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Battered Border Road Looks for a Revamp

An old motorbike with two large baskets affixed bounces slowly down a bumpy road in Kampot province. The poor condition of the road, which runs to the Prek Chak checkpoint on the Vietnam border, makes it nearly impossible to use, and this driver is one of the few people trying it these days.

Locals, government officials and economists say the ill repair of Kampot’s Road 33 does more than slow motorcycles: it slows trade and economic growth.

“There is no betterment in my business, because the road is too bad, where I have to spend more time and money both for traveling,” said Hun Tan, 51, whose entire business is the transporting of cow collars and plastic sacks from Vietnam for sale in Kampot’s market.

Every two or three days, Hun Tan drives Road 33 to Vietnam and back, netting around 30,000, or $7, per trip. The bad roads, he said recently, mean “no progress in trade activities or tourism.”

The Prek Chak border crossing, which links Kampot to Vietnam’s An Giang province, is a potential economic route for what analysts call the Mekong’s Southern Economic Corridor.

“Business remains the same, and people are still poor, because nothing has been improved these past few years,” said Chiv Sothea, deputy chief of CamControl’s Prek Chak operation.

Tun Chanty, who works in the customs office, said only 10 to 20 people cross the border for business purposes each day, putting the trade value at only $6 million a year.

Cambodia exports about $1 million worth of goods each year, including seafood, mangoes and vegetables, he said. It imports around $5 million in beans, oil and spices.

To boost trade, Prek Chak was made an international border point in 2008, but it remains one of the quietest of crossings, thanks to 15 kilometers of Road 33.

The quiet border benefits only around 18,000 of the province’s 600,000 people, said Ouk Sarath, secretary-general of Kampot municipality. That number will rise if Road 33 is fixed, he said.

Construction on the road is expected to begin next year, with $15 million from the Asian Development Bank and the Australian government, matched with $3.7 million from the government.

A portion of the funds will be used to build new checkpoints, including at Prek Chak.

Within five years, said Eric Sidgwick, a senior economist for the ADB, people will benefit from increased trade activities, which will help the government be less reliant on the garment industry.