May 18, 2023
PHNOM PENH – Nothing, not even a passing thunderstorm midway through Wednesday night’s closing ceremony, was going to stop first-time SEA Games hosts Cambodia from throwing a party to commemorate its place in history.
Rain, lightning and thunder had interrupted the pre-show entertainment at the Morodok Techo National Stadium in Phnom Penh but the on-field performers were unfazed, as were the thousands of locals in the stands. They sang, danced and cheered loudly, defiant despite the inclement weather.
Cambodia’s 896 athletes had shown similar spirit during three weeks of competition, winning 81 golds – the country’s previous best was 17 at the 1971 South-east Asian Peninsular Games – to finish fourth in the standings behind powerhouses Vietnam (136 golds), Thailand (108) and Indonesia (87).
While traditional sports like kun khmer (14), vovinam (10), kun bokator (eight) and kickboxing (six) made significant contributions to their tally, few would begrudge the home team and their 17 million citizens some bragging rights.
Despite some hiccups – organisers had to issue a public apology to Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar for unintentionally holding their country flags upside down during the opening ceremony – the 32nd Games were largely incident-free for the 12,000 athletes, coaches and delegates, whose expenses (transportation, accommodation and meals) were covered by the hosts.
Likewise, the weather on Wednesday eventually cleared and the 1.5 hour-long extravaganza, featuring colourful lighting displays, several song and dance acts plus a martial arts-inspired segment highlighting its ancient bokator fighting style, provided an appropriate exclamation point for Cambodia, whose gross domestic product is one of Asean’s lowest, to showcase itself proudly on the international stage.
Singapore swimmer Quah Ting Wen, who won six golds and two silvers, was feted alongside Cambodian vovinam exponent Pal Chhor Raksmy as both received the best athlete awards at the closing ceremony.
Said Quah: “My brother received the award in 2019 and my sister was the most bemedalled athlete at the Hanoi SEA Games last year, so it feels like a nice way to close the circle.”
Following the parade of about 1,000 athletes and 2,000 volunteers, a sequence of musical performances and a highlight reel of the Games’ best moments, Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen then declared the Games closed and the cauldron was extinguished.
The SEA Games flag was later handed over to Thailand, who will host the next edition from Dec 7-19, 2025, in the cities of Bangkok, Chonburi and Songkhla.
Spectators in the packed 75,000-seat stadium were then treated to one final musical performance, titled Cambodian Pride, featuring the mascots Borey and Rumduol – two rabbits in traditional Khmer attire – before a four-minute fireworks spectacle lit the night sky.
Fittingly, Cambodia would not be denied her picture-perfect send-off.