Almost definitely I’d say. I mean, we went to the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh, so that must count for something right?
As my regular reader will know, following my massively competent running performance and networking operations at Phnom Penh Sports Club, I had been given a tip-off by a local woman that if you want a fitness excursion, then the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh is the place to be. There was the little matter of getting there for 5.00 a.m., but hey ho, you have to try these things. From what I could gather there would be a smorgasboard of activity classes you could choose from, so arrival time wasn’t absolutely critical, but best to be there well before 6.00 a.m.. In the event, three of us committed to going along this morning, agreeing to a 5.30 a.m. rendezvous at my street corner, near the shop with the red cement mixers which I’m particularly taken with! Here is a daylight shot of said shop. This is where I took refuge the other day when access was blocked by a tent and a bottle neck of tuk tuks, toyata hiluxes and motorbikes threatened to crush me…
Anyway, I wasn’t over keen when alarm went off at 5.00 a.m., but I am conscientious if not always keen. A bit later my phone rang, one of our three was late for his rendezvous as couldn’t work out how to exit his apartment – eventually a slumbering security guard came to his rescue. I was worried I might have a similar issue as the security is so good, you end up being locked in – hence I have a swipe card for the lift which allows you to exit even when stairwells are barricaded shut with enormous iron gates. I got out OK, the security guard at my place saying ‘have frun’ which may technically be a linguistic error, but actually I like the merging of ‘fun’ and ‘run’ in this way, very apt… and met the third member of our little troupe walking towards me in the gloaming. It is weird and wonderful being out on the streets round the Russian Market at this time. Not deserted, but finally quiet and navigable, Phnom Penh seems fascinating and enticing rather than overwhelming and scary in this relative calm before dawn. Not a tuk tuk in sight, which was nearly a problem. We rang our companion who was running late, but had a keen tuk tuk driver nearby so we went to meet him. Unfortunately, the first tuk tuk driver had a flat, and the second struggled with the concept that he had to wait for the another two to join him. We made it in the end.
It was $2 to get to the Olympic Stadium and basically a straight line up a road that passes right at the corner of my street. Easy to get to. It was lovely in the dark of morning. We had one weirdly unsettling experience, when a mini road block frantically waved us down and directed us between bollards where we ground to a halt. Turns out he thought we had come to rendezvous with a coach that was shortly to depart to Ho Chi Minh city! We laughed and explained we were rather going for a run. It was all good humoured, I suppose they were on the look out for lost westerners, which is what we were really. The coach was still parked up later, look- what might have been eh?
Once we got to the actual stadium I’d have missed it, from the outside, there isn’t really a clear entry point, but one of us had been before and recognised it. We went down a sort of side entrance and what came into view was astonishing. Against the breaking dawn light were people congregated everywhere. From the outside was a vast collection of people doing exercises on a flat paved area, but at the top of the seats of the stadium you could see others silhouetted against the sky, also engaged in work out routines.
It’s a massive site, so hard to navigate. We sort of wandered and wondered our way around. Ascending some stairs so we could see the olympic track within. We managed to get into that, but found the whole place was surrounded by high railings, we tail-gated someone in, and then wondered if we were actually trapped. Some people were walking circuits of the track, some seemed to be organised training groups. It had an organic feel to it, everyone seemed to be on their own trajectory. It felt very safe, if a little bizarre. We wanted still to join of the classes on the perimeter at the top of the stands. We left again taking advantage of someone who had negotiated the gate – there was a huge padlock on it, but I don’t know who or how you get a key. A woman gesticulated to us to show how we needed to get up, and we eventually found a route up to the top, from where you get a great view of the whole stadium and all that was going on within and around it. We did a circuit of the top, trying to work out which would be the best class to join, and just taking it all in. There were hard core sessions going on with groups racing up the steps as fast as they could. Gentle tai chi type poses, stretching and what looked like conventional aerobics. Each couple of hundred metres or so there would be a new sound system set up, and someone with headphones and attitude leading their own unique routines. Some sat and watched, some walked round taking a morning constitutional. There was no demarcation of exercise areas and so bikes, people, motorbikes cruised through the middle of grids of people doing their work outs. Some people were selling fruit and drinks. One woman with her arm in a sling was carrying a set of scales. I wondered if her business idea was to charge people for weighing themselves but I didn’t see her doing this.
