With Cambodia known as the Kingdom of Wonders, journalist Clothilde Le Coz finds that the traditional French game of pétanque makes the list. Photography by Charles Fox.
In those magic evening hours when the sky turns blush, amateur petanque players can be found tossing steel balls in the shadows of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium.
The rules are simple: teams of three players throw large metal balls in an attempt to reach a smaller ball, called a cochonnet, at the far end of a dirt pit. The team whose ball is closest wins points, and the first team to 13 is victorious.
Even if it sounds complicated, the fact that many locals know the rules is testament to the Kingdom’s French colonial past, and experts say the sport is increasingly gaining traction in modern-day Cambodia.
“There are definitely more competitions organised, and Cambodians are good at it,” says Soreaksmey Ke Bin, co-founder of Avanti — the sole distributor of the French pétanque ball brand Obut in Cambodia. “There are now lawns in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Kep, for example. And wealthy Cambodians might have some in their own homes.”
A Historic Sport
Pétanque can trace its origins back to the Roman Empire, but its current format was created in Provence, Southern France, in 1907. A game called jeu provençal was adapted to allow players to throw balls, or boules, from a stationary position. This is reflected in the name pétanque — derived from the phrase for “feet anchored” in the local Occitan dialect.
The game went professional in Cambodia in 1992, when the Fédération de Boules et de Pétanque du Cambodge (FBPC) was created. As of mid-December 2013, Cambodia was ranked third in the world behind Thailand and France, according to a list published by the International Federation of Pétanque and Jeu Provençal.
Last year, Cambodia won one gold, one silver and three bronze medals at the 17th Asian Pétanque Championships in Bali, Indonesia, as well as medaling at the Southeast Asia games in Naypyidaw, Myanmar.
This year will mark another landmark event for the sport with the first Cambodian-French Pétanque Tournament set to take place at Olympic Stadium on Jan. 18.
“It is apparently the first time French and Cambodians will play together on the lawns,” says expat Emmanuel Scheffer, who is co-organising the matches with online francophone publication Le Petit Journal and the FBPC.
French purists may say that Cambodia has adapted the rules — locals play with three balls instead of six, and the distance between the smaller ball and the players is sometimes not the same — but the game is also about joie de vivre.
“Everyone is very excited and will play in a friendly atmosphere,” Scheffer adds, explaining that each team will comprise of a member of the Cambodian national squad and two French players.
And although the sport is becoming more popular in the Kingdom, it still has an elite touch. Generals and ministers alike tread upon the few pétanque pitches of the capital and the Deputy Prime Minister of Cambodia, Sok An, is president of the federation.
“Most of my clients are very rich people, or they come from the national team,” explains Phat Panha Socheat, owner Sambo Sport shop in Phnom Penh, a wholesaler of Obut pétanque balls.
But change is on its way. In 2013, some schools in Phnom Penh started initiation classes in order to promote the sport at a young age.
“More and more people are buying this game, and I also have more requests coming from the provinces as well. But this is not yet a big market in Cambodia,” says Socheat, adding that it remains “a very serious” sport.
It’s an opinion that is no doubt shared by Cambodian trainer Em Heang, whose team will have to train hard for the upcoming 2014 Pétanque World Championship in Tahiti. This time, Cambodia could claim a medal among the 48 countries set to be represented at the games.