Pop in the Parks: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This post was written in Phnom Penh, 2010.

ImageJust before sunset on Sunday night the streets of Phnom Penh are crowded with motorbikes. As the sun fades and a cool breeze rises people start to move around – venturing out of their houses, from under umbrellas and shop awnings. Street vendors push carts of sugarcane or ice cream, bells jangling. Whole families squeeze onto motorbikes and wobble their way through the traffic. The lights of restaurants and beer gardens begin to come on, and the smells of chilli, garlic and durian waft and mingle in the air. And Phnom Penh’s parks – that in the daylight hours stand bare and sun-bleached – begin to come to life.

The parks in Phnom Penh are – most of them – long, wide concrete boulevards with strips of grass running down the middle. The grass is off limits to the public, and the few decorative trees are all but useless when it comes to shade. Before five-thirty in the afternoon these public spaces are deserted (aside, perhaps, from the odd tourist looking for a snapshot of a statue or a commemorative plaque). However, as the day fades and the sun releases its hold on the city, the parks begin to pulse. People come to play badminton and soccer, to walk their dogs, and to jog. Young couples canoodle on benches under streetlights, and kids chase balls onto the forbidden grass. Street vendors follow the crowds, selling sweet drinks and fruit and fried noodles. And all around the parks, at intervals, big black speakers are set up. The latest pop and hip-hop songs pump from sound systems, and people begin to dance.

The largest of these parks is Olympic Stadium. It sits on the corner of Sihanouk and Monireth Boulevards, just past a large pool of smelly water, and just behind City Mall (a Mecca of Western junk food chains and clothing stores). Olympic Stadium is huge – solid and imposing, built out of a dense grey concrete that reminds you of communism and caravan-park toilet blocks. There is none of the advertising that covers the sports stadiums of the West; no fancy corporate boxes, no hotdog stands, no high-tech ticket scanning systems. There is nothing much at all, save for the ropes that outline the motorbike parking lot, and a few security guards with ticket books and pens.

I visited Olympic Stadium for the first time with two Khmer friends. We dodged the traffic on our motos and lined them up with hundreds of others at the entrance to the park. We climbed the grandstand – the steps so enormous they seemed built for legs much longer than ours. From the top of the stadium the view is incredible. The city spreads out around you in every direction – thousands of rooftops stretching off into the distance and strikingly few tall buildings. As the sun sets the clouds squash the colours into orange slits, like tiger stripes painted across the horizon.

The dancing starts at 5pm. Spread around the edge of the stadium – perched on the very top level of the stands – are hundreds of people. They wander and sit on the concrete steps, eat and drink from the numerous street vendors, gossip and talk on mobile phones. And they dance. Stretched apart from each other around the stadium (just far enough away that their conflicting sounds don’t interrupt each other) are large, loud, stereo systems. Trendy young Khmer men and women in jeans and music-video hairstyles stand around each CD player. They are the instructors; they control the music, and wear microphone headbands in order to puff out dance steps as they move. The head of our group is a young man in bright pink. He dances with conviction, and has already worked up a sweat before we arrive. His sidekick is a thin, smiling man in a white T-shirt – he bows and presses his hands together in thanks as he collect 1000 riel notes from the crowd. It costs about twenty-five cents for a two hour dancing session. (Not bad, considering you might pay $25 for a forty minute aerobics workout in an Australian gym.)

We start with some slow, traditional Khmer songs. I can follow the footsteps, but the hand gestures are beyond me. Fingers are drawn smoothly, gracefully, through the air; hands bent back toward the wrist with astounding flexibility. This is the dance that decorates the temples of Angkor – the men and women at Olympic Stadium mimic the delicate Apsara figures carved into ancient stone.

After this languid, hypnotising warm-up the pop music kicks in. The Black-Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are interspersed with a bevy of Korean and Khmer pop songs. The moves become fast and complicated – I am falling over myself trying to keep up. But nobody cares. Around me the Cambodians move lithely, with confidence and an envious sense of rhythm. The experience is at once silly and childish, sexy and sophisticated. The music is loud and fast and exciting. Everybody dancing is smiling at everybody else dancing around them – laughing and throwing out comments into the music. Small kids watch and jump up and down, attempting to copy the dance moves. We are sweating – it is hard work, but also relaxing. Muscles, joints and worries are all released at once at the top of the massive stone stadium, into the Phnom Penh night.

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