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An ultimate Frisbee player last Tuesday tries to manoeuvre around a defender. Eliah Lillis

An unconventional sport finds an unlikely home in Cambodia

An expat-driven activity, ultimate Frisbee, has made surprising headway among the local population, giving young players the opportunity to travel and to challenge norms.

Three times every week, an eclectic mix of expats, locals and the occasional backpacker meet to participate in ultimate Frisbee – the unconventional but physically demanding sport that is gaining ground in Southeast Asia.

“I’m just passing through,” said Charlotte Hackett, an American backpacker who has already played in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines during her travels, at a game earlier this week.

“Here, it’s super inclusive, super active, and very organised … it’s all about getting newcomers involved and working together.”

Speaking with Post Weekend as they rotated in and out of the game, many of the players present under the lights on Tuesday also play for the national team including one player, Yoeun Sovannareach, who was sitting out in order to save his body for an upcoming game.

Yoeun is the captain of the Cambodian national team and a board member of the Cambodian Flying Disc Association, which was recently recognised by the sport’s international governing body.

“I never play the week before a tournament,” he explained, due to concerns of being sidelined by injury.

He is preparing for this weekend’s main event — the “Big Phat Phnom Penh Hat” tournament for which players from all over the region will congregate in Phnom Penh before being randomly assigned to teams.

Yoeun especially has his eyes on August’s pro tournament in Manila, which will be his ninth time playing in a tournament abroad, having already been to the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and China.

“It’s been one of my biggest gateways to new experiences. I meet a lot of people, a lot of expats. Some are teachers, some work for NGOS. They all share their experiences and their stories with me,” Yoeun said as he watched his teammates play.

“I used to live in a slum. A group of American students came to our town to teach ultimate Frisbee and it completely changed my life,” he said, crediting the sport with teaching him English and inspiring him to improve his life.

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Chan Sreyda, one of the co-founders of the ‘women’s clinic’. Eliah Lillis

This weekend’s tournament will also launch a fundraiser meant to pay for the team’s trip to the Philippines, as well as to maintain the “women’s clinic”.

“We had an idea to have a clinic just for women to try to get more girls involved,” said Chan Sreyda, one of the co-founders of the clinic.

Flo Zwiers, a Dutch native and member of the board, added that sometimes young women who aren’t familiar with the sport are too intimidated to jump in to a new experience with a big group of men.

Sreyda herself appeared to feel no such insecurity, energetically hopping up and down in front of her opponents, waving her arms aggressively and shouting out the stall count (a 10-second period during which a player must pass the disc).

“Most Cambodian girls don’t really like being active … It’s not part of the culture, [and] they believe that sports are not for girls. I don’t think that,” said Socheata Sen, another young woman who has only been playing Frisbee for about two months, but has played football her entire life.

“Cambodian men don’t want to marry strong girls, they want them to be soft and pretty,” she added. Sen said some people even believe that by playing sports, girls will lose their virginity or become infertile, something she assured Post Weekend was not true.

Despite these uninformed judgements and negative stigmas, Sen stays positive about her experiences with sports.

“Every time I step on the field, I have no worries, no stress,” she said. Zwiers says the sport is attracting more and more Cambodians.

“We have a lot more locals playing now than before. It’s an expat driven thing, but we are now majority Cambodian. We’re hoping in the long run that it will be all Cambodian run,” he said.

The fundraiser, which will start off with raffles and sales during this weekend’s festivities, has an ambitious goal of raising $22,000.

Chheng Chanda, known simply as Da, is one player who has been active in the fundraising efforts.

“When I first started playing, people helped fundraise for me to travel. Now I want to help other kids have those experiences,” he said.

“The international Frisbee community really helps each other out. They want to see it grow across the world,” he added before apologising and dashing back onto the field.

A while later, Da picked up the conversation where he left off, now panting and drenched in sweat.

“It’s not just a sport to me, it’s community building,” he said.

And while Da acknowledged that Frisbee was initially an expat import, he said it doesn’t feel like a foreign entity.

“It helped me learn to be true to myself. It teaches values that aren’t foreign, but are universal.”

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