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Achieving fitness of mind and body

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The rise of exercise classes and gyms in Siem Reap has been fuelled both by a growing interest in healthy living and the emotional benefits afforded by a vigorous physical fithness regimen

Photo by: Shannon Dunlap

Participants in the Angkor Pyong Yu aerobics class work up a sweat in Siem Reap. Exercise classes and gyms have become a growing trend in recent years as more Cambodians discover that fitness training can provide more than chiselled frame. Many patrons say that exercise, particularly for older people, can serve as an effective method for eliminating stress or more serious emotional burdens.

Siem Reap
ARRIVE for the Angkor Pyong Yu aerobics class even half an hour early, before the loosely scheduled 4pm start time, and you might question if you're in the right place.  

The expanses of concrete seem desolate, bits of trash blow through the high grass like tumbleweeds and the only other people in sight are the small clusters of foodsellers on the horizon.  

But in a matter of minutes, earnest exercisers dramatically transform this landscape as they gather to transform their bodies.  

The crowd of more than 70 people who come here each day to stretch, kick and bounce their way towards sunset are indicative of a growing trend in Siem Reap - the increasing desire to lead a healthier lifestyle.

For years, exercise was a low priority for most Cambodians, who had more pressing needs to fulfill.  

"With the fighting, we could not think about it for a long time," Uch Somphoan, a weightlifter at Wat Bo Gym told the Post.

"But people in all countries want the same thing - we like our bodies. Want to take care of them."  

Long Sreyno, one of the aerobics instructors at Pyong Yu, said exercise may be even more important for Cambodian people than it is for Westerners.  

"Many people here are unhappy," she said.

"But after exercise, they are better."  

Paul Sam, another patron at Wat Bo Gym, agreed that exercise had mental benefits in addition to the more obvious physical attributes.

"So many of the older people here, their brains are stuck in suffering, and exercise helps them release it," he said.  

"I've seen a lot of sad, stressed Cambodian women.  They do everything for their families.  Coming here gives them a little bit of freedom."  

SO MANY OF THE OLDER PEOPLE HERE, THEIR BRAINS ARE STUCK IN SUFFERING, AND EXERCISE HELPS THEM RELEASE IT.

Growing trend

That sentiment is apparent in the rapidly growing visibility of exercise classes and gyms in Siem Reap.  

Wat Bo Gym is a product of the popularity of its sister gyms outside of town, and has quickly become the most crowded venue. Just six months ago, the classes at Pyong Yu didn't exist.  

Somphoan said that Siem Reap residents once relied on the natural elements for exercise.  

"We used to need only the river, but all those hotels - now it is too polluted to swim in."  

The immense popularity of dance aerobics, which has spread to both genders and every age range, seems to have gone a long way towards filling the gap.  

The instructors at Pyong Yu said that their blend of music has wide-ranging appeal.  

"Khmer songs, English, Korean, Thai, Japanese," Sreyno said.  "We play everything."

At just 1,000 riels (US$0.24) per day, classes like those at Pyong Yu also represent the first time that regular exercise has been economically feasible for many Cambodians.  

Wat Bo Gym charges 1,500 riels for one day's use of the facilities.  

"That's still a lot for Khmer people," Paul Sam said.

"But you're starting to see more and more people anyway."

Paul was taught by a friend to use the exercise equipment, and he likes to ensure that everyone gets his money's worth by spending much of his time at the gym passing on the knowledge to other Cambodian men free of charge.

Gyms reflect culture

The atmosphere of Cambodian gyms seems tailored to the culture as well.

Instead of the sleek austerity of Western gyms, the interior of the Wat Bo Gym aims toward comfort and familiarity.  

Large Buddhist shrines nestle among the treadmills and weightlifting equipment.  

Homemade blue curtains separate the women in the Wat Bo aerobics classes from any prying eyes on the street.  

"It's true that Cambodian women are very shy, much more shy than Western women," said Morm Virith, a lanky 28-year-old who has been leading the aerobics classes at Wat Bo for five months.

"They never get less shy."  

To make his students feel comfortable, Virith relies on the Cambodian affinity for pop music videos and bases his routines on the ones he sees on TV.  

"Romantic songs are the most popular," he said.

Shy or not, greater numbers of people are pouring into the gym.  

Paul said he often overhears enthusiastic responses as the men in the weight room finish their workouts.  

"This is the first time I've seen this in Siem Reap province - people are saying ‘Every time I sweat, I feel good.'"  

Then his serious face breaks into a grin. 

"Now, when Westerners come by, we take our shirts off."

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