It’s probably ignorant of me but I don’t think I had ever heard of boules, also known as pétanque before last week when a French colleague gave a set to the office as a Christmas gift. Since then I see it everywhere. It seems to be a sport du jour across Kampong Cham, probably across Cambodia at a guess. Each evening at 5pm the front courtyard of our office comes alive with joviality as people congregate on the allocated patch of lawn where the game has been set up and start competing loudly with each other while there’s also always a couple of people in the driveway volleying a shuttlecock between each other with the badminton rackets. Then I get on my bike and with my eyes on the traffic as much as possible, cycle past parks and sport grounds where badminton and boules are being played by many dozens of other locals in a similarly relaxed and cheerful manner. The hours between 5pm and about 7pm are a time for socialising and fun, when it feels as though all of town appear on the streets to see and be seen. The Night Market lights up with stalls of food averaging at $1 per meal, clothing stalls, a skating rink with loud music next to a games arcade and nearby some trampolines, dodgem cars and other child-alluring attractions.
Kampong Cham is the most populated of Cambodia’s 23 provinces and despite the poverty I see all around me, it is also apparently a wealthy province thanks to the fertile land which allows productive rice, tobacco, rubber and other plantations. One of the things the province’s capital city, of the same name, is most famous for, is the Bamboo Bridge which is erected at the end of the Wet Season every year, once the Mekong River level recedes enough. This year I was here during the building of the Bamboo Bridge and about ten days ago I took some photographs of it in the last stages of construction. Surprisingly, despite it’s fragile look, it is strong enough to hold vehicles, connecting people between the mainland and the island of Koh Paen, a few hundred metres out in the middle of the Mekong.
My housemates and I were looking forward to our first cycle across the Bamboo Bridge onto Koh Paen but last weekend when it opened, it was extremely windy and we decided to postpone our plans. On Sunday a new housemate who had not yet seen the bridge, went down to the riverbank to have a look at it. She came back saying that she was unable to find it. I was bemused by this because it is certainly not difficult to locate, so she must not have cycled far enough perhaps?
However, news transpired that over the weekend Vietnam had released water from a dam upstream from us and the water had gushed downstream at high speed. A car and four motorbikes were reportedly on the bamboo bridge as it started to give way to the water pressure and all made their way off the bridge post-haste, thankfully in time before the bridge gave way and fell into the water! This is apparently the first time this has ever happened. This must be devastating for the owner who pays many thousands of dollars to have it erected every year, before turning a profit by charging travellers 1,000 to 1,500 riel (about 25 to 40 cents) to cross. Only days prior I spent time convincing family and friends that this matchstick-looking bridge across the Mekong was safe, so it has also been quite an amusing outcome from my perspective!
Slightly upstream from the Bamboo Bridge, is Kizuna Bridge. This is the first permanent bridge in Cambodia to have been built across the Mekong and it was only constructed as recently as 2001. We regularly cycle across the Mekong to visit villages and temples on the opposite banks of the river. It rises steadily to the centre, before sloping back down to the other side, with views for miles both upstream and downstream, beyond floating villages and fishing boats. Horse drawn carts, overloaded trucks, motorbikes crammed with people or produce and other cyclists constantly stream across the bridge. From the balcony of our house we look downstream to the bridge which lights up at dusk, with reflections on the water reminiscent of the city lights of Manhattan shining on the Hudson River at night.