About two months ago, I heard something that changed my life. Phnom Penh has a real, ten-pin bowling alley. As a formerly avid recreational bowler – I was a keen student of Bowl America, Bethesda Naval Lanes, as well as various duckpin bowling centers – I was ecstatic. The opportunity for me to actually go, however, did not arise until my friend Justin, an equally avid bowler, arrived from the US for a two week visit.
Having given him and Ashley a taste of Cambodian culture after the Embassy ordeal – markets, tuk tuk rides, Khmer food (off the street and from quality restaurants) – I felt a brief return to American culture in Cambodia appropriate. I called Red, our amazing tuk tuk driver; he’s one of the few who speaks English well, knows exactly where he’s going and won’t try to gouge you on price. When he arrived, I asked him to take us to Parkway, where the bowling alley was located. He, of course, knew its precise location even though I could only offer a vague idea of where I thought it was.
As he dropped us off, we were confronted by a building of several stories which looked, more or less, like a shopping mall. On the ground floor we passed a very out of place health club, which had a decent looking swimming pool. Things only got stranger and sketchier from there. Even though it was relatively early on a Wednesday night, there was no one around. We wandered past empty shops selling stylish clothing following poorly placed signs in the direction of the bowling alley and other entertainment. We climbed two sets of empty staircases past an oddly contrived garden scene with plastic deer and other animals, before passing a room full of billiards tables and an empty dining area.
Finally, we came to the empty bowling alley. It was, I must admit, a very nice looking alley of about ten lanes. Though I couldn’t figure out what was going through the designer’s head when they put it on the third floor. How terrible it must have been working in the shops below as westerners and Phnom Penh’s elite took to the lanes.
We picked out shoes for $1 a pair, with mine being the only ones that looked remotely like bowling shoes; throughout the night we came up with various analogies to describe Justin’s white shoes, from ballet shoes, to Saturday Night Fever shoes, to boxing shoes, to who knows what else. Settling down on our computerized lane (I might say that it was the same computer system with the same animation schemes as Bethesda Naval) and attended to by half a dozen bored staff, we ordered a few beers and the fun began.
None of us bowled well the first game; we couldn’t remember the last time we’d been at a ten-pin lane. We were thoroughly entertained by the echo chamber the bowling alley appeared to be in – bowling balls hitting the lane or exploding across the pins made defeaning noise. About halfway through the second game, which was going much better for all of us (I ended up with a very respectable 173), a group of Cambodian men arrived to roll a few lanes over. They were clearly at home here and looked like decent bowlers even if they were using light balls. Their bowling mannerisms, especially a particularly chubby bowler, provided entertainment beyond the game itself.
Following one and a half hours of bowling and with a few beers in our bellies, we went in search of food. The bowling alley’s canteen didn’t offer anything besides pre-packaged snacks and the sketchy Parkway’s stores were all shuttered. We opted to make the evening more American still and headed into the empty Lucky Burger, a not-so-fast food burger joint. We were enthusiastically greeted by the staff and ordered, you guessed it, happy meals. To be honest, they were surprisingly satisfying. But not nearly as satisfying as three games of bowling and the knowledge that I was able to do so in Phnom Penh.