“From Cambodia … Seyha Sor!” the official announced, shaded from the sun in the blistering heat outside the Pakansari Stadium in Bogor, Indonesia. Sweating, Sor walked to his first boulder for the qualifier round of the 2019 IFSC Asian Championships. On the same mat stood top athletes from across Asia, including members of the Japanese national team—guys like Kokoro Fujii and Yoshiyuki Ogata—who had been dominating the international competition climbing scene. Yin Pisey, the other half of the Cambodian National team at the competition, watched nervously as then 22-year-old Sor stepped up to the first boulder.
Pisey was nervous not just for Sor, but for the future of Cambodian climbing. “Climbing in Cambodia is just in its beginning,” she said. “There are many things that need to be improved. We don’t have a coach, we don’t have competition walls for speed or lead climbing. The situation is very different compared to the Japanese team or Korean team. They have everything that you need as a national team. We go to school and work and climb in our spare time. So it’s hard for us to compete with the other athletes.”
In fact, this was only the second time members of the Cambodian National team had participated in any IFSC competition at all. The year before, Sor, Pisey and another teammate, Channy Cho, had competed in the 2018 IFSC Asian Championships in Japan, but failed to top any boulders or routes during qualification rounds.
Despite that disappointment in Japan, here Sor and Pisey were in Indonesia, back at it. Determined.
Climbing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Cambodia.” The country was once one of the most powerful empires in Southeast Asia and is home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument (by geographical area) in the world. After a period of decline, Cambodia was colonized by France in the 19th century. The country regained its independence a century later, in 1953. Two decades later, power struggles lead to civil war and the atrocious genocide under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s—nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population was murdered (today’s consensus is about 2 million people lost). Relative stability has returned only in the past three decades following the reestablishment of the Kingdom of Cambodia, in 1993. The periods of colonization, chaos and genocide have left their marks, but Cambodia is changing and developing rapidly.
Cambodia is surrounded by countries that play host to more and more climbers on international trips each year: Krabi and Chiang Mai in Thailand, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and Thakhek in Laos are all major destinations on the Southeast Asia climbing circuit. Cambodia, however, drew the short straw when Mother Nature was distributing tufa-laden limestone crags around the region. Most of Cambodia’s climbable rock is located deep in the countryside where unexploded land mines—deadly remnants from three decades of war—make it nearly impossible to explore and develop potential climbing areas safely.
Despite a dearth of vertical relief, Cambodians are climbing—inside.
In 2008, Japanese climber Tadao Ito was living in Siem Reap, in the northwest of Cambodia, with his wife, Akiko, and itching to get on some rock. He wanted a place to climb for himself, but also to teach local children the basics in a safe and controlled environment.
Developing outdoor rock climbing was too dangerous; too time consuming, because the only climbable rock was far away in the countryside; and—at a cost of $30 to $40 to equip a single route—too costly in a country where, at the time, the minimum wage was around $50 per month.
Instead of focusing on the outdoors, Ito, with help from friends in Japan and Cambodia, set to work building and establishing Angkor Climbers Net (ACN), Cambodia’s first climbing wall.
Ito set up ACN as a non-governmental organization, so it could receive donations and function as a non-commercial climbing center to support the nascent sport in Cambodia. He and friends built an eight-meter-high (26 feet) sport climbing wall where they could teach Cambodian youth. Several years later, they added a small bouldering wall.
Local Cambodian children began flocking to Angkor Climbers Net every weekend to climb their hearts out on the small wall covered with greasy old climbing holds—most of which came to Cambodia from abroad in people’s carry-on and checked bags. A roof shaded the wall from the burning sun and monsoon rainfall—high temperatures hover between the mid and low 90s throughout the spring and summer, while an average September, the wettest month, sees more than 11 inches of rain.
To this day, the wall is only open on Sundays. Even with the oppressive heat and monsoon rains, it is always busy.
From the start, Ito was impressed by how quickly some of the local kids took to climbing. Most of them were already used to climbing up coconut trees and were unafraid of the heights involved. An idea grew inside him: a dream of forming a Cambodian National Team that could one day represent the country in the Olympics.
Seyha Sor was 14 in 2011 when his gym teacher Seam Rorn asked him to swing by Angkor Climbers Net to give climbing a try. Seyha was short and stocky, and the teacher thought he would be well-suited to the physicality of sport climbing. Seyha had done Judo for several years, and climbing seemed like an intriguing new challenge.
“When he said climbing, I thought he was talking about hiking up a mountain,” Sor said. “The word for climbing in Cambodian is the same as we use for walking up a mountain. But when I saw the wall, the ropes and all the holds, I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool!’”
