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The big freeze

A cool breeze is drifting across the tropics as ice skating rinks become increasingly popular in the region

Julie Masis
October 24, 2013

A cool breeze is drifting across the tropics as ice skating rinks become increasingly popular in the region

By Julie Masis   Photography by Sam Jam
Cold air gushes into the elevator as the doors open at the tenth floor. It is a welcome respite in Cambodia, a country more familiar with the hot and humid than with the crisp and fresh. But this venue, located in Kids City in downtown Phnom Penh, is making a name for itself by offering the unusual. A few metres in front of the lift is the country’s first ice-skating rink.
“I feel like I’m in another country,” said 16-year-old An I Younan, who was testing his wobbly legs on ice for the first time. “If I had known that it would be so cold, I would have brought my jacket.”

Frosty fun: affluent young Khmers enjoy the country’s first ice rink in downtown Phnom Pemh
Frosty fun: affluent young Khmers enjoy the country’s first ice rink in downtown Phnom Penh

The ice rink was built by Meng Hieng, the trailblazing Cambodian businessman behind the country’s popular book and toy store, Monument Books. Having learned how to skate in South Korea, Meng Hieng recruited a Filipino figure skating coach to help realise his ambition of seeing young Cambodians scale great skating heights. “I hope young people will one day participate in international skating competitions,” he said.Yet at $12 for 75 minutes on the rink, this dream is, for now at least, limited to the more fortunate minority of Cambodians.
“I would come back again because we have a lot of fun here even though the ticket is expensive,” said 22-year-old Thong Panhna, on a busy Sunday evening shortly after the rink opened in June. “Skating on real ice is really exciting.”
While the rink is a novelty in the Kingdom, it isn’t the first in the region, where the sport has been gaining popularity in recent years. Residents of Ho Chi Minh City first took to the ice last December, when Crescent Mall opened a mini winter wonderland in Vietnam’s commercial capital. Posters depicted children sliding on the ice in white rubber boots, using swimming tubes as sleds. While the rink was a temporary venture, a new one is planned for the forthcoming holiday season.
Tiny skaters: young and old enjoy the cool comforts of ice rinks
Tiny skaters: young and old enjoy the cool comforts of ice rinks

Adding a more professional feel to the sport, Singapore’s Ice Skating Association has been hosting races and relays at its Olympic-sized ice rink since it opened last year. Located in the middle of a shopping mall, it is hard to miss this behemoth of a rink that has raised the profile of ice skating in the tropical island state. Weekly learn-to-skate classes have attracted a set of keen followers and a record-breaking 75 people participated in the annual skating competition.
“One of the factors that explains why ice skating is popular in Singapore is our weather,” said Elly Tan, an administrator for the Singapore Ice Skating Association. “Doing other sports outdoors may cause people to sweat, and it’s quite uncomfortable. Ice skating is in a colder place and you’re also working out.”
Not to be outdone by its neighbour, Malaysia will open its first Olympic-sized rink next year, its third rink in total. “The sport has become so popular that on holidays the rinks are full and there aren’t enough skating coaches,” said Laila Ismail, president of the Ice Skating Association of Malaysia. Last year, the country was admitted to the International Skating Union.
“We’ve come a long way since our association started in 2000. When we had our first competition at the end of 2001, there were only 30 or 40 skaters. Now we have 300,” Ismail said.
In Thailand, the number of rinks has tripled since 2005, according to Paul Wong, president of the Ice Skating Institute of Asia. Bangkok is home to ten ice skating rinks.
“Mainly it’s become popular because the rinks are opening in shopping malls, so we have a lot more exposure,” Wong said. “I think the image of this winter sport is very attractive. If you see figure skating, you see all these beautiful boys and girls doing beautiful things. Your body will feel the winter breeze on the ice, and you will have the feeling of flying.”
The Philippines is currently building its second Olympic-sized rink, and there are also two in Indonesia. Coupled with a growing interest in the sport, the dwindling cost of building ice rinks is bringing about a surge in their popularity. Building a skating rink now costs half of what it did 20 years ago, says Mike Rzechula, chief technology officer of Ice Rink Supply, an American company that has built ice skating rinks in 13 countries, including Cambodia and Thailand. A small ice rink now costs about $350,000 to build and $100 per day to operate, according to Rzechula. “The computer age made ice rinks very affordable,” Rzechula said. “All our technology is governed by computers. All the rink operators have to do is set the temperature.”
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