The great advantage of getting up at 5.00 in the morning and going down to join the exercise classes at the Olympic Stadium is that by 8.30 a.m. you have already experienced an entire micro-adventure in Phnom Penh. The great disadvantage of getting up at 5.00 in the morning and going down to join the exercise classes at the Olympic Stadium is that by 8.30 a.m. you are completely knackered. You then need to shower and get to school for a teachers’ workshop, and then by 11.00 you have to fight the overwhelming urge to sleep and try to conjure up a lesson plan. I can’t do that right now, so I’m procrastinating with a blog post and a coffee at Deja Brew Cafe. They have great internet and spacious tables, it’s a quiet place to work, but today the air con isn’t as cool as I’d like so may be driven out of here yet. Mind you, at home I have no air con and probably no internet, so really I should stick it out as long as I can.
So, alarm went at 5.00, it was pitch black and mercifully cool outside, though my room is a mini inferno. I ventured out into the dark corridors and followed the hoodie wearing security guard down the echoey passageways, down stairs and was able to leave OK. The other teachers I was meeting have different challenges, one has to physically go and wake up his security guard from his bed in order to get out. I’m glad I have no such social tightrope to negotiate at that hour in the morning.
The streets seemed busier than last week, but it feels safe at this time in the morning. This is a rare sensation on the streets of Phnom Penh. Only a couple of days ago another of the volunteers was targeted by a bag snatcher. The deliberately drove at her head-on, using the light of the motorbike headlight to blind her. Her bag was worn across her chest and she had her arms crossed in front as well, but still they went for it. They didn’t get it, she screamed and after a tussle they drove off. I hear that there is a problem with meth addicts around here (no idea if that’s true) but her theory is this may fuel the frequency of these snatch attempts. It is a worry – though the density of traffic scares me most. Even so, I need to go to a cashpoint to get money for next month’s rent, and I’m dreading it. I feel enough of a target as it is…
So 5.30 ish, we made our rendezvous point. The plan was to run to the Olympic Stadium, which is basically a straight line up a road from me. However, we ever so slightly got caught up in school chat – lesson planning, and ideas for New Year. Consequently there was a notable absence of actual running, though I would argue we did power walk, and as everyone knows, speed walking is a sport in its own right anyway! Yes, I digress, we have a long weekend coming up, only an extra day. Most people are planning to take flight to Sihanoukville, but personally I think that’s a hell of a lot of driving time and associated expense for a relatively unremarkable party town. Then again, these youngsters eh? I suppose a New Year Party is just what they want. I fancy a staycation here in Phnom Penh – I want to go the museum, and I might book a guest house near riverside just to have a bit of a change of scene. Then again, I may not, can’t decide!
It took about 20 minutes or so to walk to the stadium and this time we went straight to ‘our’ class. For some reason, there was nothing like the same number of people about, I have no idea why. I recognised faces from the first time we went. One woman actually asked me ‘why haven’t you been every day?’ Clearly we are viewed as slackers, for most, this is really their daily ritual. The feisty woman wasn’t doing the class, instead it was a snake hipped guy with amazingly toned biceps and a commitment to movements that was nigh on twerking! He did some cheeky little numbers I felt.
We were early enough for the full aerobics routine near enough, which was of course, hilarious. The guy clocked our presence, and thoughtfully interpreted his commentary into English ‘one, two, three, four, five!’ He said, helpfully. Well, it was inclusive and well-intentioned, but didn’t greatly improve our performance as we’d sort of guessed the one-five numbers bit, it was more the complete disorientation associated with spinning around in all directions. A couple of times I really thought I’d nailed it and I’d do some spectacular (to me) turn only to realise that as ever, I was facing in entirely the wrong direction. The only consolation being that my companions were two, and somehow all three of us picked wrong but different compass points, facing out in all directions. Nobody seemed to mind particularly, it is a fairly individual activity, though carried out collectively.
Even though we’ve only been once before, it became apparent that people have their own rhythms here. There was the very smartly dressed older guy with his neatly ironed shirt who slowly processed through our workout, people on motorbikes breezed through, other groups leaving their classed walked amongst us laughing and chatting. Personal space here is a fluid concept. This is all completely fine. Yet, I have found to my cost, that territory around the sauna area in the Phnom Penh Sports Club has most definitely been the object of a land grab. Those showers are out-of-bounds to all but the morning rice club eating and steaming ladies it seems… My favourite interruption though, was the woman with a large basket of fresh baguettes who wondered through, calling out her wares. A significant proportion of the class took time out to buy some bread before continuing with their aerobic routines. Hilarious, that’s what exercise classes everywhere need, more impromptu offering of carbs mid-workout. It would work at multi-lap parkruns too. You could just have a feeding station at the end of each lap.
Then, for reasons that are entirely mysterious to me. Our ‘regular’ woman appeared, and the guy vanished. She launched into the dance routines with gusto, whilst we followed on as best we could! I really enjoy her exuberant style, but it is pretty much impossible to keep up with!
The class ended with a bit more freestyle shenanigans, which was sort of mixture of the twist and Khmer style, fusion dancing if you will. The old guy who was trying to help me out last week came and joined in and I danced opposite for a bit, and then got in a panic in case my making eye-contact was inappropriate, I know in some cultures it’s a sexual come on, I have no idea here! Oh well.
We handed over our 1000 reils, a bit more actually, because we were confused about whether we were paying for one class or two. Then we got distracted by track action. There was some sort of running club circling the track, and some people doing bouncing over hurdles at impressive heights.
This inspired us to at least try jumping up some steps, but we weren’t all that adept, though we did have fun trying.
We decided to stop for coffee on the way back, and ended up going to a random local eatery with little plastic chairs. It was opposite the human resources university, and from where we were seated we watched little processions of monks passing by on their early morning scouting for alms. The people in the restaurant were very accommodating. We ordered coffee, and bowls of noodles, I asked for ‘no meat’ more in hope than expectation. The noodles were good, mine was vegetarian, mostly onions and carrots, but you get a little side order of bean sprouts you can throw in. The other two had a lot more in the way of offal, it didn’t look offally good, mine was way better. We also got complementary fried bread stuff, which is quite unpleasant but a ubiquitous morning snack here it seems. Coffee was thick, sweet and treacle texture. It reminded me a bit of Vietnam. The condensed milk is in the bottom and hot coffee poured on top, you stir it all together.
I picked up the bill which was $7 for all of us as it was easier than splitting it, and not all of us had brought cash out anyway. We were very pleased with our mini adventure. We had olympian fun, Khmer dancing, laughing and a ‘proper’ Cambodian noodle soup breakfast with local people. Result.
The traffic was heaving by the time we got up and walked the rest of the way back to the Russian Market. There was one particularly terrifying 8 line highway to cross. It does have lights, but nobody seems to take them very seriously. We hovered (not hoovered) on the kerb-side for a while, hesitating. Eventually a local woman on her motorbike, smiled and gestured at us that we should cross, we did so, to a guard of honour of laughing locals on motorbikes, highly amused at our general road crossing ineptitude, and rightly so!
Home, shower, school, workshop, breakfast, coffee, blog, lesson plan, teach, sleep, repeat.