Climbing Towards Progress in Cambodia

It’s another balmy day in Siem Reap, and my tuk-tuk driver races down the tree-lined roads from Angkor Wat leading back into town.  We turn down a dusty road, and pass by street food vendors, and lines of colorful clothes held up by old, wooden clothespins before slowing down in front of a modestly-sized outdoor climbing wall.  The big broad smiles, and ACN-emblazened neon green t-shirts the kids are wearing tell me that the volunteer staff of Angkor Climbers Net have just held another successful Angkor Climber’s Cup.

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Multi-colored panels of plywood adorned with quickdraws for leading and holds of varying shapes and sizes soar above the children.  Sem Rom, Cambodia’s first climber, playfully teases the young girls who are climbing for the first time, and explains how to tie a figure eight knot in their native Khmer language.  They squeal with delight as they ascend, and celebrate and cheer in unison as each one makes it to the top.  They ask to climb again, their faces more radiant and enthusiastic, and their laughs more contagious than before.

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The crowd is made up mostly of local Cambodian youths and instructors, and Japanese volunteers who are coordinating and vigorously photographing the event.  Asai Kazuhide, ACN President, is wearing a khaki sunhat and matching shorts.  He looks incredibly calm, cool and collected amongst the spirited events and the triple digit temperatures of the day.  He, Sem, and I sit down, taking turns between slow, refreshing sips of water and talking about the future of climbing for Cambodia:

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Bouldering Babes: We’re totally stoked to be part of ACN’s Siem Reap Youth Climbing Festival aka the Climber’s Cup.  Tell us how it all began.

Asai:  The climbing wall was built in 2010 by a gold climber from Japan who wanted to promote climbing with local Cambodian youths.  We started Angkor Cup in 2012 – Cambodia’s first formal Climbing Competition to provide an open space for everyone to enjoy climbing, especially children who are very cheerful and always eager to learn in spite of Cambodia’s not-so-happy history.

Bouldering Babes: How has climbing changed children’s lives?

Sem: We have seen a very big change and growing participation over the years.  Some of the children come from broken backgrounds, and have learned a great deal of discipline from rock climbing.

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Bouldering Babes: What are some of the challenges ACN and the Cambodian Climbing Federation have faced in terms of changing the public’s perception of rock climbing?

Sem: Some parents do not allow their children to participate because they think that climbing is very dangerous.  I try to tell them that climbing is safer than driving, and we teach them all the safety techniques.  I encourage them to come by the climbing wall to watch and see how safe it can be, and explain that I have never been injured from climbing.

I want the people in my country to feel very good in their hearts about the idea of Cambodians climbing.

Bouldering Babes: How did climbing change your life?

Sem: It has given me this sense of strength that I didn’t have before, and has given me the opportunity to connect with people from all over the world.

Bouldering Babes: Are there many opportunities for the children to learn how to climb outdoors?

Asai: Usually, the volunteers take the children climbing once a month as part of ACN’s Climbing School program.  Cambodia is a country of incredible beauty with fertile plains dotted with rice fields and beautiful climbing.  This year, however, we did not have the budget to take them outdoors (ACN is a non-governmental organization funded by sponsors and donors all over the world)

Bouldering Babes:  You should totally start a Kickstarter!  How do you think climbing has impacted women in this country?

Sem: I think that climbing is more difficult for women because women in sports is not very common here.  In my culture, women can not go outside alone.  They are taught to be gentle and shy in the way they talk, walk, and interact with men. There’s a very big difference between Cambodian and Western women.

Most women here do not care for sports or climbing. The women who do climb from the ages of 12-16 typically quit climbing after starting work, getting married or having children.

Cambodia is slowly progressing, and climbing can change that, but it will take a long time and a long way for things to be different. We need more local female role models like Tae Kwon Do athlete Sorn Seavmey to show women what is fully possible in sports.

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