My Discovery of Pailin and the Skatepark
In July of 2017 my partner Shalma and I left our apartment in Phnom Penh and set out to explore Cambodia on my newly purchased 1999 Honda xr250. We had just arrived in Cambodia in the middle of June and were eager to go on an adventure, seeing where the road would take us. We visited Angkor Wat and many of the national sites most favoured by tourists and expats, but I wanted to find the roads less taken. As we rode through the countryside and met people, we allowed our trip to unfold organically by talking to those we met about the hidden places where most travelers never go. One of those places was the remote border town of Pailin; this is where I would begin the project I dubbed “Operation Skateboard” through a complete and utter lack of creativity. You can read more about that story here.
Pailin was traditionally part of the larger province of Battambang. During the late 1990s, however, as part of the peace process between the new Cambodian government and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Pailin became a province unto itself and old Khmer Rouge bosses were given a place in the governance of the area. Many of the most notorious members of the faction lived out their lives there. Some were brought to justice for their particular crimes against humanity. Many others just went on with life in Pailin. Today, many of the older people in Pailin have a history fighting for the Khmer Rouge.
The Province is unusually clean for Cambodia. The city of Pailin is surrounded by the Cardamom mountains. Although the mountains themselves are quite rugged, they are covered by a lush green canopy that smooths them out and makes them appear deceptively inviting despite the many perils of giant spiders, massive venomous centipedes, and of course, cobras and land mines. Some of the locals even claim they have seen tigers in the hills in spite of strong declarations by international animal welfare organisations that there are none left in Cambodia at all.
Above are some pictures of the beauty of Pailin and the Cardamom mountains from our first trip in July 2017.
When Shalma and I arrived, I found myself incredibly taken by the beauty, mystery, and danger of Pailin. This place was so unlike anywhere we had been in Cambodia. Although there were a few massive (dare I say posh) hotels in the small hamlet, there were no tourists to be seen. We saw no tuk tulks, no European faces, and no motorbike rental places. Everywhere we went we received kind stares and hellos. But there was one thing so weirdly familiar that it stood incredibly out of place: a skate park. As a rule, riding skateboards is not incredibly popular in Cambodia. I attribute most of this to the cost of skateboards, but it is certainly cultural as well. Inline skates are a little more popular, but this was the first time I had seen anything like this.
When we first walked by the skate park I found myself big-eyed with my jaw agape. I mean, this is a rather massive facility. In the front is a collection of concrete ramps—half pipes and quarter pipes—and in the back, is a gently banked roller rink style facility that is covered by a massive roof. In the rear all the concrete is painted in brightly coloured designs. The surface is incredibly slick, so when you skate on it there is little resistance offered. One finds themselves moving at great speed very quickly!
As I stood gazing at the skate park for the very first time, a slightly built man waved for us to come in. He introduced himself as Chai Ching Long. Although I am accustomed to calling him Chai Ching, he recently informed me that he typically goes by Long. Chai Ching is fascinated by X-Games and extreme sports. He loves inline skating, BMX, skateboards, and any of the fast-moving high-flying sports that came to popularity in the late 70s and early 80s. He told me that he built the skate park to promote these kinds of sports in Cambodia. He also built it in homage of his father who had taken it upon himself to take care of the kids in Pailin. There was one other aspect to Chai Ching’s skate park; he sees it as a symbol of economic development, part of a larger movement to connect Cambodia and Pailin to developed western nations. Chai Ching’s park doesn’t exist for profit; it came to be because of ideals.
During that first visit to Chai Ching’s skate park I asked him if he had any skateboards. He said he had only one. He let me ride his board, but it was in a poor state of repair. According to Chai Ching, it was the only skateboard in the village. It was certainly inadequate for the kids of the town. I offered to get him a few skateboards right there on the spot as Shalma sat nudging me in the ribs and whispering “what are you committing yourself to?” Of course, you can read about all of this in the hyperlink above.
