With skateboarding rapidly gaining traction in Cambodia, Natalie Phillips examines what is being done to provide for the burgeoning community. Photography by Sam Jam.

Three years ago, skateboarding was virtually unknown in Cambodia, limited to a handful of enthusiasts who brought in boards from Vietnam, Thailand and America. Awareness of the sport has since snowballed, with Phnom Penh welcoming skateboarding NGO Skateistan in 2011 and two new skate shops in 2013. Even legendary American pro Tony Hawk showed off his skills in the capital late last year.

Despite an increase in publicity and equipment, public space in which skaters can practise tricks and hone their skills is still in woefully short supply. Phnom Penh street skaters generally migrate between the crowded riverfront and a faraway corner of Diamond Island, which they share with BMX bike racers.

“There’s nothing to do but skate flat ground. It’s like bowling without pins,” Khmer-American Raymond Suos says. One of Cambodia’s first skaters, he grew up boarding in Long Beach, California, and notes that, comparatively, it’s “harder to develop here.”

Members of the emerging scene are trying to make-up for the lack of resources. Khmwe Dysamil Luon, who is known as Steve and owns Phnom Penh’s 10K Skate-Shop, has built a moveable ledge in front of the store for skaters to use.

The owners of skateshop phnom penh, Australian Sam Jam and partner Sally, were also impressed with the capital’s resilient young skaters when they moved to Phnom Penh in 2011. Many had beat-up decks long overdue for retirement. Though the pair hadn’t intended to start a shop, they soon found themselves supplying the local community.

“If I ever took a trip to Bangkok or Vietnam, I’d go and buy as many boards as I could afford,” Sam Jam says. “We saw the potential these guys had and wanted to keep them skating.”

If a good public skate park, complete with varied obstacles, were to be built in the country, he speculates that Khmer skaters could make a dint internationally in five to 10 years.

The value of the sport is no longer up for debate. Once associated with vandalism, truancy and hooliganism, the global face of skateboarding has long been shifting to one that stands for confidence, community and a connection to the arts.

Former youth worker Sam is adamant that it can change lives. “[Skating is] something that takes so much determination and persistence, because everyone’s going to fall,”
he says.

“Skating is not the same as other sports, like football,” adds talented skater and sociology student Kong Sopheakdalin, known as Dalin, who has been practicing his craft almost daily for the last three years. “There’s more feeling, more emotion. It’s only myself in control, doing everything.”

Skateistan, which first gained acclaim for its social development programmes in Afghanistan, echoes the sentiment that the sport can encourage personal growth. About 150 kids aged between five and 18 pass through its doors weekly, around 45 percent of whom are female.

“Especially in developing countries, there’s limited opportunities for girls to play any sports,” says the organisation’s development manager Alix Buck. “With girls, you see a lot more of a noticeable change, you just kind of see them transform from being kind of nervous to really determined.”

With its smooth concrete floors and wooden ramps, Skateistan naturally fields requests for user time from local street skaters. To help meet some of the need, it hosts a well-attended open skate session every Saturday from 2pm to 4pm.

“The reality is, that’s not who were trying to target, but we also want to have a good relationship with the local skateboarding community,” Buck says.

What may be the closest thing Cambodia has to a public skate park is, somewhat ironically, on private land. With local contractors and a lot of concrete, Owen Beck built Cambodia’s only skate bowl at his resort – the Jasmine Valley Eco-Resort in Kep.

Skateistan has hosted two annual competitions at the bowl, events for which Beck provided about 20 youngsters and staff with free lodging and meals.

“This was about me getting some exercise and having a bit of a play with our staff, and it turned into, suddenly we’ve got great skaters from all over the world turning up to skate,” the Australian says, expressing amazment about how his pet project has expanded.

Noticing that staff member Dit had a knack for the sport, Beck fundraised for the talented 20 year old to give him a position as the resort’s full-time skater. With sponsorship from skateshop phnom penh, which provides Dit with new gear, he is in a sense Cambodia’s first professional skater.

The bowl cost $3,000 to build and a month of construction time, though Beck comments that if planned and executed efficiently it have would cost $700 or $800 and taken two weeks to build.

“There’s kind of no excuse, I reckon. If you had a plot of land or a warehouse, it’s not really expensive to build something like this,” the hotelier says, adding that he plans to start construction on a larger second bowl later
in 2014.

“If someone comes up and wants to skate, they can skate,” he says. “It’s no problem at all.”