Petanque dream rolls on for dedicated Cambodians
On rocky courts, a pastime more associated with long-gone colonial times is in full flight. Dozens of locals are playing petanque, a simple ball game first brought here by the French. And it is fast becoming a serious sport in Cambodia.
PHNOM PENH: In the shadows of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, the clinking of metal and whipping of dust fills the air above the rumbling of peak hour traffic.
On rocky courts, a pastime more associated with long-gone colonial times is in full flight. Dozens of locals are playing petanque, a simple ball game first brought here by the French.
And it is fast becoming a serious sport in Cambodia.
In the midst of an impressive rise by Cambodian players on the international stage, more and more hopefuls - men and women, young and old - are picking up boules.
“Before, not that many people cared about petanque but after 2013, we got a gold medal in France, and in 2015, the gold from Thailand and right now from Madagascar. So now it’s more popular,” he said, referring to recent victories at the Petanque World Championships.
At local competitions in 2016, Somay explains that the number of players participating roughly doubled to 400 from previous years. He said this is proof that interest in petanque is growing in Cambodia.
At courts in Phnom Penh, national players hone their skills alongside casual pick-up players. It is open and collaborative, but there are clear divides about who can play where.
Players competing for national selection known as “celebrities”, including those as young as 13 years old, have their playing zones, while government officials and political elite have theirs too, separate from free public courts.
For years in fact, petanque has been part of the fabric of political life in the kingdom, with several ministries setting up their own private playing courts. It has also traditionally been played in rural villagers and the countryside.
And the rewards are high for those who can excel.
Heang Vichneany is one of the junior “celebrities” pushing for a spot on the national team. She is just 14, a soft spoken but confident girl who is already earning hundreds of dollars a month for her athletic craft.
Junior players normally train six days a week, alongside their school commitments, 12 months a year, which is even more than their adult counterparts are required to do.
Nhem Bora has already made it to the big stage. Donning a shirt proudly boasting the Cambodian flag, the 32-year-old from Kampong Cham is eyeing success this year in at least one of four major tournaments, starting with one in Belgium in April.
“In the beginning I had an uncle. He is quite old now, and he likes playing Petanque. I saw he played so I wanted to play too,” he said, shortly after showing off some of the strategy, aggression and nuances required to succeed in the sport.
While the younger generation do not necessarily understand the origins of the sport in their country, it is their older relatives who have often inspired them to try the sport.
Meanwhile, the “masters” of petanque are enjoying it more than ever - not for prize money or prestige but rather for the health benefits.
“Our energy does not allow us to do sports that require running or jumping like young people,” said Eng Sovann, 59, a game veteran of more than two decades but far from the oldest on the courts.
“We do not set the timeline for how long we are going to play. Importantly, if we have energy to play we will keep playing.”
As the crowd grows as dusk falls in the city, it is clear there are many in Phnom Penh who share the sentiment.