With the opening of a cable park at the capital’s outskirts, wakeboarding is now possible in Cambodia’s interior, and the outfit aims to use the wild rides to spur serious change. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
Fifteen kilometres north of Phnom Penh, down National Highway 5 and across the Tonlé Sap River, Prek Tar Sak village almost resembles any in its surroundings – clay red pathways, long stretches of fields, thatched restaurants full of men reclining between work shifts – with one very notable exception.
Amidst the flat landscape, two seven-plus-metre towers stand erect at either side of a converted rectangular rice paddy, with a cable running the 160-metre distance between them, suspended above muddy water. These towers mark a new mecca for a steady trickle of barangs who make the dusty trek for what is, in the eyes of many locals, an utterly bizarre pastime: wakeboarding.
At the newly opened Kam-Air Wakepark, a crew of wakeboarders, steered back and forth between towers by a generator-powered rope and pulley, take turns skimming over the water as they attempt ollies, back rolls and raley dock starts.
While watersports have been offered on occasion via boats at Cambodia’s seasides and riverways, the cable park is the first of its kind in the country, and has upped the ante on the capital’s extreme sports offerings.
“I feel like there is a niche to satiate people’s boredom,” says CEO Alf Evans, who launched the park in March, giving it the tongue-in-cheek name after a bad American pronunciation for “Khmer.”
Raised in Texas, Evans has been wakeboarding for 20 years. He started as a young boy with water skiing – learning to slalom at 12, after his dad refused to take the boat in until he mastered it, and to barefoot at 13. In high school, he and his friends frequently skipped school to head to the surrounding lakes.
“Then this creation called a wakeboard stepped into our lives,” Evans says. “In 1996 I said, ‘I’m never putting a ski on again’.”
Having moved to Cambodia with his family three years ago, leaving his beloved wakeboarding behind, Evans dreamed of introducing the sport in country. But with prices typically around $30,000 for a basic cable system, the idea seemed out of reach, particularly for a missionary relying on financial support.
“People thought I was crazy,” he says. Surveying the vast property, lined with palm trees and dotted with a fire pit, grill, and rustic hut with repurposed chairs overlooking the water, he adds with a laugh, “I think I just get to say I told you so.”
The park has been two years in the making, and is mostly the result of donations, as well as do-it-yourself creativity by Evans and CFO John Phifer. But the experience has not been the smoothest ride. After bulldozing the lake, the duo faced a series of difficulties, from equipment malfunctions to ensuring the water is healthy, preventing it from leaking and keeping local cows out of it. “It’s always an adventure,” says Evans.
The resulting facility can now tow riders at 40km per hour, with runs lasting 14 seconds. Riders are jerked upwards and forwards, and – if they can make it through the start without face-planting – can continue in loops by navigating around buoys at either end. When full, the 30-metre-wide lake can hold a million gallons of water. But in April, it was at a quarter capacity and half a metre deep at points, meaning wipeouts into the mud that added to the adrenaline-fuelling experience.
While the park is fun and games on the surface, there is more to the operation than meets the eye. Back in Texas, Evans combined his love for wakeboarding with his experience as a pastor to lead a “wakeboard church”. The group would wakeboard together, and after sunset Evans would provide a sermon on the boat. He jokes he had a captive audience, as they would have to swim to be able to leave.
Though Kam-Air functions as a business and not a church, the duo still plans to use the profit for good, with a tagline of “creating liberty for the oppressed through action sports”. “Any dollar we make goes into the organisation directly, to make things better or to support the local community around us,” says Phifer.
The owners plan to assist the 350 local families through a variety of projects such as literacy and employment training, specifically focusing on fathers, as they feel they can thereby impact the whole family.
Though expats are currently the park’s primary customers, the owners expect it won’t take long for Cambodians to also want to participate. “The truth is, I think they’re going to be better at it,” says Evans.
The two-tower setup, which is less costly than circular systems, will allow the duo to gauge initial interest. “It’s a good stepping your foot in the lake, so to speak, to see if it’ll work,” says Evans. They hope to eventually expand to Siem Reap and Kampot, as well as open a pro shop.
“There’s been days I just want to play video games – like, this is hard; I give up,” adds Evans. “But I feel this is what I’m supposed to be doing. So sure, I’m tempted. But are we giving up? No. Not yet.”
Visit kamairwakepark.com for more information.