Boom in Skateboarding Builds Community, Lao Style

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Participants at Goofy's Skate Jam in March (photo credit: Mon Jester)

A recent boom of skateboarding in Vientiane offers creative, welcoming spaces while reflecting Laos’ resourceful spirit and collectivist values, writes Bridget Dooley.

Tomorrow, June 18th, from 2:30 to 9:30 pm, a skate day competition will be held at the Walking Street roller skate park near Vientiane’s Mekong riverfront.

The competition will feature Thai skaters alongside locals and be sponsored by Vientiane shops like Goofy and Thai board companies like Redel. The competition gives Lao skaters a chance to showcase their skills and win prizes, all while evidencing how much the Lao skate community has ramped up in recent years.

Tom Drury is a skater and skate advocate who recently rode his board the 4000-kilometer length of Australia to raise USD 40,000 to help the organization Make Life Skate Life facilitate building a new skate park in Laos. 

Tom—who waxes poetic on his first-hand experience with skating’s many benefits for mental and physical health—has noticed a huge shift in the skateboarding landscape since he first came to Vientiane just a few years ago.

“There were definitely skaters, but not a ton, and they were just making do with the environment they had. It was just a few people hanging out, skating around the steps near the Night Market. They were enjoying themselves, of course—skaters are passionate and figure out how to skate anywhere—but it’s hard to really grow your skills without the right facilities.”

Since the time when Drury first arrived in Vientiane and noticed the dearth of skate parks, Lao skateboarding has had something of a popularity boom. Several small parks have opened in the capital, including the Walking Street roller park and another at Namphou.

A small local skate park with ramps and a rail (photo credit: Tom Drury)

But while the ramps and rails at these small parks offer a huge improvement in places for skaters to try landing new tricks, there is some infrastructure that Laos’ current skate parks lack. This is where Drury and Make Life Skate Life come in. Lao skaters can expect to see new infrastructure, like “bowls” (hollow courses originally made from emptied swimming pools) at the new park.

Although Covid complicated the project’s timeline, it’s back on track now, and construction will begin later this year near That Luang lake. Rather than operating as a top-down charity, Make Life Skate Life is grassroots and encourages communities to take ownership over the parks it helps them build. 

The new park will serve as an open resource for anyone who wants to try skating. “A great thing about a skate park is that it doesn’t really need maintaining. It’s not like a swimming pool or football field that has to be constantly kept up,” Drury says. The park’s low maintenance needs mean it will be free of cost, ensuring that athletes aren’t kept out for lack of funds.

The free park is reflective of an absence of gate-keeping in the skate community at large: if you arrive at the skate park alone with your board for the first time, Tom says, someone will probably help you learn to stand on it, and they won’t mock you when you inevitably fall off. This characteristically friendly, collectivist skater attitude is a big part of why the skate community in Laos has grown so quickly.  

A young skater jumps a ramp at Goofy’s March event (photo credit: Goofy Skateboards Laos)

“Something cool about skating is that no one will ever say ‘no, you can’t try this.’ Everyone’s welcome,” says Drury. Skating’s age and gender parity are represented even at the highest levels of the sport: in the 2021 Olympic women’s competition in Tokyo, the first-ever women’s street skateboarding gold medalist was 13-year-old Japanese skater Momiji Nishiya. At that same Olympic games, 46-year-old South African Dallas Oberholzer competed in the men’s park skate event, making him the games’ second-oldest competitor from any sport.

The notion that skating is for everyone was reflected in Goofy’s skate jam in March, too. The event attracted Lao skaters of all ages and genders, as well as a diverse audience.

In the competition for the highest jump, one young skater proved that his skills defy his age: he made it into the final rounds with skaters at least a decade his senior.

Skaters work together to build an obstacle at Goofy’s March event (photo credit: Goofy Skateboards Laos)

When he was eventually unable to jump the increasingly-high obstacles, the young skater seamlessly became a supporter of the athletes who had just out-jumped him. He focused on cheering for the older athletes and even helped them to construct those ever-higher obstacles.

With a new park and new competitions in their future, creative Lao skaters like him are carving out their own chances to surmount higher hurdles. One day, their disciplined, supportive, and good-humored community may well help them land on the world stage.