A Facebook Post
I made a Facebook post with a picture of the park that fateful eighth day in July as I sat there in front of Chai Ching even though I only knew him for about ten minutes. I asked if anyone might have any spare skateboard bits to get to this guy. Little did I know how eager the response would be. I still thought I would end up buying a few boards on my own, strapping them on the back of my bike and transporting them back to Pailin. I was inspired to really do something with this. Many of the people who originally showed interest weren’t able to help at that time, but their enthusiasm lit a little fire that would help accomplish something really special for the children of Pailin.
I began talking to many friends abroad, mostly in the US. Some people told me that I should contact Skateistan in Phnom Penh, which I did, but they were of no help at all. Others promised to send boards. My dear friend Sus Lew became the patron saint of Operation Skateboard. She immediately went out and not only bought boards and equipment but also helped find other people to donate. My friend Rohini got one of her brothers, Nima, to also donate some boards. Pretty soon Operation Skateboard was in full effect.
Over the ensuing months I kept in close contact with Sus. She collected boards, shoes, t-shirts, razor scooters, stickers and countless other bits. Her house no longer belonged to her but was the thorough domain of Operation Skateboard and her cats who enjoyed using the boxes as beds and hideouts. I had some equipment shipped to Shalma’s mom’s house, and Sus was so kind to pick it up and include it in the packaging. In the meantime, I was trying to figure out how I was going to get all this stuff from the US to Cambodia. Believe it or not, this is much easier said than done, especially if you don’t have a fortune you feel like blowing on shipping.
Fortunately, Shalma’s stepdad Willy is in the shipping business and was happy to help us. Willy’s clients do not normally ship to Cambodia, so he didn’t have a connection on this side to help us clear customs. He was extremely gracious, however, and both arranged and paid for the sea shipping costs. A man named Carlo Iaccarino, the export coordinator for ECU Worldwide (the carrier we went through), was inspired by our project and agreed to take all the boxes to the port personally, saving us hundreds of dollars. In the meantime Sus and her partner, surely exhausted, were taking apart any assembled boards, making an extremely detailed packing list, and packing them in boxes with the precision of robots.
On my end, I spent days (was it weeks?) talking to everyone I knew in Cambodia about shipping. It turns out, shipping is a rather nebulous world to most expats here. Nothing is set in stone, and a heck of a lot of it depends on knowing the right guy who knows the right guy who you can eventually pay a bribe to in order to get the goods. After some deal of work, I found a guy called Khemera at a company called Fulwell Logistics. We met with him and he told us stories of his own childhood and explained how he was sympathetic to our cause. He was happy to help us, and even managed to keep us from paying tariffs on the skateboards. Still, the clearance costs came out to a hefty fee, but again, I had a close friend come to the rescue and pay about two-thirds of the customs clearance cost.
On the 24th day of November 2017, after months of waiting, the skateboards finally arrived. Khemera was so kind and picked up the boxes in his own car for a small fee. We got on my motorbike, grabbed some money from the bank (shipping is a cash business) and headed out through the madness of Phnom Penh traffic to Khemera’s office, about a half hour by motorbike from our home. We were there just briefly, thanked him for his help, and then loaded all the boxes into a tuk tuk. After the boxes were in the tuk tuk we just barely managed to squeeze a little Shalma in with them. After that we just had to haul hundreds of pounds of gear up seven flights of stairs.
Planning the trip to Pailin
After getting the skateboards home and hauling them upstairs with the help of our security guard (who I paid some money to) Shalma suggested that I not open the boxes. Her suggestion was that we leave them be and assemble the skateboards when we got to Pailin. I was tempted to do so, but I was far more tempted to check out the swag! It was a good thing I did as well. Most of the boards had never been built. I had to put the grip tape on, put the bearings in the wheels, and build them from the ground up. I spent all my free time over the next three days assembling the decks. I felt like a kid at my own private Christmas party–oh and I had stickers! Did you think I wasn’t going to put some stickers on this board? If so, you thought wrong. I get to have a little joy from this right? Don’t worry, there were hundreds of stickers left to give to the kids when I was done.
