Shinya Hanaoka, Tokyo Institute of Technology
There is a national highway that cuts across Cambodia from east to west. Situating the capital Phnom Penh in the middle, Highway 1 runs to the east to the Vietnamese border and Highway 5 stretches to the west to the Thailand border. It is also designated as the Asian Highway 1 (AH: Asian Highway), one of the major highways in Cambodia. It is also designated as the Southern Economic Corridor, one of the three Economic Corridors established by the Asian Development Bank in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS: Greater Mekong Sub-region), serving as the main cross-border transportation highway connecting cities in three countries; Bangkok-Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh City.
In mid-September 2014, as a collaboration project between a major Japanese truck manufacturer and Hanaoka Research Group, I conducted field research to drive through the entire Southern Economic Corridor. We drove Toyota Hiace Van for the total of 1,000 km (575 km in Cambodia), while gathering information on the road and bridge maintenance, pavement management, traffic volume, kinds of trucks on the roads, and the border facilities. As smooth border-crossing is the key element of cross-border transportation, experiencing it at first hand is an important mission. In Phnom Penh, we visited JICA and JETRO field offices, as well as the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to conduct some interviews.
In the end of 2015, ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is materializing. AEC’s goal is to make ASEAN one regional economic integration. Among the many initiatives, one of the largest is the elimination of tariffs on all intra-ASEAN goods. With some exceptions of goods and phasing schedules, the establishment of AEC is anticipated to vitalize the regional trade flow. Although the Greater Mekong-subregion (= Indonesian Peninsula) is one landmass, the main method of transportation among the five countries (T & CLMV) is the ocean transport. Even without reliable statistics, it is said that more than 90% of goods transport between the main cities is via sea, and only a fraction is via land. The main reason for this is the much cheaper cost of the ocean transport in comparison with the land and the air. In the future, however, if the value of goods rises with the regional economic development and the importance of the transport time increases as the global supply chain expands, it is predicted that the shift from the cheap and slow ocean transport to costly but fast land transport will occur. What will the Greater Mekong-subregion land transport look like in the year 2030? As a person with an expertise in this area, it is expected that I make a good prediction as the result of this collaborative research.
The first day, we left Bangkok in early morning. The main highway in Thailand is 4 lanes and the condition of the pavement is not so different from Japan. I have driven in Thailand many times before, and the scenery along the road is familiar. The main difference between here and Cambodia is the amount of traffic of privately owned cars. In Thailand, the rate of automovil possession has been steadily increasing, and you can see many privately owned cars among the trucks on the major highways between the cities. We arrived at the border of Thailand and Cambodia, Aranyaprathet (Thailand) – Paoy Paet (Cambodia). Here in the area between the two countries’ immigration facilities¹, there are a few casinos. Because gambling is prohibited in Thailand, the casinos were constructed at the border. This was my second time crossing this border since 2009, and the scenery had not been changed in five years.
I have crossed many land borders. Japanese people living in the island country cannot experience crossing land borders leaving their own country, but because I chose cross-border transportation as my research topic and visited many landlocked countries in the world, it became sort of my “hobby” to cross land-borders. As it was five years ago, this border was crowded. On the exiting Thailand side, there were four booths and it took 40 minutes to get out. The Cambodian side also had four booths. On the Thailand side, there was one line, but on the Cambodian side, lines formed in each booth. As it is in the airport, there are many differences in the processing speed which depends on the officer. Some of us went through in 30 minutes, but some of us (including me) took more than an hour. Sometimes, you end up paying an official payment called Tea Money. This time, everyone except myself had to pay the Tea Money on the Thailand side. Westerners and Japanese (maybe Chinese as well) were called aside to check temperature for Ebola, while Thai and Cambodian went through without stopping. Some of the officers demanded a fee of $1. The three colleague of mine had to pay. Our driver also was stopped for trivial claim and had to pay the unofficial payment when leaving the border facility. He kept lamenting in English such corrupted culture of Cambodia for a while to me who was sitting next to him. Tired after two hours of border crossing, we headed for the 2nd largest city in Cambodia, Battambang for the night. The highway 5 is mostly two lanes, except in some of the cities. The condition of the pavement is not as good as Thailand but not so bad. This highway was constructed by Japanese ODA (Yen Loan). With Japanese assistance, there are also plans to make the entire length of the highway four lanes, and to extend bypass roads around major cities along the way. These plans anticipate the traffic increase in the future.
