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The road to the SEA Games


The hundred-plus-strong Cambodian delegation heads to Vientiane by bus, quite a journey even when Laos is going out of its way to assist its visitors
Report

By Ung Chamroeun

Cambodian swimmer Hem Thon Ponloeu (left) and tennis player Orn Sambath eat lunch at a restaurant in Kratie Saturday.

Cambodian delegates walk onto a floating restaurant in Pakse, Laos, for breakfast Sunday, before heading off to Vientiane.

The entrance gate to the SEA Games athletes’ village, where the sports delegates and coaches will stay during the competition.
Photos by: Ung Chamroeun

Early Saturday morning, more than 100 athletes, coaches, sports officials and I, the sole journalist, gathered at Olympic stadium to board four coaches bound for the Laos border. I joined the tennis, swimming, table tennis, athletics, badminton and cycling teams on bus number 3.

Bus 1 carried assistants to chef de mission Vath Chamroeun, administration and finance officials, the team doctor, and the petanque team – one of Cambodia’s best hopes for medals. In bus 2 there were members of the sipak trakaw, boxing, beach volleyball, karatedo and golf teams, and bus number 4 chauffeured the taekwondo, wrestling, judo, wushu and archery teams.

The convoy was escorted by police from the stadium compound at 6:30am. Members of the local public, who were doing their regular early-morning exercises, waved goodbye to the delegation and wished them success at the Southeast Asian Games.

Breakfasts were prepared in packages for the athletes and coaches.

On my bus, athletes shared their excitement in a friendly and fun atmosphere, with tennis player Orn Sambath entertaining others with a repertoire of funny stories. The journey featured numerous short stops to allow toilet opportunities and the purchasing of goods along the way.

The motorcade stopped in Kratie around noon for lunch, then on into Stung Treng province a further three hours down the road.

Hem Thon, member of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) and general secretary of Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation, announced a 20-minute break for those wanting to exchange money into Laotian currency (Kip).

We arrived at Trapaing Kreal border (known as Nong Nok Khien on the Laos side) at 5:30pm. Tennis coach Yi Sarin helped take my passport to police immigration. We were warmly welcomed by the local authorities, with Lak Sam Ath, general director in charge of sports of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports taking leadership of the Cambodian delegation.

All change at the Laos border
Four new coaches were waiting for us past customs, and some athletes offloaded their equipment into a truck which went directly to Vientiane. Athletes were divided into different groups once more, although coaches made sure with a quick head-count that their teams left no one behind.

The border crossing took around an hour, and volunteer Laotian student Panya helped guide us along the two-hour route to Pakse. Dinner was arranged at a restaurant before the Cambodians headed to a local hotel for the night.

After dinner, some athletes felt fine, but some were decidedly worn out. A female petanque player and a cyclist were complaining of slight health problems. We were kept up late due to a mess-up at the hotel, with a lack of rooms forcing me and the tennis, archery, badminton, taekwondo and badminton teams to stay at the nearby Mary Sibounheuang Hotel, while others were scattered across town.

Sunday: Pakse to Vientiane
Another early start on the second day saw the coaches collect all the delegates and take us to a breakfast on the river at 6:30am.

We left Pakse at 8am, with our guide Panya announcing an estimated journey time to Vientiane of nine hours. The 700-kilometre trip was accompanied by wailing police siren, with a speed limit of 80kph, and delays were significantly reduced thanks to the onboard toilet.

At 11:40am, Panya helped distribute packages of rice for our lunch, although petrol station stops afforded us some extra snacks and drinks.

Panya’s English was limited, and he asked if anyone could speak Thai, as the Laos language was very similar. Up stepped Cambodian kickboxing legend Ei Phouthang, who hailed from the infamous Koh Kong Club near the Thai border. “If someone has any problems with health, please tell me, as I have some tablets for you,” assured Panya through Ei Phouthang.

The nervous energy had fizzled out by this point, and we slept most of the way to our destination. Some athletes were watching the live television broadcast of the football match between Cambodia and East Timor on their mobile phones. They were sad to see Khim Borey miss a penalty in the first half, but elated moments later when Keo Sokgnorn scored, and then when Kuoch Sokumpheak put them further ahead. Cambodia ended the game 4-1 victors.

We arrived in the city at 6pm, and athletes and coaches were summoned to get ID cards before being sent to the SEA Games village. Free Laos SIM cards were also handed out.

Unfortunately, with a US$50-per-night fee for staying at the athletes’ village, my original plan of sticking close to the Cambodian delegation had to be shelved. Sokheng, a Cambodian student who studies in Laos and volunteers for the SEA Games, helped find a guesthouse near the National University for myself and a few sports officials.

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