In the town of Kompang Cham, Cambodia, every year after the monsoon season, they build a bridge over to a very large and fertile island, where tons of food is grown for many Cambodians. The Mekong River is shallow here, shallow enough to drive bridge supports into the mud without heavy machinery and the river is slow enough not to dislodge them. The men use big wooden mallets and the supports that they use to construct the bridge are bamboo, cut on a very sharp angle. The whole bridge is made entirely of bamboo.
The bridge is nearly half a mile long and it can support vehicles, even trucks, and it is strong enough to have the entire bridge in bumper to bumper traffic during “rush hour.” It takes a crew of 20 men a few weeks to build it. The bridge workers come in on a floating workshop made out of bamboo that they dock alongside the bridge.
Two thousand families live on the island that the bridge services who depend on the bridge to transport their wares to market, send their older children to school, or get to a hospital. Before the rains return in June/July, they dissemble the bridge, and can recycle a great amount of the bamboo for other construction projects. In the rainy season, the same bridge builders work two ferry boats that are kept constantly busy.
The bamboo bridge, the only one like it in the world, is a huge undertaking every year. It is a perfect example of the resiliency of the Cambodian spirit, their tenacity to not give up, and their endearing positive happy outlook, which is necessary to continue moving forward on their road to recovery.
(building a second lane)
After learning about the horrors the Cambodians have endured in the late 70’s( see previous post on The Killing Fields), I was greatly heartened to learn of all the recovery re-hab programs in place to help them. The Lonely Planet guidebook helps a traveler to locate restaurants where NGO sponsored programs may take young women who were victims of sex trafficking, or came from impoverished villages, and teaches them how to work in the hospitality trade. They are young and sweet and work so hard to do a good job, holding their pointed hands close to their chest in gratitude, wearing constant smiles. One such restaurant in Kompang Cham is called Smile Restaurant, located right around the corner from our hotel. They also have a weaving school and they sell the beautiful cotton scarves at the restaurant. On the menu, they ask for your patience as they learn their trade and to speak English at the same time. Their friendliness was heart warming. I’ve never been to a country of more gracious, happy people.
In the town of Kratie, Cambodia, we stayed at the Tonle Training Center’s guesthouse run by the Cambodian Rural Development Team. This NGO focuses on sustainable tours along the Mekong River. They also train disadvantaged youth in housekeeping as well as in the restaurant business. We spent three nights at this beautiful wooden guesthouse while we explored nearby islands on bikes and went out to see the very rare Irrawaddy Dolphins, only 75 left on the planet. Since the Mekong has been overfished, the fishermen now offer their little, wooden boats as a vehicle to explore the wide Mekong for the dolphins, who moving freely between the numerous islands. It felt good to support the Cambodians and contribute to a brighter future, as opposed to dropping bombs on them.
In the town of Seam Reap, Cambodia, we visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum where one man who began his life as a soldier at the age of 13, dedicated his adult life to locating active land mines and deactivating them in villages all over Cambodia. Since he spent years laying them, he new how to make them safe again. He has found over 50,000 mines, the likes of which have made many Cambodians limbless, especially children who find them in the jungle while playing. He has turned the museum grounds into a home for handicapped land mine victims, polio victims and the very poor. They attend school, learn English, learn to grow their own food and a supporting trade.
When we realized that the US is responsible for the setting/dropping of many of these land mines, set during the Vietnam War, we were at least heartened to learn that our country contributes the most money towards locating and deactivating the mines. (It can cost about $250 to do the process of one mine).
Every town we visited in Cambodia, we learned of restaurants for a good cause that we could choose to support, many helping orphans making the step from institutions to employment. There were gift shops that promote fair trade, enterprises that help HIV positive women earn a living, a weaving gift shop that provides work for rehab landmine and polio victims, an art store that takes children’s art work (taught at their art school) and transforms them into cards, t-shirts, mugs etc to help pay for their education and art school.
But one of the most amazing experiences was at the Seeing Eye Massage, where sweet little blind Cambodians navigated the massage room by sliding their hands along the walls. They didn’t need to see your body as they mapped out your muscles in their mind. The strong little people spent as much time hovering over you on the massage table, straddling you and even walking on you to apply pressure using their weight for massaging. Todd was reluctant to go but was completely amazed at their skill level and their strength. Afterwards, he said affectionately, “Those little fuckers are strong!” Oh- $7.00 for an hour long session too!
The highlight of our Cambodian experience was the Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap. We heard there was a social justice message in the performance but we were not prepared for the superior level of professionalism and skill. Part mime, part dance, part theatre, and amazing acrobats, the performance told the story of a Cambodian woman who like everyone else in the country, lost so many family members to murder during the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. She made a choice to help the youth by teaching them circus skills. It takes an average of eight years to train, and while doing so, they also learn to speak excellent English as well as do their school work, get an education and gain incredible confidence. These youth are from the poorest and most disadvantaged villages. Over 250 youth have moved through the program which travels the world to many countries performing. There were times during the performance, set inside an intimate circular Big Top tent, that the audience was moved to tears, witnessing the deep emotion portrayed by the dancers as they acted out their people’s road from horror to recovery. I don’t remember ever feeling so hopeful for a people in all my travels.
…The bamboo bridge in Kompang Cham flexes and moves as you roll your bicycle over the bamboo“road.” It is springy and organic and quite narrow when motorbikes pass only inches to your side. You must focus, hold onto the handlebars tightly, ignore the water of the Mekong only inches to your side. The river flows underneath the bamboo bridge- wide and muddy. If the river happens to swell from sudden unexpected rains, and reach the bridge, the bridge merely floats on the top of the flooding water, buoyant and resilient, going with the flow. It would not collapse but just bend and give slowly. It reminds me of the Cambodian people- willing to rebuild over and over, year after year, using what they have to work with, their spirit strong and flexible and enduring. We visitors have so many opportunities to help and it feels wonderful to choose them, propelling the Cambodian people down their road to recovery.