Prime Minister Hun Sen invited Cambodia’s top petanque player to his “Peace Palace” on Thursday to congratulate her for winning gold in a world championship—two years ago.
After Mr. Hun Sen presented Ke Leng, 48, with a check for just over 144 million riel, or about $36,000, from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and an additional $10,000 from his own pocket, the athlete was paraded through Phnom Penh in the back of a pickup truck flanked by a dozen state motorcycles and trailed by five buses.
The convoy, which included 30 other athletes who had also received accolades from the prime minister, snaked through the capital to Olympic Stadium as confused locals looked on from street corners.
In an interview at the Education Ministry, Ms. Leng said she took up petanque—also known as boules, a sport that originated in France at the turn of the 20th century—in 1997, when her dreams of becoming a professional volleyball player faded with her athletic prowess.
She soon began picking up medals at international tournaments and now has 37, including the gold at the Petanque World Championship in 2013 that earned her Thursday’s check and parade.
“Samdech [Mr. Hun Sen] handed me the title of hero with the best hand for petanque,” Ms. Leng said, adding that she had no plans to give up the sport soon.
“I will only retire when I can no longer lift the ball. That’s when I will finish,” she said.
Bou Chum Serey, an undersecretary of state at the Education Ministry, said the belated parade was due to a recent change in a sub-decree rewarding athletes who win medals in world championships and at Olympic Games.
“We received this medal in late 2013 and we didn’t have the opportunity to celebrate this with a ceremony,” he said. “The reason the ceremony was not held was because at that time, under the old decree, athletes wouldn’t be given a parade.”
Vath Chamroeun, secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, said Ms. Leng’s achievement should be perceived as even more significant than that of 19-year-old Sorn Seavmey, who won a gold medal in taekwondo at the 2014 Asian Games.
“This is bigger than Sorn Seavmey because this is a world medal,” said Mr. Chamroeun, noting that when Ms. Seavmey returned from the games in South Korea in September, her convoy was allocated just six motorcycles.