The Travel Asia a la carte General Manager, Steve Lidgey found a way to fill the free time at the moment by exploring some of the Ancient Bridges of Cambodia by bicycle. Or at least the ones alongside a 65km stretch of the Phnom Penh – Siem Reap road.

A cycling adventure looking for ancient bridges, Spean Praptos.

When the main Highway 6 underwent a major upgrade a few years ago the new road was carefully constructed to avoid damaging the ancient bridges that were built were built between the 10th and 14th centuries. The new road runs close to what was part of the ancient route linking major cities during the Angkorian period. More than 1,000km of raised earthen road combined with a river network allowing successive Angkorian Kings to unite their empire. Routes ran from Angkor to Phimai in modern day Thailand, to Wat Phou in southern Laos and to Sambor Prei Kuk where some of the oldest temple ruins in Cambodia can be seen today.  

Visitors to Cambodia will often pass the bridges whilst travelling on the Phnom Penh to Siem Reap road. Assuming guests are travelling by private vehicle then the most famous bridge, Spean Praptos in Kompong Kdei is a must do stop. Though the other bridges are seen fleetingly from the car window.

The bridges were constructed with stone, laterite (a reddish clay) and sandstone. Many have many reconstructed and are quite small in comparison to Spean Praptos, with just four or five arches in some case. Due to development rivers have often changed course and the bridges serve no purpose today with only a few villagers crossing if next to their homes.

One of the hooded nagas at the ends of the balustrades, Spean Praptos.

The starting point for the cycling adventure was at Spean Praptos (‘direction bridge’). It was restored in the late 19th century by French researcher Bernard Philippe Groslier. Apparently, the Khmer Rouge tried to dynamite the bridge on more than one occasion but were repelled by the sheer strength of the structure and were unsuccessful. Spanning the Chikreng stream at 75m, Spean Praptos is the largest corbelled stone arch bridge in the world with 21 laterite arches.  It has a classic balustrade with nine-headed hooded nagas at each end. Crossing the bridge used to be part of the adventure when travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Nowadays it is open only to motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians.

Spean Thmor

Heading north and cycling 65km a total of 8 other bridges were seen. Each bridge is signposted in English and Khmer and are quite hard to miss (especially if cycling). All of them were within a stone’s throw of today’s busy road. Spean Khpous (‘High Bridge’) and Spean Thma (‘Stone Bridge’) were the first to be spotted. Later Spean Svay (‘Mango Bridge’) and Spean Thnal Dach (‘Disconnected road Bridge’). Spean Phum O (‘Village O Bridge’) served as a short cut for villagers, Spean Ta Meas (‘Tameas Bridge’) before reaching the last one, Spean Thma Bay Kriem (‘Dried Rice Stone Bridge’) just before Dam Dek.

Spean Svay
Spean Phom O
Spean Ta Meas
Spean Thma Bay Kriem
A map showing 18 bridges between Kompong Kdei & Dam Dek

After completing the mission, I was later discussing the bridges with Andy Brouwer from Hanuman Travel who knows everyone and everything about Cambodian history. He passed me a copy of a map which in fact shows that there were 18 bridges along the highway. Knowing the locations now I will be able to try again to see if there are any ruins to be seen or they have been completely lost to history. It’s also possible they are set back from the road or hidden in shrubbery. That’s a mission for another day, not forgetting to explore the other ancient highways in the hunt for further bridges.