About a dozen boys from the Russian Market area gingerly test their balance on skateboards – it’s their first time in an indoor skate park. A couple of hours later, the same crew are steady on their wheels and testing out brand new ramps with confidence.
Cambodia’s first covered skate-park, a 500-square-metre venue in Tuol Tompoung commune, Chamkarmon district, built by the non-profit organisation Skateistan, opened its doors last week.
After starting out in Afghanistan, Skateistan, which combines skate-boarding with education for street-children, expanded to Cambodia last year, but until now has not had a its own permanent place to host sessions.
They initally partnered with the French non-profit group Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, which has allowed hundreds of children to take skating classes organised by Skateistan on their grounds.
The trial day in Tuol Tompoung was the first time the children had the chance to skate in the new park, which will officially open in the beginning of October.
It will start a program of free sessions for children between 5 and 17 that will include art classes as well as skating lessons.
But for Skateistan, the opening comes at a time of mourning. Days earlier, four children from their Afghanistan skate park were killed by a teenage Taliban bomber. The tragedy made headlines around the world and left the organisation even more determined to continue their work.
Skateboarding: by Peterson Khim, 20
The project has come at a great time – we have been waiting to skate in a park for a really long time. Cambodia really needs a skate park. Though there are places to skate in Phnom Penh, we get kicked out most of the time. Me and my friends try to skate everywhere – inside Vietnamese Park, Independence Monument and on Riverside. But the security guards treat us like vandals. My ambition now is to be the first skate shop owner in Cambodia. I love skateboarding, but at the moment it's difficult to buy a skateboard as there is no skate shop in Cambodia yet. It's really expensive as we have to order from abroad and get it shipped all the way here. I love the sport, and want to pass it on to others who are willing to learn.
On the morning of Saturday September 8, a bomb was detonated outside the International Security Assitance Force (ISAF) HQ, an area that normally bustles with street children hawking scarves and chewing gum to help the family finances.
The victims included Nawab, 17, and Khorsid, 14, who were instructors at Skateistan, as well as Khorsid’s eight-year-old sister and Mohammad Eesa, 13. Another volunteer, Navid, 14, is seriously injured in hospital.
They were a close-knit crew who spent their days together, whether street-selling or on gracing the skating ramps.
Brandon Gomez, who worked at the centre in Kabul and is now operations manager at Skateistan Cambodia, said: “The kids in Kabul who were just lost were all very close. They were all living and working in difficult circumstances, and skateboarding was one thing they could all share as a brief escape from this reality.
“I think it’s already becoming clear that skateboarding can have a similar effect in Cambodia. Some of the first kids who got involved with our program here a year ago are now some of the best skateboarders in Cambodia.
“Kids forget about their socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities and religions when they are skating. This is where friendships and trust are built.”
Skateistan hopes to pull in a similar demographic in Phnom Penh – the children who, left out of the school system, work selling trinkets on riverside.
“Skateistan is a middle ground to get them used to some kind of structure. Then hopefully enrol them into school,” said Gomez.
The organisation chose to expand to Cambodia because it is one of the only countries in Southeast Asia where skating is new.
“This is a country where most of the kids have never seen a skateboarder," said Gomez.
“In Thailand, there’s a skateshop, there’s a huge market in China, and in Vietnam they have skate-boarding in the bigger cities. But in Cambodia? Not at all.
“Here we can give the kids a chance to create their own culture around the sport. You just give them a skateboard and say, here’s a board, do what you want with it.”
It’s an encouraging philosophy for young skaters like Sopheak Dalin, who has been skating for about a year and a half with Skateistan.
“I’ve learned so much from the people who come back and forth here. Speaking English is a barrier for me but I’m making a big effort and want to come here every day to learn how to skate.”
Steve Tierney, a former professional skater in Australia and now graphic designer and volunteer at Skateistan Cambodia, said: “It’s great to see the kids’ progression. They don’t even know who Tony Hawk is, and they’re not influenced by YouTube, but they still enjoy it.”
As well as ramps and obstacles for skating, the arena will host art exhibitions, classes and a DJ camp.
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at email@example.com
With assistance from Peterson Khim