I still had all of the planning to do. We had spoken to our friends Ross and Ariel about coming with us and they seemed super keen on the idea. My original plan was to just hire a car and drive it myself with the four of us. My concern was that it was just too much gear to fit into some dinky rental car. More than that, the Cambodian roads are extremely dangerous and include their own counter-intuitive rules. I can handle all this on a motorbike as an experienced rider, but driving a car in this country actually makes me more nervous. While we were figuring this all out, Shalma and I ran into our local friend Taylor Davis. Taylor seemed really interested in Pailin and told us that he and some friends might want to go. This fortunate turn of events allowed me to narrow the options; I started looking for a bus.
Several friends were extremely helpful, giving me contacts for charter busses. I got a range of prices, some twice as much as the bus I ended up hiring. In the end I found an awesome bus with a great driver. He was very safe, but spoke no English. It is a very good thing that I have been taking private Khmer lessons over the past couple months. We ended up communicating just fine in his language, and we managed to get every place we wanted to go.
Arriving in Pailin
It is a long bus ride to Pailin from Phnom Penh, about 8 hours in total. After taking a brief break to eat by the riverside at a place I knew in Battambang from my previous trip, we finished the drive to Pailin (about an hour and a half left to go at this point) and arrived at the skate park at about 8:30. The timing was a little unfortunate as we all had to eat when we did. However, Chai Ching’s wife had also made us dinner. We all stuffed ourselves as much as we could with the food she made, and it was amazingly delicious. When she saw that we were not able to eat as much as she expected, she seemed a little insulted. We were all very concerned that we may have hurt her feelings.
We were at the skate park for a short time when we all came to the conclusion that we were knackered and really needed some beds. Chai Ching was enthusiastic (as is his nature) and really didn’t want us to go. I think if it were up to him we would have partied until the wee hours of the morning. We insisted upon sleep and all went to the Happy Garden hotel which is run by Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian army who controls the entire western border region of the country.
The hotel was completely empty just as it was the last time Shalma and I were there. We all got to choose our own rooms. There are mountains and beautiful nature regardless of which direction you look in the morning. I rose at about 6 AM and started taking a few pictures as I said little prayers that coffee would magically find me.
I went downstairs and walked across the street and started taking pictures of goats. Remarkably, one doesn’t see many goats in Cambodia. It turns out that most of us had all actually gotten up early to enjoy the beauty of our new surroundings. Dan and Taylor ended up walking several kilometers to bring us all coffee. Ross woke up early to wander around the mangosteen groves. Eventually we all ended up in the the lobby having coffee and talking about the evils of missionary work, which I see as a form of exploitation wherein a much wealthier group from a powerful country imposes its will on other people in exchange for access to essential goods, thus stratifying a society, often leading to civil war.
Lee and I also spent some time talking about NGOs. There was a time when my dream job would have been to work with an NGO or the UN, but after having been in Cambodia for a while I am completely disenchanted. I mean, if I was an NGO trying to create this skateboard project, I would first petition for a grant, buy a building, hire people to raise funds, and eventually throw a couple kids a skateboards or two, but we’d all have fancy polo shirts that said Operation Skateboard on them. I think Lee agreed that it is far more impactful to do work at the ground level, otherwise it can be rather wasteful. I remember feeling happy to have such interesting companions who would engage in such a conversation with a smile even if our views didn’t match. I think I mentioned the goats right around this time and we all ended up migrating across the street to check them out.
Chai Ching Arrives
It was around ten in the morning when Chai Ching arrived at the hotel. He came in like a whirlwind the way one would only expect if they knew him. He was smartly dressed in a navy suit, white starched shirt, and a pink tie. With his hair perfectly parted and combed to one side he had all the trappings of a 1980s American televangelist. When our group saw him and we all knew that Chai Ching was mayor of Pailin for a day.
