“I got this feeling that skateboarding had just been invented in Cambodia,” said Steve Tierney, a teacher at Skateistan Cambodia. “All these people just stopped on the side of the road and you could tell by their reactions that they hadn’t seen a skateboard before.”
When two Australian skaters dropped their boards on the streets of Kabul in 2007, they were bombarded by curious children who wanted to learn the sport for themselves. Using the three boards they had on them, the Australians developed Skateistan, a skateboarding school which now teaches more than 400 Afghan children at an indoor skate park in Kabul.
But now six Skateistan teachers have now rolled into the Penh to set up Cambodia’s first skateboarding school and indoor skate park.
“It is crazy to bring a new sport into a country and see how it takes off,” Skateistan Cambodia project advisor Frauke Meyn said.
“Most kids in Cambodia have never seen a skateboard before. If you give them a football they know what to do with it, but when you give them a skateboard they don’t know what it is or what to do with it. They are incredibly curious.”
Skateistan opened Cambodia’s first mini skate park at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant in Stung Meanchey in March. Out of the ten hour-long sessions they teach each week, four are held at the school.
Tierney said many of the kids walked into class barefoot and straight off the street.
“A lot of them prefer to skateboard with no shoes, something I really wouldn’t recommend. But they don’t mind getting a little bit hurt, they just jump on a board and try stuff out – it’s like they are inventing the sport again,” Tierney said.
One such student is 15-year-old Sin Longdy, who had been skating with the crew since they set up the school.
He first witnessed the sport in action at a skate demonstration by Skateistan founder Benjamin Pecquer.
“We have never had a sport like this in Cambodia. When I saw Benjamin skateboard, I felt happy. I thought it looked funny, but also very difficult,” he said.
“I wanted to know how to skateboard, so when Ben and the foreigners started giving lessons I tried it straight away. When I skateboard I feel really happy.”
Meyn said, “When we first arrived we only had 10 students, now we have more than 150 kids wanting to skate with us. We are at the point where we have to keep our numbers down until we can open our own base – the indoor skate park – to work from.”
In the meantime, the sport is teaching children lessons in perseverance, responsibility, friendship and goal-setting.
“You wouldn’t think they would have the courage to ride down a ramp, but they do it. They find the courage and that’s something they transport into their normal day-to-day lives. They have a goal in mind and they are learning to fight for it,” Meyn said.
One of Sin Longdy’s skate mates Chea Sophanith, also 15, said he was never afraid to skate down the 1.2-metre high skate ramps.
“The first time I tried, I was very afraid, but then I just tried it and I wasn’t afraid anymore.
“Now when I skateboard I feel like everything is going to be OK. I feel like I am not afraid of anything,” he said.
Sin Longdy said, “I want to be a skate teacher one day and I am learning now to be responsible for all the other kids who come to play and the equipment too.”
Together with other kids in the advanced class, Sin Longdy and Chea Sophanith will get to show off their new skills at a portable six-by-eight metre skate area at the free MTV Exit concert at the Olympic stadium on December 17.
“We want this to become a popular sport in Cambodia,” Sin Longdy said.
“We want to encourage all the young people to come and play with us.”