Jul 04 2011
Every evening at dusk hundreds of Cambodians gather at the top of Olympic Stadium to listen to Khmer techno and get some cardiovascular exercise in. More than a dozen instructors, each with a microphone and individual sound system, ring the top of the stadium, charging 500 riel to lead middle-aged Khmer women dressed in Western-style pyjamas in a group aerobics routine.
The National Sports Complex, or Olympic Stadium, was designed by Vann Molyvann, the Cambodian architect who spearheaded New Khmer Architecture, a movement that combined traditional Angkorian elements with modern design. The stadium was constructed in 1963 and 1964 and was meant to host a variety of international sporting events that never materialised due to political unrest in Cambodia. During the era of the Khmer Rouge, the stadium was used for public executions of Lon Nol government officials. Now it’s used for Cambodian aunties trying to burn a few calories.
It is, quite simply, the ultimate Phnom Penh Khmer experience. You’ll rarely find foreigners doing aerobics with the locals — most prefer to work out in the air-conditioned luxury of expensive hotel gyms.
Determined to get some inexpensive exercise, I gathered a few friends and headed to the stadium. Awkward does not even begin to describe the experience. A group of barang attempting aerobics was enough to attract a crowd who gathered directly behind us to better observe our high-steps in time to the Khmer dance music blaring through the tinny speakers. My Khmer language skills weren’t strong enough to follow the shouted directions from our instructor, and my complete lack of coordination ended up providing ample entertainment to our rapt audience.
I turned around to see a gaggle of giggling teenage girls pointing at us — they didn’t stop when they saw me watching them, perhaps believing themselves to be shielded with a cloak of invisibility from foreign eyes. If my face wasn’t red from trying to do aerobics in the 30 degree, humid evening, the attention from the locals was enough to make me blush with embarrassment. I could, however, chalk up to a true Phnom Penh experience. Now whenever I’m at a football match and the ladies start filing in for their evening exercises, I can proudly say, “I did that!”
Aerobics at Olympic Stadium take place at dawn and dusk and classes cost 500 riel, payable to the instructor’s assistant who collects payment mid-routine.
If you’re interested in learning more about the architecture of Olympic Stadium, Khmer Architecture Tours will be offering a guided tour on August 28.
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