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The forgotten legacy of Cambodia’s abandoned airports

Battambang's old airport serves as an informal market during the evenings.
Battambang's old airport serves as an informal market during the evenings. Charlotte Pert

The forgotten legacy of Cambodia’s abandoned airports

Cambodia’s aviation sector continues to grow, with airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville serving both domestic and international flights. Yet historically, this small country once had an even bigger network of domestic airports. Today these abandonded airstrips lie desolate and forgotten, some repurposed as drag racing strips, others overgrown with weeds, and one in Mondulkiri converted into a public garden.

In total, at least 15 airports have been built and operated since aviation first arrived in Cambodia with Japan’s brief military occupation in the 1940s. The Japanese are said to have used forced labour to construct small air strips throughout the country, including the site that would later serve as Phnom Penh’s airport.

Cambodia secured independence from France in 1953, but its rivers, jungles and mountains continued to thwart efforts to connect its towns and people. Given the poor road infrastructure that existed at the time, the late King Norodom Sihanouk recognised the role that air travel could play in linking the far corners of the country. The King ordered dozens of airstrips built or expanded and the established the country’s first national airline, Royal Air Cambodge, in 1956.

Some of the country’s more notable old airports include:

Battambang Airport:
Built in the mid-1960s though only officially put into operation in 1968, Battambang airport was for a period one of the Kingdom’s busiest runways. Its fortunes turned in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came into power, and it never really fully recovered. The small airfield was reopened and used for civilian aircraft until the end of the 1990s. Today, apart from a few cracks in its 1,600 metre runway, it is still technically a fully functional landing strip with a terminal building, control tower and some aircraft hangers. But these days the military-supervised airstrip is mostly used by local teenagers, who come in the evening to hang out and race motorbikes on its runway.

Ratanakkiri Airport:
Built in the 1960s, and abandoned for almost 20 years before its “rediscovery” by local airlines in the mid-1990s, Ratanakiri Airport occupies the western edge of Banlung town. The 1,300-metre dirt runway airstrip was used by local commercial carriers until November 2005 when a plane arriving from Phnom Penh crashed during a hard landing. Since then it has been used infrequently by private and charter flights.

Koh Kong Airport:
Koh Kong’s single dirt runway strip sits on the north side of the town. The airport was a lifeline to this remote corner of Cambodia in the 1960s and again when the runway reopened during the UNTAC period in 1992. However, the airport has been closed to civilian aircraft since the early 2000s. Today, the airport is visible behind a 2-metre high concrete wall. The runway has been overgrown by grass, but one section is still used as a landing pad for a local military official’s helicopter.

Kampong Chhnang Airport:
Built between 1977 and 1978 by slave labour, this never-operational airport with a 2,400-metre-long runway was probably intended to serve as a bomber base for air attacks on Vietnam. The runway remains in excellent condition and a simple control tower sits empty to one side. There has been talk for years of renovating the airport to serve as a regional hub for air freight.

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