I imagine that the zenith for many of the urbexing bloggers and Instagramers is to “conquer” a sports stadium. Extraordinary structures punctuating city-scapes constructed for such specific purposes that, in theory, are built not to facilitate commerce or generate wealth, but for entertainment and achievement, wrapped in impenetrable layers of security to keep you out. I can see the appeal of sneaking in and photographing your accomplishments.
But the truth is, the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium, the home of Cambodian sport and of Cambodian Football, is a remarkably easy place to sneak into and photograph. The security guards and staff lazing in their hammocks barely acknowledge you as you slip onto the pitch. Because of this, I can’t really claim to have been “urbexing” at the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium because it took little rule breaking and trespassing to get in, two things synonymous with the art form. But I tagged it as such to inspire enthusiasts anyway.
As you walk in through the car park, there is something reminiscent of Elland Road of the place. The imposing, grand fascade looming over the car park creates quite an impression. But the Cambodian artistic style is clearly visible. Compared to that of China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the Buddhism practiced in Cambodia has always been far more influenced by Hindu teachings and beliefs, which reflects itself in the art and culture of the place. This visual style is still seen today.
Sadly, like so many other popular residents of this beautiful nation, the Phnom Penh Olympic Stadium experienced violation at the hands of the unspeakably evil Khmer Rouge regime (in power between 1975 and 1979). The objective of the regime was to transfer the country into an idealised agrarian communist state, with all inhabitants working directly in agriculture to feed the entire populace instead of being able to pursue individual professions in private firms. Farm work was to replace all modern or “new” professions, and as such, any building, institution, medium, organisation or activity seen to reflect or represent Western Culture came under violent attack from the regime. Sport was among those victims, and the stadium came under fire and was heavily damaged, additionally partially used as an execution site by senior members of the Khmer Rouge.
After the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power, the Cambodians set about doing what they could to rebuild their state and capital. The stadium repair finally came with financial aid from Taiwan in the year 2000, albeit with part of the area behind the North Stand turned into real estate and other facilities such as the swimming pool falling drastically short of competition standard. In 2017, the place does not speak of the horror and tragedy of that epoch of Cambodian history. That is reserved for other attractions of Phnom Penh. Instead, it is a place of entertainment and joy, in spite of Cambodia being a country that has contributed to few memorable historic sporting and Football moments. The modern people of Cambodia retain their resolve and determination to bring both progress and happiness back to the country. Football has always had the power to do the latter.
Unfortunately no game was scheduled during my time spent in the area. More the shame, because a stadium like this, with an imposing central tribune, banked oval, old-school terraces and a cooling nightly breeze would make an excellent place to watch Football. If you’re there and you get chance to watch a game, do it for us, get in touch and make us jealous.