We were all starving but also wanted to get to the park. I was thinking (as were some others) that we could pick up something fast and cheap, especially since the muralist of our group, Shauna, was eager to get started with some painting. Chai Ching had other ideas. He insisted that we ate there at the little restaurant behind the hotel. We all ended up walking behind the hotel where we climbed into a sort of water bungalow on top of a pond.
We ordered a bunch of items to share and the food was pretty good. I think everyone was a bit anxious to get the day started, however. We were excited to check out the surroundings and I know that Ariel, Ross, and Shauna were keen to get to work on the murals. After lunch a few of us went to have a few beers with Chai Ching’s brother in law, the general in the Cambodian military who I mentioned above. I reckon he’s a good fellow to know in a pinch.
After some nice conversation and quite a bit of dark beer, I complemented Chai Ching’s gold ring with the big sapphire surrounded by little diamonds. He immediately pulled it off his finger and insisted I keep it as a gift from him. It only fit on my pinky so I slipped it on and sat around drinking with the general and feeling like a gangster. Eventually the sweetness of that moment had to end, so we said our goodbyes and headed over to the skate park to meet up with the others. I pulled out my camera to take a picture of the puppy under the table and then we went on our way. The park is only a few kilometers away and we were there in a blink of an eye. At this point, Ross, Ariel, and Shauna had made a lot of progress on the murals.
We spent a little more time around the skate park. Dominic and I skated a bit while the others painted. Chai Ching was very interested in taking us all to the main market in Pailin. It is actually one of the largest markets I have been to in Cambodia. Pailin is known for its gem mining, and much of the market is dedicated to sales of rubies and sapphires. Buyer beware, much of it is fake or poor quality. Many of the of the gold items you find are just plated tin. But first, Chai Ching wanted to show us the mural he made that included the names of all the donors to operation skateboard.
After our brief interlude at the skatepark, Dan, Lee, and I agreed to accompany Chai Ching to the market. He drove his car and for some reason we hopped into the van and our hired driver followed him. It will forever be a mystery as to why we didn’t take just one vehicle. Below are some pictures of that excursion.
As we walked through the rows of market stalls I think we all felt a bit paraded around. It was pretty clear that western people were decidedly rare around this market. Chai Ching introduced us to everyone he knew in the market. He had actually told me that there was going to be a big surprise for us there. I am not sure what that surprise was; perhaps it was just seeing his wife’s shop. By the time we were done there I think we were pretty excited to rejoin our companions at the skate park.
Back at the Skate Park
Back at the skate park we rejoined our comrades. They were well into painting, skating, and otherwise having a good time. Brooke, one of our compadres, immediately came up to me and offered a beer. It was the first beer I had since brunching and chatting with the general. I proceeded to drink some beers and skate around.
Kids started showing up. Chai Ching said the bulk of them should be there at 3 or 4 PM because it was their final exam day in school. I told him I wanted to pull out the boards but he asked me to wait. I continued to skate around with my beer, having a jolly time. Unfortunately I lost my footing while going down a ramp. My instinct was to salvage the beer in my left hand while breaking my fall with the right. My instincts served me poorly. Mind you, the beer was mostly intact, but I believe I am still suffering from a slight fracture to the right wrist at the time of this writing.
Once I injured my wrist I decided it was better that I cease skating. When left idle I can be both impatient and averse to taking direction from others. I didn’t see Chai Ching around and decided to get the skateboards out of the van so kids could go skate. Plus, I kind of figured I had some say in the matter. I went to the van and opened up the back door. I began to dread hauling all the boards into the park as my wrist was throbbing. I looked behind me and there stood one boy looking at me, and I could tell he wanted to skate. I handed him a board and as soon as he began heading back the other kids lined up, each taking a board. Problem solved. The kids began skating immediately.
Some of the kids started out on their bums. Others just kind of went for it and started skating like little champs. I miss the fearlessness of youth that allows you to do new and dangerous things. I also miss the flexible bones and the endless energy. Giving kids the opportunity to take out those energies and learn new things is extremely rewarding.
