Until recently, the residents of Cambodia — a small Southeast Asian country where temperatures rarely fall below 90 degrees — saw ice only inside their beverage glasses. However, this summer, Cambodians began enjoying frozen water in a new way: on an ice-skating rink.
The country’s first rink opened on the top floor of a children’s indoor entertainment center in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh on June 1, to mark International Children’s Day. Owned by a local businessman who learned to skate in Korea, the ice rink was built after several shopping malls here invested in “Magic Ice” skating surfaces. Magic ice, which is a fancy term for plastic, however, failed to captivate the locals as much as the real stuff.
Indeed, being cold is considered exotic in Cambodia, where people spend much of their time trying to fight the heat. Air conditioning can cost more than rent, shower water can feel like it’s boiling, gloves are used to protect hands from tanning, and no sport — except swimming — can be enjoyed before sunset.
On a recent afternoon, visitors to the ice rink said they loved the cool temperatures in the room — about 50 degrees — as much as the skating. Parents sat on benches watching their children taking their first steps on the ice. Others took photos of themselves in their skating outfits.
“It feels like I’m in another country. Now we have winter in Cambodia,” said 16-year-old An I Younan, who was watching his friends learning to skate. “I did not realize that it would be so cold in here. If I had known that it would be so cold, I would have brought my jacket.”
A figure skating coach arrived from the Philippines — where the first rink opened 14 years ago — to teach Cambodian roller-skaters to skate on ice. Gloves, socks and recreational hockey skates were brought in. A sound and light system was installed. An hour of skating costs $10 for children and $12 for adults. Despite the high cost in a country where many people don’t make more than $2 per day, many skaters said the experience is worth it.
“I would come back again because we have a lot fun here even though the ticket is expensive,” 22-year-old Thong Panhna said.
Cambodia is not the first tropical country where the winter sport has become popular in recent years. The first ice-skating rink in neighboring Vietnam opened in a shopping mall a year ago during Christmas season, allowing children to amuse themselves by sliding on ice in rubber boots. There are also ice-skating rinks now in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. The first Olympic-size skating rink in Singapore was built last year. The first ice-skating rink in eastern Africa opened in Kenya in 2005, and there are also rinks in Colombia, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Saudi-Arabia and Ecuador, to name a few.
“We had the honor to install rinks in countries that never had them before since the late 1990s,” said Mike Rzechula, the chief technology officer of Ice Rink Supply, an American company that has built rinks in 13 countries worldwide, including Cambodia. “Ice rinks truly are expanding. Over the years, there is hardly a country — and I’m not exaggerating — where someone hadn’t inquired about building an ice skating rink.”
Rzechula even installed a rink in an old circus tent in the middle of the desert, only five kilometers from the Egyptian pyramids. That rink, which was the first in Egypt, was completed in 1997, he said.
The company is currently involved in negotiations concerning the construction of the first indoor rink in Mongolia.
According to Rzechula, ice-skating rinks have become more affordable since the late 1990s due to the arrival of computerized technology. This new technology makes it possible to control temperatures more efficiently, and even foresee problems before they occur, he said.
“All our technology is governed by computer,” he said. “All they (rink operators) have to do is set the temperature. If something goes wrong the computer tells them. You’d think the price (of a rink) is higher because of inflation, but the price now is actually lower. It became very affordable.”
According to him, a small rink — 50 by 120 feet — like the one in Cambodia costs about $350,000 to build and $75 to $100 per day to operate. Overall, he said, it costs almost two times less to build a skating rink now than it did in the 1990s.
Back in Cambodia, plans for the new facility include private lessons, school trips, and evening ice shows. Meng Hieng, the owner, says he built the rink not only to provide a new activity for the local youth, but also to bring the country’s sports to a new level.
“It’s a sport activity that didn’t exist in Cambodia and I thought it’s a good idea to get children to do this activity to aim that in the future Cambodia will become part of the ice skating federation,” he said.
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