Jen and I are exercise people. After months on the road without anything resembling an exercise program, both of us were feeling out of shape. Added to this was Jen’s ankle injury, which was two months old and still far from being healed. We needed a place to park for a while, rehabilitate the ankle, and get back some of our physical conditioning. For this, we headed back to Battambang.
Cambodia is not a place that I have ever associated with sports and fitness. During our first trip there, I never saw a single person running, or anyone on a bicycle for other than transportation. Soccer, and street variations of soccer, are about the only sports we have seen being played. I believe I read somewhere that the country’s last Olympic team consisted of just four people. Despite these contrary indications, exercise facilities can be found in the major cities, if you look hard enough and don’t expect something along the lines of a 24-Hour Fitness Center.
Swimming and the Victory Club
Our best find in Battambang was the swimming pool at the Victory Club. It’s a large, well-maintained pool — 35 meters in length by my measurement. Other than weekends, when there might be some Cambodian kids splashing around in flotation vests, the thing is pretty much empty.
Cambodia is a wet country, and its people are playing, bathing, washing, and fishing in just about any body of water bigger than a bucket. But, for all that, Cambodians just don’t seem to be into lap swimming. Other than Jen and I, the only regular lap swimmers at the Victory Club were a very fat and very bald white guy, and a very tall white guy who liked to splash water and talk to himself between laps. These two obviously lived in Battambang, and at least one seems to have lived there just a little too long. The occasional Western tourist also showed, but it was a rare thing. Only once did we see a Khmer swim a lap, and after that single lap he was satisfied with his performance and left.
The thing for which Khmers use the Victory Club pool is eating and drinking. On one side of the pool are covered outdoor dining tables, serviced by the club’s restaurant. Every couple of days, some Khmers would be seated at a table while we swam. Westerners swimming laps is apparently good dining entertainment.
Perhaps a reflection of Khmer indifference to things like lap swimming and weight lifting, the Victory Club’s exercise advertisements have a Western bent. The photographs on the club’s flyers — pirated from American web sites — are of white Anglo-Saxons on exercise machines. The massive posters mounted on the exterior wall of the club’s main building, overlooking the pool, are also of white people doing spa and gym things. One of these posters shows two bikini-clad blondes posing in a steam room. It always strikes me as strange that Cambodian advertisements for fitness and beauty are more likely to portray Westerners than Khmers.
So, for Khmers who can afford the place, the Victory Club is about the restaurant, massages, and weddings. We saw a pretty large wedding party there, complete with an outdoor stage, lights, and massive speaker stack for the band. Someone had riel to burn.
Perhaps the Victory Club is also about prestige. It has the word “club” in it’s name, which always makes a place sound exclusive. While the buildings are in that use-it-until-it’s-trashed state of non-maintenance that you see throughout Cambodia, the club’s Khmer clientele dresses in a way that says money — at least it says more money than your average rice farmer has in the bank. It cost us two dollars each, per day, to swim laps. In Cambodia, that’s enough to keep more than just the riff-raff away.
If Khmers aren’t using the Victory Club’s pool to train for the next Olympics, they are also not using its gym to train for the next Mr. Universe contest. The gym is located on the second floor of the main building, right above the front desk with the young receptionist in the business-provocative attire, right next to the massage center with its cat-urine-smelling carpet, and right next to a storage space being used as a bedroom by one of the staff. The equipment is broken and rusty, and probably hadn’t been touched for years before we gave it a go. Jen and I tried and tried to get something out of the machines, but it was a failed effort. We never tried again.
Here, I will digress a bit…
Some of what I have written — worn-out buildings, bad-smelling carpets, and such — may sound like a criticism of Khmers. It is not. The quirks are part of what we love about Cambodia and the Khmer people. If you haven’t yet grasped that we rate Cambodia at the top of places we’ve been, and Khmers as perhaps the nicest people we’ve met, then you haven’t really been paying attention.
The Monorum Gym
Having been defeated by the rusty equipment at the Victory Club, we turned our attention to a gym near the center of Battambang — one that is used by local Khmers, but by so few that only on three of twenty days did we have any company.
The Monorum Gym is run by an older Khmer woman, who we usually found sleeping on a cot behind the desk at the entrance. After swimming laps at the Victory Club, we would ride to the gym on our motorbike, wake the lady, pay the gym fee, and purchase a couple bottles of water. She would then go back to sleep, completing the ritual.
The gym has a lot of inexpensive equipment in a marginal state of repair, but you can work with it. There are three spin bikes. If you cannibalize parts from all three, and jerry-rig the resistance control with some string, you can build one that functions. The free weights are plentiful, if not of US gym quality. Some of the weight machines work well, others not so much. The treadmills are useless, but that’s why God made roadways. So, it isn’t a 24-Hour Fitness Center, but Jen could manage some time on a spin bike of sorts, and both of us could get in some upper body work. Combined with lap swimming at the Victory Club, it made for a no-kidding exercise program.
The Monorum Gym has rats – three of them. One is a boy, about ten years of age; the second is a girl, about the same age; and the third is another boy, about seven years of age. They ran amok in the street in front of the gym, chasing each other with sticks — until they discovered us. Then they infested the gym and stuck to us throughout the workout, playing with equipment, barraging us with questions, and generally getting in the way. It was cute for about five minutes. The sleeping lady was obviously annoyed, but she didn’t chase them out, probably because she thought we liked having them around.
The next time the gym rats showed, I told them in Khmer to leave. The sleeping lady heard this and took it as a green light to clear out the nest. We never had rats in the gym again.
Jen’s ankle prevented her from running, so I hit the pavement alone in the mornings, jogging down public roads in and around the city. My running was a minor curiosity the first couple of days, drawing double-takes from motorbike passengers and confused looks from policemen. After that, I was pretty much ignored, having become part of the standard rhythm of things.
Mornings are a busy time in Battambang — rivers of motorbikes carrying people to work and school; other people boarding trucks to work in distant fields; men sitting on motorbikes parked at intersections, smoking and watching the traffic go by; ladies cooking breakfast from carts parked near school entrances; groups of children dressed in uniforms, sitting and eating from the carts, or playing with soccer balls, while they wait for class to start. Running gave me the chance to see this part of the town’s life.
Of course, running in Battambang has a few risks. The chance of getting smacked by a motorbike…or a car…or a truck…or a bus…or a tuk-tuk…is pretty high; and Khmer dogs can get pretty upset by their first-ever spotting of a white guy running down the road. Then there’s the heat and humidity, which becomes punishing after eight o’clock.
Onward from Battambang
So, is there exercise after Battambang? Well, at Siem Reap there was, with a great gym and pool setup at the Raffles Hotel. But now we are in Spain, in a rural area, with the closest gym almost an hour’s drive away, and the pools near freezing. I still pound pavement, and we have managed a spin bike for Jen, but the gains we made in Battambang are being slowly lost in Andalusia.
I wonder how many people are on the Spanish Olympic team.