A magnificent construction that lives with a constant threat of destruction, the Olympic Stadium is a metaphor for the short-sighted mindlessness, grubbiness and political manoeuvring that attend a great deal of Phnom Penh urban “planning”. Better get there while you can before the lumpen barbarians win. Murmurings of demolition and redevelopment persist, despite carefully-worded reassurances from the Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation, which has been developing land close to the National Sports Complex (the stadium’s official name). What will happen here once a new national stadium, sponsored by China, is completed, is anyone’s guess.
Architecturally, the site is important. Designed by Cambodia’s best known architect Vann Molyvann (who was also responsible for the Independence Monument and many of Phnom Penh’s most important and recognised structures), it is an example of the 1950s and 60s New Khmer movement, which worked on creating buildings that were specific to Cambodia but included international modernist ideals. Built in 1963-64, the complex has since hosted the GANEFO games, Khmer boxing bouts, the disabled volleyball world championships, international football matches and boy band leader, Ronan Keating (yes, really, we’re embarrassed too).
A visit to the stadium suits the frugally-minded, as it’s free to get in. You can circumnavigate the 84,000 seat outdoor arena and wander round the sports hall and the half-million dollar astroturf football pitch. Early risers are rewarded by the spectacle of hundreds of people doing their exercises around the concrete amphitheatre — everyone has their own particular style and signature moves.
As the day goes on, the complex usually gets very quiet. The dim, cool volleyball court in the indoor arena echoes with the chirps of bats and sparrows. Nerdy photographer types who like angles and lines can play for hours with shots of the seating, roof, steps and ramps. There are interesting views of the city from the top of the Aztec-style stairs leading to the amphitheatre.
On weekends, there are often local league football matches — come prepared with a hat and sunscreen if you don’t want to pay the modest charge for shade in the main stand. International matches are played here too, with Cambodia crashing out of the World Cup qualifying rounds after losing here to Japan in late 2015. In fairness, we also lost to Syria and Afghanistan, so there is clearly a little work to be done.
The local Metfone C-League is the top division of the Cambodian Football Federation, and games cost just 2,000 riel ($0.50), providing a cheap afternoon’s worth of local entertainment. You won’t find Messi or Ronaldo, but the Cambodian league has recruited a number of foreign players, mostly African, to play alongside their Khmer counterparts and the league has a raft of dedicated young fans who are delighted by the fact that the games always have at least a few dramatic points scored. Naturally, this too isn’t without its controversies…
If you’re feeling inspired to be actively rather than passively sporty, take a dip in the Olympic-sized swimming pool or join in on one of the impromptu kickabouts in the later afternoon. As the sun goes down, you could also drop in on one of the dozen or so aerobics classes led here each early evening. Costing 500-1,000 riel on average, these are not for the self-conscious. Barangs doing badly coordinated grapevines because they can’t actually understand the instructor will attract a lot of stares and giggles, none of which is meant maliciously, you’re just a very curious thing is all.
Another way to take in the Stadium is on one of the excellent Khmer Architecture Tours — just check ahead of time what your tour will be covering.
However you chose to enjoy Olympic Stadium, get there soon — with Phnom Penh’s thirst for development, it’s almost certain that the status quo won’t be a winner.