but monstrous tourism developments threaten to change this riverside town forever. Offshore islands are slated for a similar fate, and land appropriation continues to infringe on landscapes in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri.
Koh Pen Bridge in Kampong Cham is a powerful symbol of Cambodia’s changing landscape. It exposes the tensions between old and new. It asks us, what takes precedence: making life easier for locals, or preserving relics from Cambodia’s past for tourist consumption?
We were incredibly lucky to be in Kampong Cham on the day the 2016 Koh Pen bamboo bridge opened. We caught our first glimpse of the snaking bridge from the backseat of a tuk-tuk, and I was honestly blown away by the sheer scale of it. Our visit was made all the more special by the news that 2016 would be the last year the bridge is in service. It’s soon to be replaced by a multi-lane concrete bridge that is under construction just downstream.
So Koh Pen Bridge will hold the title of the longest bamboo bridge in the world for a few more months at least.
Stretching some 300m across the turgid waters of the Mekong, the bridge connects Koh Pen island with mainland Kampong Cham’s western bank. Made completely of bamboo, it’s strong and wide enough to carry a small car (we saw a few pass over the bridge while we were there). Small light globes strung along bamboo poles guide evening and pre-dawn commuters, and fishermen dock at the bamboo jetty three-quarters of the way down the bridge.
When I last visited Kampong Cham in early August, there was no trace of the bridge at all. At the start of each rainy season (around June), the bridge is dismantled by hand and the bamboo materials stored away. The Mekong’s surges during the middle part of the year are just too strong for the bridge to survive. Ferry boat services shuttle school children and market-goers from bank to bank instead.
Once the waters have receded far enough and the Mekong’s currents have subdued, construction on a new bridge commences. The process takes about a month to complete and employs dozens of men from the surrounding villages. First, tall bamboo poles are rammed into the riverbed and another layer of horizontal poles added on top. More poles at different angles brace the foundation. The pattern they create reminds me of a similar cross-hatch on the underside of U Bein Bridge in Myanmar, the world’s longest teak bridge.
The top of Koh Pen Bridge is made up of relatively flat strips of bamboo. Sandwiched together in a thick sheet, the surface is reinforced with three vertical lengths of bamboo that run the length of the bridge and act as lane markers. I didn’t see any evidence of nails – only wires twisted like cable ties to secure the poles together.
The bridge is a lot lower than I expected, skimming the surface of the river in places. Its bamboo stilts reach highest on the Kampong Cham side, where I took most of these photos.
The bridge is open to all modes of transport – pedestrians, cyclists, tuk-tuks, motos and small cars. Riding our bikes over the bamboo was surprisingly difficult. None of the thousands upon thousands of horizontal-running bamboo striations are quite level, so it’s a slippery, bumpy ride and a hard push to get up and over the different layers. Speeding motorbikes send shock waves across the bridge, threatening to throw unsteady travellers off their feet and onto a menacing row of blunt bamboo spikes that line the bridge’s edge.
For all its difficulty, riding across Koh Pen Bridge was the highlight of our recent trip to Kampong Cham. The villages of Koh Pen on the other side are verdant and idyllic – the perfect setting for a lazy afternoon bike ride.
Once we finished our ride and returned to Kampong Cham, we ran into a man who teaches English in town but lives over on Koh Pen. He’s one of hundreds who use this bridge for their daily commute during the dry season. For residents of Koh Pen’s humble villages, watching the bridge go up in November must feel like you’re being extended a lifeline. Our new friend confirmed that this was the first day of the 2016 season and that next year, the new bridge (still just an eerie shadow rising in the distance) would take the bamboo bridge’s place.