At a lonely airstrip, there are more cattle than planes

At a lonely airstrip, there are more cattle than planes

The runway, built during the Khmer Rouge regime, is now the scene of a struggle for control between cows and the Royal Cambodian Air Force

Kampong Chhnang Province
WHERE planes once landed, there is now little more than a massive concrete runway surrounded by fields of palm trees and low shrubs. There are a few rusty fuel drums, a ruined control tower, a few decrepit buildings, but there are no runway lights, wind vane, parked aircraft or airport staff.

The eerie site, located in Palarng village in the Rolea Paea district of Kampong Chhnang province, is known by locals as the Chinese Airfield.

Despite appearances, the old airport is not completely abandoned. It is manned by a skeleton crew of security guards from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, whose job is to prevent illegal use of the runway and to clear the way on those rare occasions when authorised planes do approach for a landing.

The runway is so little used nowadays that it sometimes serves as an extension of the surrounding fields where local villagers raise their animals.

Villager Kheat Kong, 52, said she always releases her animals to eat grass around the airfield, but sometimes they slip through the fence and graze inside the perimeter.

“Before 1999 this wasn’t possible because planes landed here all the time, but now I almost never seen planes come in,” she said.
“When they inform us not to release our cows because a plane is landing, we’ll tie them up,” she said.

Kheat Kong said she moved to Palarng village in the early 1980s and was therefore not around to see the construction of the airfield in 1977. She said that when she arrived in the region, the 2400-metre-long runway and airport buildings were already there, as was the 10-kilometre paved road connecting the airport to National Road 5.

“I didn’t know who built it, but people in the village called it ‘Chinese Airfield’, so I did the same,” Kheat Kong said.

Despite the name, the airfield was not built by the Chinese.

“The airfield, including the control tower and other buildings, was built in 1977 by the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Hing Suntara, the vice commander of the Air Force’s Kampong Chhnang division. “At the time, the Khmer Rouge used the airport to serve its air force.”

He said that as soon as the regime was overthrown in 1979, the new government took it over for use by its air force. It is now under the control of the Royal Cambodian Air Force and has never been used by commercial aircraft.

Hing Suntara said the airfield is still nearly 100 per cent functional, although some of the rubber between the concrete slabs is deteriorating from exposure to the sun year after year. He added that as far as he knows, there have never been any plane crashes at the airfield.

“These days if a plane is going to land, we are notified by phone,” he said.

Hing Suntara said the biggest problem was preventing domesticated animals from crossing the airfield. “We tell the villagers not to release their animals near the airfield because there is no gate and it’s easy for them to get in,” he said. “I still station troops around the airfield to try to keep animals and people outside.”

Hing Suntara said the airfield’s concrete can support the weight of bigger planes, but the runway would have to be lengthened if plans were made to allow such aircraft to land there.

“We are preventing villagers from expanding into the area around the airfield so that someday we can lengthen the runway to 3000 to 3500 metres,” he said.

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