After his first visit, he started climbing as much as he could at ACN on Sundays. Initially his parents weren’t sure about their son spending every Sunday climbing up a wall. Seyha’s mother sold fruit and his father was an electrician. How could climbing help their son find a decent job, generate a stable income and have a better life than they had? But he loved it and they let him pursue it.
The gym furnished Seyha with hand-me-down climbing shoes and an old harness. The two volunteer staff at ACN—Kimsroy Sri and Seam Rorn, both of whom Tadao Ito had mentored—taught Seyha to belay. Within months, Seyha was one of the strongest climbers in the country.
By 2016, five years after Sor started climbing, he was hands-down the strongest Cambodian climber. He had won every Lotus Cup, a yearly competition at Angkor Climbers Net, beating Channy Cho—his main rival and training partner—every time.
That year in Phnom Penh, the first commercial climbing gym in Cambodia opened for business: Phnom Climb Community Gym. The gym needed knowledgeable staff, and Mary and Christoph Lüthy, the founders, knew about Sor and Cho from in the Lotus Cup. The Lüthys offered the young Cambodian climbers jobs in the capital, and also offered to pay for their university education as part of the package. On top of that, taking the job and moving to Phnom Penh meant that Sor and Cho would be able to climb every day instead of once a week.
While the two new hires could take care of route setting, coaching and so on, the gym also needed someone who could work at the sign-in desk and deal with administration. Pisey was hired to deal with administrative tasks and to work the front desk. She was not a climber when she started. But that soon changed.
Pisey comes from a humble background. Her mother died when she was a child, and her family didn’t have the financial means to take care of her and her three siblings. The family sent the children to Chibodia, a German NGO that provides education and a home to underprivileged children and orphans in Cambodia. After graduating high school and a year of learning German, Pisey spent a year in Germany as a social volunteer. When she returned to Cambodia, she knew she wanted to study and be financially independent. Pisey enrolled in university and started looking for a job to support herself through college. She found it at Phnom Climb.
“In the first few months I didn’t touch the wall at all. Then Seyha and Channy told me I needed to know a little bit about climbing. That’s when I started to climb. That was four to five months after I started working at the gym,” Pisey said. Just like her coworkers, she fell in love with the sport. She soon became the strongest female climber in Cambodia.
In 2018, the IFSC officially recognized the Cambodian Climbing Federation—Sor, Cho and Pisey would be the first climbers to represent Cambodia on the international stage at IFSC competitions. The timing couldn’t have been better: Climbing had just been announced as a new discipline in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Picking up where Tadao Ito left off, Sor, Cho and Pisey were now carrying the torch of his dream, to one day see Cambodian climbers in the Olympics. Ito had passed away from cancer several years before and wasn’t able to see his vision come closer to fruition.
Forming the Cambodian National Climbing Team was a life-changing experience for the young Cambodians—Pisey most of all.
“Becoming part of the Cambodian National team has been an amazing experience. Without climbing, my life would have been very different,” Pisey said. “I might just have become a regular Cambodian girl who sees being strong as something masculine and that a woman’s role in life is to become a good, loyal, pretty wife. Now I love adventure, love making new friends and get to explore new countries through climbing, which was always a big dream of mine.”
When Sor stepped onto the mat of the boulder qualifications in Bogor, Indonesia, he took a deep breath. He tilted his head up to the colorful volumes on the wall. And then he started climbing. Pisey, having reached just one zone on a qualification boulder, hoped dearly that Sor would do better. Conditions in Bogor weren’t ideal. It was hot, over 95 degrees.
Sor stuck the first move on the first qualification boulder. The second move looked a bit reachy, but he jumped for it and stuck it, and then made another move to the zone hold. He then breezed to the top. He had completed his first ever—and Cambodia’s first ever—IFSC competition boulder problem.
Sor didn’t manage to top any of the remaining three problems, nor did he qualify for the next round. He finished 39 out of 45 in bouldering. Neither he nor Pisey qualified for Lead. They didn’t qualify for speed climbing, either, but had no expectations to—there is no speed wall in Cambodia.
Pisey and Sor were disappointed—they have high standards for themselves and dream of podiums and medals like any other competitors—but took heart in the progress. Clearly they had a ways to go. But it was a start, the next step in Ito’s dream of Cambodian climbers one day reaching the Olympics.
Feature image: Reaching for the top in Angkor Climbers Net (ACN), Siem Reap, Cambodia. All images by Karel Downsbrough