Working Out Phnom Penh Style
“What do you think you’ll miss most while traveling?” a good friend asked before we left on our round the world trip.
“Guacamole and a regular exercise routine,” I quickly replied.
I was as surprised by the answer as she was. With two months of travel under my belt, however, I have to say my answer would probably remain the same. Southeast Asia is in dreadful need of some real guacamole and working out in 90 degree heat has been equally challenging.
In typical Cambodian style though, there are creative ways to exercise at little cost while living in Phnom Penh and I’m working my way through them all.
As we’ve discussed before, walking isn’t a great mode of transportation in Phnom Penh. Its also not a very easy way to exercise. Dodging cars, motos, tuk tuks and everything in between makes speed walking (forget about running) virtually impossible. There are a few wide boulevards and the riverfront which are more conducive to longer walks, but the main place to put on some miles is at Olympic Stadium.
The stadium is a sportsman’s delight with soccer fields, badminton courts, martial arts space, basketball and volleyball courts and a swimming pool. Sure it’s a little rundown and was used as an execution site during the Khmer Rouge, but it’s one of the only spaces in the city that has enough room for actual exercise.
In the early mornings and late afternoons, Phnom Penh residents head to the stadium to play sports and to walk/jog along the upper ridge of the facility. It’s free to get in and a small fee to use the pool.
On a warm Saturday morning, I joined a few older gentlemen and walked the rows of seats to get in my daily exercise. It goes like this: start walking along the top ridge. When you get to the end of the row, walk down a step, turn around and walk back. When you reach the end of that row, step down again, turn around and walk back. Over, and over, and over again. It’s dizzying and hot, but all in all a fun way to pass an hour of exercise. A few younger canoodling Cambodians were entertained by my constant passing saying, “sour s’dey!” (hello) each time.
Jianzi, Shuttlecock or Featherball
All throughout the city you can hear the click, clack of plastic discs attached to four feathers being kicked around in small circles. Very popular in Asian countries, Jianzi, is a game somewhat equivalent to our college quad game of hacky sack. There are many names for the game including the Western versions of shuttlecock and featherball. I was never good at hacky sack and didn’t prove much better at shuttlecock.
Groups of friends stand around in circles kicking the shuttlecock, or featherball, up in the air to other players. The object of the game is to keep it in the air and not let it fall. You’re not supposed to use your hands, but in my friend’s circle, we used anything and everything to keep it off the ground.
What seemed an innocent and fun game was actually one of the best workouts I’ve had so far. My legs and back were sore for three days!
In another attempt to feel more like locals, we bought badminton racquets (two for $7). Crowds of people flock to open areas in the early mornings and late afternoons to hit the birdie around. We’re still new to the sport and not very good. We stand out not only because we’re foreigners trying to play, but also because we’re just plain terrible. My only previous badminton experience was playing in the backyard with my sisters many, many years ago and a game or two in high school gym class.
Our regular tuk tuk driver, Rot, took us to buy our racquets and got coerced into playing with Dave. During their first volley, the birdie got stuck in the electrical wires above. Luckily Rot is quick on his feet and threw his shoe up to retrieve it!
Public Exercise Machines
Growing up, the park near my grandmother’s house had a circuit of public exercise equipment that my cousins and I would play on. Imagine my surprise to find a circuit just two blocks from our apartment! There is no resistance on any of the machines, but they’re free, fun and elicit many giggles from Cambodians watching us use them. My absolute favorite is the “air walker.” I could do it all day long.
This is not your typical Jane Fonda workout, folks. In the early evenings, parks all over the city have groups of mostly women participating in aerobics and dancing to music coming from an amplified sound system. There is someone leading the group, but the women know the moves and don’t seem to need the instruction. I was told that the session starts out with traditional Khmer songs and eventually moves into Hip Hop numbers later in the evening. I’ve yet to join in the group – I get giggled at enough and need to work up some more self-confidence before putting myself in that situation. It looks like lots of fun though.
On a more boring note, I did buy a yoga mat when we got to Phnom Penh so I could practice on my own. It’s been a great stress reliever and perfect start to my day.
While I continue to focus on getting some exercise each week, a nice bonus of traveling has been the ability to be more active and not eat/drink as much as we did when we were home. Our waistlines are thanking us and we both feel healthy. We didn’t plan for an added trip expense of belts, but it’s money we’re happy to spend!
Where to buy exercise equipment in Phnom Penh:
–International Book Centers (IBC) – a book/sporting goods/housewares store with multiple locations across the city. The items here are a bit more expensive, but easy to locate.
–Sporting good stores on Monivong Boulevard between Russian Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard – lining Monivong are a number of small sporting good store outposts. They sell everything from badminton birdies to treadmills. You can negotiate prices in these stores so a better buy for the majority of your sporting needs.