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A new ground crew for ex-Battambang airport

The old airport is most popular during the hours leading up to sundown, when school is out and the weather is cooler.
The old airport is most popular during the hours leading up to sundown, when school is out and the weather is cooler. Charlotte Pert

A new ground crew for ex-Battambang airport

An old airstrip on the road out of Battambang has become a popular spot for young crowds looking to escape the city

Not much has changed at Battambang Airport in the decade since it welcomed its last commercial plane. The long loop of landing strip and taxiing bay reveals few cracks, and a low-rise terminal, control tower and three arched hangars still fringe it on one side.

The airport technically remains a fully functioning landing spot. Jointly maintained by the Royal Cambodian Air Force and the Ministry of National Defence, it has a staff of about 30 soldiers stationed permanently on site. But if a plane were to ever descend here by chance, it should avoid the hours between 4pm and nightfall. As soon as the sun gets low in the sky, the abandoned landing strip swarms with visitors, the majority of them after-school adolescents who have made the out of town space their unofficial playground.

The landing strip is an appealing place for older children to learn how to drive.
The landing strip is an appealing place for older children to learn how to drive. Charlotte Pert

Mostly, they use it as a place to ride bikes. Courting couples do loops around the track to take in the countryside at sunset, and boys on scooters speed along in packs. “We just heard about this place through word of mouth,” said Kim Vatanak, who had stopped with his friends at a shady spot on the far side of the track. He’s 17 but admitted with a grin that many of his companions were far younger, explaining that it’s a good place for them to get to grips with balancing a bike.

Vatanak said that makeshift drag races were also popular: “We bet with each other on the winning team, but not for large money, just for fun.”

A bit further down the track Ding Kingdeng, 30, was working on a research paper with a friend. “I chose this place because it gives us more natural air than in other places,” he explained. “And it’s cheaper than going to buy a coffee.”

Chan Kosal was busy adjusting sprinklers by the side of the runway. As a senior official from the Royal Cambodian Air Force, he is responsible for the soldiers stationed on site, but spends most of his time tending to the NGO-run football pitch that has established itself as a popular local attraction. Teams play competitive matches on the weekend, and a large mural painted on the side of the kit house depicts the girls’ team in action.

Kosal said that there were plans to turn the airport into an aviation training base for soldiers, but that funding has yet to be secured. “We have been waiting for sponsorship from China and other countries, but no one responded to this request yet,” he said. In the meantime, he looks benignly on the makeshift way people have been using the space.

The airport market.
The airport market. Charlotte Pert

His only worry is that the secluded location might start to attract a less welcome clientele. “I’m afraid of murder cases or drug use happening in this area at night,” he said, explaining that the airport’s open perimeters made round the clock patrols unfeasible.

In all other respects, Battambang Airport is an enviable posting. The soldiers charge for entry – 1,000 riel for a car, 500 for a motorbike – and there’s a thriving micro-economy catering to the crowds: a row of snack stands with plastic chairs are set up near the entrance, and sour mango sellers roam the track’s outer periphery looking for riders in need of a pit stop.

Because the airport is still a military base, the only people allowed to take advantage of these business opportunities are the soldiers, and the families who live with them in cabins inside the corrugated hangars.

Kong Kimseang, 49, sells sugarcane juice next to his wife’s fried meat stall. “I was happy to live here because, besides taking a little salary from [the army], I can sometimes do business for the people who come to play at the airport in the evening,” he said. His responsibilities include ushering stragglers out of the airport once night has fallen and collecting money from other stall owners to pay for the cleaner.

Kosal explained that the kickbacks made sense as a way of keeping soldiers busy now that there was less work to do at the airport. “We need to encourage them with a little money and business to protect their security, he said.

And on the rare occasion that the airport does spring into action – normally to ferry important government delegates to and from the city – they can be sure of a well-staffed welcome. “Our team is ready to protect [the officials] and welcome them,” Kosal said, explaining that the airport’s leisure facilities shut up shop on these occasions. “We don’t allow people to come in when we get informed that there will be an airplane coming to land,” he said.

The resumption of a more professional demeanour is to be expected, although disembarking guests may feel they’re missing out – after airline food, the makeshift market would have been a pleasant surprise.

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