Jogging in Cambodia: Marathon with a Happy End

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Several years ago when I have just fallen in love with the idea of Slow Jogging, one of my favorite holiday ideas was travelling to a place I have never been to before and running a marathon there. Slow Jogging was a perfect tool to do that – running faster would most likely make it impossible to enjoy any of the surroundings. The fact that it was the pre-covid era and also the pre-kids time in my life meant that I did have some pretty amazing running adventures, including getting lost during a marathon in Cambodia.

(This post is more of a story than Slow Jogging advice – hope you enjoy it anyway!)

It was 2014 and the 1st Angkor Empire Marathon in history.

The climate in Cambodia doesn’t really favor runners. Actually during my stay there, besides the marathon itself, I haven’t met a single one. A couple of days before the marathon I decided to leave the area of Siem Reap where I stayed and cycle to the countryside for a small slow jog into the unknown.

One hour into cycling on a rented, rusty bike and I found myself, a Polish Lara Croft, among the monsoon forests and moss-covered ruins.

Half-naked, smiling Khmer kids seemed very excited to see me and happily joined me for a bit of my jog.  

But the key event – the marathon – was still ahead of me. Used to marathons in Japan where 10.000 participants is quite ordinary, I wanted to arrive at the start line at least 1 hour before the race. Which meant 4am – for obvious reasons the climate forced the organizers to start before dawn.

I had no idea how many runners would be there – it was the first Angkor Wat Marathon in history, so there was no available data and the official website didn’t offer a lot of information either.

The day before the race I double-checked with my tuk-tuk driver to make sure he would come and pick me up on time. It was difficult to believe he’d really be up at 3am for a 10 dollar ride. And to be honest – the experience I had since I arrived in Cambodia made me rather distrustful.
To my great surprise he arrived on time (just 10 minutes late to be precise) – not on a tuk-tuk this time but on a motorbike that must have been older than myself. In complete darkness we drove through the sleepy, dusty paths of Siem Reap. Between the never-ending bumps and his speed my heart was racing already at a pace much faster than niko-niko.

10 minutes into our ride and the wind blew my running cap away. 5 minutes later I finally managed to outshout the bike and inform the driver about the accident. Without any questions and still at the same speed he did a U-turn and somehow managed to find my cap in the complete darkness.

Another U-turn and there we were again speeding towards the marathon site.

A couple of minutes later drenched in sweat we arrived at the finish line. Or rather the start.

There was nothing much happening there yet. An enthusiastic DJ, definitely not of Khmer origin was busy trying out the microphone in a way that resembled disco parties rather than a sport event. Few runners were lazily warming up and visiting the toilets. There was a bit over 2000 of us, including the elites in the front.

The starting gun fired. We ran through the silent Angkor Wat our feet pounding rhythmically on the sandy paths. We were passing by the ancient temples, still covered in darkness. I regretted not having a head-light. It was way past the Angkor area when the dawn broke. The day started with its typical crowd of bikes and countless tuk-tuks, people and animals. The marathon course was now passing through the middle of a Khmer village in the midst of its morning chaos.

The sun was now shining mercilessly right into my eyes. Covered in dust and blinded by the sun, I jogged on not really feeling that I was a part of an organized race at all. I actually didn’t see any other runners and was mostly surrounded by the locals, a bit self-conscious with my bib and running shorts.  

In Cambodia, just as in most of the marathons I ran, I was mostly for the fun and experience so I didn’t really pay attention to the time and the distance covered. However, out there in the middle of a Khmer village I started feeling a bit anxious seeing no other runners in sight and no marathon signs whatsoever. I got a crumbled map out of my pocked and discovered that the part of the course passing through the villages was quite short and the course soon returned back to the ruins.

So the tuk-tuks, the morning market with its local products and smells were not really the attractions originally planned for the marathon runners. I navigated through the same villages and markets back to the last marathon sign I saw. The organizers must have assumed we would have more common sense and actually read the map before the race. There was even a uniformed guy holding an arrow sign, hardly visible napping under the shade of a parasol. I felt like taking a nap myself but it was only the 25km point (more like 30km for me though).

My motivation to keep running was close to none, but with the 6h hours limit I still had plenty of time to leisurely stroll all the way to the finish line. I soon found myself back among Angkor Wat ruins where now, in broad daylight I was surrounded by runners and visitors of all nationalities making a striking contrast with the villagers I just met a few kilometers back.

Even slow jogging in Cambodian weather was more than my body was willing to do so I completed the race walking, yet another tourist in the sweaty crowd. What kept me going at the end was mostly the view of stalls with logos of the local breweries at the finish line, visible from afar. To my greatest disappointment they turned out to be serving water. To my small consolation I was also given a medal and a coconutty rice cake.

Fortunately the time for well-deserved beer and celebration was about to come. A friend of mine temporarily living in Siem Reap agreed to join me at a legendary restaurant specializing in Happy Pizza.

And how exactly was the HAPPY feeling related to the green leaves spread generously on the pizza dough? I will leave it to your imagination. Maybe it was just the runners high.

And even though the pizza itself could make a great carbo-loading dinner, I would rather do not recommend this experiment on the evening before the race 🙂

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