After the kids played with the skateboards for a while I decided to start handing out the stickers. It was actually one of the most frightening decisions I had ever made. My friends who have kids might know this already, but it seems that nothing makes kids go completely nuts more than stickers. I ended up having to throw them over my shoulder while running away. It was truly exhausting!
Meanwhile, our artists were finishing up their work around the park, having created beautiful murals
The kids skated for hours and there was seemingly constant artwork being made. By nightfall the kids were quite proficient. Some began dropping in on the half pipes and quarter pipes at the park. Periodically Chai Ching would bring us all together for photos.
Ending the Day in Pailin
It gets dark pretty quickly in the tropics. The kids were having such a good time there seemed no sign of it ever stopping. Chai Ching really wanted us to stay a couple more nights, but most of us had jobs to get back to. We were all very exhausted as well. Chai Ching wanted to honor us all and created a few more photo ops. He wanted to present all the gear that had been donated and take pictures of the swag. He also honored each of us with a Krama, the traditional Khmer scarf, made internationally famous as part of the required uniform of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer people did not let that dark history destroy this tradition. In this case the presentation was a show of gratitude, love, and respect.
After the above photos were taken we were all completely shagged and anxious to get back to Battambang. A few people in our crew were planning on taking the night bus back to Phnom Penh from Battambang and we all wanted a little time to relax and debrief before we parted ways. Chai Ching really enjoyed having us there and certainly wanted us to stay. His wife had made a delicious meal for us but we had little time to bide. She ended up feeding us on the go. We felt terrible and hoped that we did not disappoint her. She is an absolutely amazing cook and honestly has made me some of the best food I have had in Asia. In truth, I am not the biggest fan of Khmer food, unless the food comes from Chai Ching’s wife, then it is excellent!
Speaking of Chai Ching’s wife, just as we were leaving she saw the ring was on my pinky and seemed a little upset about it. She said something to Chai Ching in Khmer and he turned to me and told me that his wife wanted to change the setting so that it would actually fit my ring finger. I gave the ring back, said my goodbyes, and headed toward the van. And so it was that we departed Pailin in the dark.
When we got to Battambang we found a little bar and grill called Bar Ang, which is a bit of a play on words. Barang means French in the Khmer language, but among poorer or less educated people all foreigners are basically French. The actual word for foreigner in Khmer is Boroteh. Most expats never know the distinction, and it is far less common to hear Khmer people using the term Barang these days; I think it is far more commonly used among expats. At any rate, we had some food and drinks and went to our hotel, Seng Hout, where I had stayed on a previous visit to Battambang.
The following morning Dan and I went and had breakfast while Ariel and Ross had a romantic brunch and a stroll. I enjoy walking around Battambang as it is a vivid place where the remnants of French Colonialism is ever-present in the architecture.
Overall it was a great project and one for which I am thankful to many people. Aside from all the good folks who joined me in the trip to Pailin, I would like to thank all the donors who made this project possible. I want to live a life where I do something when I see something needs to be done. I feel so fortunate to have had so many likeminded people people join me on this quest. My many thanks, and thanks from Chai Ching and the children of Pailin go out to Sus Lew, Afsi and Willy Pena, my lovely girlfriend, Shalma Movassaghi, Raymond Beltran, Alice Salamanca Beltran, Jay Judge, Chrissie Good, Eagle Barber, Nima Moradi, Mark Krisher, Ian and Alexis Briggs, Khemara, and Carlo Iaccarino. I would also like to thank Winston at Berkeley Bike and Skateboards, 1-2-3-4 Go Records, Project Chimps, 924 Gillman, Green Day, Orbit Skates, Oaklandish, Whatever Skateboards, Sunset Skateboards, and Bruce Lee. If I forgot anyone, please forgive me. I couldn’t have created this project without the help of everyone involved. The gifts that everyone gave will resonate with these children for a lifetime.
Since our trip to Pailin, I have had the pleasure of getting messages from young people who have been going to the skate park. They often include pictures of the kids with the skateboards. They are telling me how skateboards are their favorite things.