Having completed our circuit, we settled on joining a group with a young feisty woman leading a vigorous work out. We hung around at the back, but soon enough were gestured to join in. We didn’t see any other westerners out and about, but it didn’t feel uncomfortable, we were welcomed, perhaps a curiosity and definitely a source of amusement as we were so terrible at the routines, but I felt that our presence was a novelty rather than a disruption. We seemed to join in at the point Khmer dancing was starting, despite the woman on one side of me and the man on the other trying to direct me, I spent a great deal of time facing in completely the wrong direction, but it was a hoot. The dances seemed to get more complex, and we were at the point of giving up, when it merged into a sort of free style finale which I would swear was a Khmer version of the twist. A lot of the music ( which was weirdly hypnotic) had pseudo English lyrics ‘Chillie, hot body, cha cha being a particularly ear-catching favourite). There was also a sort of weird cover of ‘Stand by me’ which was, well, frankly remarkable! I could definitely get into this as an activity. It isn’t really strenuous, but it was really calming. My teaching yesterday was a bit ho hum, this mini-adventure was just what was needed to remind myself why it’s a great idea to get out there in Phnom Penh. Can’t believe we were having so much fun and it wasn’t even 7.00 a.m.! At the end of the class, some obligatory selfies, and a shot of our instructor too. It cost 1000 reil by the way, about 25 cents. People came and went, handing over their cash as they exited. It all worked fine. People were so kind, amused, and helpful.
We lingered not sure what to do next. Curiously, well I thought so, some para-athletes on adapted wheelchair racers took to the track. That was really positive, I’ve not see anyone using a wheelchair here, so it was surprising to see an inclusive sporting practise taking place, I have no idea if it is a one-off, or part of a broader initiative.
We decided we’d be able to walk back, so headed out of the stadium, but got distracted by the play equipment, parallel bars and chin up bars. We couldn’t resist having a go. Our efforts were largely pitiful, but attracted the amused attention of a small child who was delighted to watch our struggles. A local man came and showed us how it was done, performing incredibly controlled pull ups and balancing acts – he must have been solid muscle. We clapped appreciatively. Then we messed around with photos. Sadly there isn’t a decent action shot of me, but you can tell from my graceful dismount from the parallel bars that I was completely awesome, and no need to be at all suspicious that it may have been a posed shot.
It really didn’t take that long to walk back, it was fun watching the world go by, and I felt so much better about the city seeing it in this new light, and feeling safe and having done something a bit more integrated into the local community. The olympic stadium pre-dawn is truly remarkable and extraordinary, it was like entering a parallel universe. Our search for breakfast took us back to Cafe Yejj, which was just opening, it was too early for coffee (machine not yet on) but we had cheese omelettes with toast and weird synthetic jam for $4 each before heading home in our respective directions.
So, I’d say this outing was a definite hit, and hopefully we now have a regular commitment to go once a week. It isn’t much of a workout, but in terms of seeing a side of how some Cambodians approach morning exercise it was wonderful. It was calming, and it made me appreciate Phnom Penh in a way I just haven’t up til now. The views from on high were spectacular. We are thinking we might run down next week and that would burn a few more calories. It’s way more fun than the gym and mixes it up. You could also do some ferocious training running up those steps. As for the track, well it beats running on the treadmill, but the etiquette for that remains mysterious to me. How do you get in when outside and outside when inside I don’t know. That was some padlock. An adventure and a discovery for another time, but for now, what a great way to start the day. It was indeed frun, and get me and my new olympian credentials!