The 2nd day drive was to Phnom Penh. We stopped by at a Roadside Station that suddenly appeared on the roadside (Photo 1). This is also constructed with assistance from JAIF, a Japanese fund. As you can see, it is neatly maintained, but very few cars are parked. I have visited one in Laos’ major highway which was also not used at all. The reason is simple. In Cambodia, hardly anyone drives long distance with privately owned cars, and the major highway is mainly used by trucks and occasional long-distance buses, or some privately owned cars traveling local. This Roadside Station will not be in use until the country achieves the economic development to the degree that the majority of people own private cars. The timing of the establishment of such facility was too soon. When we stopped by, there were several people in the facility. I asked our driver to talk to them, and found that they were just people in the neighborhood who came to have some breakfast. This is a good example of how not all things successful in Japan are going to be successful overseas. Incidentally in Thailand, gas stations often have convenient stores and cafes, (sometimes even supermarkets) and some of the larger ones are always busy. The “Road Stations” might become successful in Thailand. The worst paved roads were around Phnom Penh. Some sections were repeatedly flooded in the rainy season, and the roads were under major construction. We arrived at Phnom Penh in the afternoon, and visited newly opened, much talked about AEON Mall. Inside were very expensive restaurants and shops from Cambodian standard of living, but was very crowded. The popularity of the place seems to be a sign of coming big changes in Phnom Penh in the next few years. On the other hand, such establishments made me realize the contrasts between the city and the rural areas. It is said that in most countries in the world, if there is no military conflict, people can manage living in the cities. A temporary visitor does not have a chance to witness extreme poverty. The rural areas, however, are different. Especially in the developing countries, it is misleading to try to understand the country only from the experiences in the cities.
On the 3rd day, we conducted some interviews in Phnom Penh and on the 4th day, headed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City. The biggest event of the day was the crossing of the Mekong River. Highway 1 crosses over the Mekong River to Vietnam. Currently there are no bridges, so the crossing is done by ferry. Here also, Japanese ODA (grant) is used to construct the Neak Loeung Bridge. At the time, the ferry schedule was every 15 to 20 minutes. It seemed that it was difficult to judge how crowded the ferry would be, and I was told by the translator that the waiting time could be as short as 10 to 15 minutes, or as long as 3 to 4 hours. Unlike the border crossing, this time we were lucky to be on board the ferry without the waiting time. We could see the Neak Loeung Bridge that is expected to be completed by the end of this year. (Photo 2). When this bridge is finished, dramatic increase of the traffic between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City is anticipated. The Southern Economic Corridor’s largest infrastructure impact is expected by the construction of this bridge. There is also a plan to construct another expressway to Ho Chi Minh City along with the existing highway 1. The growth of 1st and 2nd industry depends on the transportation infrastructure. Produce must reach the place of consumption to be sold. Improvements of the infrastructure will reduce the blocks that hinder the flow of goods to the metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City and decrease the transportation costs, and contribute greatly to the growth of Cambodian industry.
We encountered an unexpected little incident at Bavet (Cambodia) – Moc Bai (Vietnam) border. We exited Cambodia without any problem, but saw that many people were sitting around in the Vietnam facility. Because of the blackout or something, all electrical systems used for the immigration processing went down, and everything was done manually. Someone who looked like a part-time staff came over and told us in broken English that if we pay $5 each, they can expedite the processing. We were scheduled to catch a midnight flight back that day, and fearing missing the flight, payed the Tea Money or the legitimate fee of $5. We were able to come out after about an hour of waiting, but it was not clear whether the process was really expedited. Once in Vietnam, the highway was a well maintained four lane, and we enjoyed a smooth drive. We drove through Ho Chi Minh City’s heavy motorcycle traffic and arrived at the airport with ample time, thus finishing our research project.
I have been driving all over the world, including many developing countries for my research on the transport of goods. Highways in Cambodia, unfortunately, was not the kind of road that I enjoyed riding on. They lack the vastness of African land that I felt in Tanzania, or the awesomeness of the barren mountains that I experienced in Kazakhstan. Even so, the research trip was fun. I will continue observing the different parts of the world from the road trips.
*1 When crossing the border on land, there is always a “neutral” area that extends several ten to hundred meters. This is a strange space that seems to belong to neither of the countries.