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Good morning, Phnom Penh

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Women get with the beat during a dawn exercise class at Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. Photo by: Hector Bermejo

SIX in the morning, and the noise is already deafening. All along the rim of the capital’s iconic Olympic Stadium, people are dancing to up-tempo music. This is the way Phnom Penh wakes up each day.

Chan Sony, 60, manages one of the 10 or so amplifiers that blast out music from 5:10am at the stadium. She began playing music here 18 years ago.

“At first, we had just a small cassette recorder,” Chan Sony says. “We didn’t collect any money. We just played music, and a few people danced.”

Now, by charging 1,000 riel per person, she can make around 40,000 riel in the morning and as much as 100,000 riel in the evenings, when more people arrive after work.

“At first, people thought we were crazy,” Chan Sony says. “But now more and more people see the benefits of exercise.

“They don’t get diseases and are healthy – that’s why it keeps growing and growing.”

Gech Cheng, 50, has been coming here every morning for eight years.

She used to go to the riverfront for her early-morning exercises, but says it became too expensive. The Olympic Stadium is also closer to her home.

“I like exercise,” Gech Cheng says. “It can make us healthier. I used to get sick, but since I started doing exercise I never go to the doctor.”

Each morning, Gech Cheng warms up by walking to the stadium. Once there, she chooses the instructor that’s playing the best music.

She never goes to the stadium in the evening. “It’s very hot then, and we don’t get much breeze,” she says.

By 6.45am, the Olympic Stadium is almost deserted. A few serious exercisers are running around the track, but the deafening beat of the amplifiers has been replaced by mellifluous Chinese music wafting in the breeze.

Eng Chhun Ponlock, 36, is packing away his amplifier. The personal trainer used to work at the Hotel Cambodiana before he was forced to leave because of a lack of space.

His is a family business. As Eng Chhun Ponlock and his niece lead the exercises, his sister collects the money from customers.

“In the mornings, I get between 70 and 80 people, and in the even-ings it’s almost the same,” he says.

Eng Chhun Ponlock, who has been coming to the Olympic Stadium for six years, believes there’s a greater awareness of the role exercise plays in a healthy life.

“In 2005, fewer people knew about exercise, but now more and more people know about the importance of being healthy and they are coming more and more,” he says. “People see the benefits of exercise. They don’t have to pay money to doctors.”

Eventually, Eng Chhun Ponlock wants to open his own fitness centre, but that dream is some way from becoming a reality.

“We don’t have the money yet; it’s just my ambition,” he says.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY

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