Hy Dynarith, winner of the controversial 'Best in Show' category.
WHEN 45 of the country's beefiest males took to the stage of Chaktomuk theater last
month to contend the first Mr Cambodia competition, the hitherto underground Cambodian
muscle scene exploded into the spotlight.
As the beefcakes strutted their stuff at the February 7 showcase, spectators greeted
each new entry with whoops of delight, judges argued over points, and the scene backstage
was an emotional whirl of nerves, triumph and disappointment.
"The muscular standard of beauty has a long history in this culture," said
Nils Ringdal, a 47-year-old Norwegian scholar and former bodybuilder who dreamed
up the contest last December. "On the south side of Angkor Thom, for instance,
one sees in the designs a real appreciation for muscular male bodies."
But bodybuilding as a competitive sport is new to Cambodia. Ringdal admits that body
aesthetics have been reborn here only recently, partly through the popularity of
western film stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
On the streets of Phnom Penh, however, the bodybuilder's muscles still provoke a
mixed reaction. Many Khmer women say they prefer smooth and slim male bodies, and
visibly muscular men denied that their new look had improved their love lives. Most
said only about twenty percent of women seemed to like their muscles.
Yin Sopheap, however, puts the figure closer to seventy percent, and her viewpoint
is an informed one. She presides over Phnom Penh's most popular fitness spot, the
Reahu Asorund ('Becoming Stronger') gym on Street 63. It was at this gym that many
of Mr Cambodia's stars accquired their rippling physiques. And as the widow of Reak
Mony, the gym's revered founder, Sopheap has been around heavily-muscled men for
more than quarter of a century.
"Here, thin people become handsome and healthy," she says with a sparkle
in her eye, "and young people have a positive outlet for their energies."
A visit to Reahu Asorund is clearly a visit to the nerve center of Phnom Penh's muscle
community. At 200 riel a workout, the gym is not expensive, and even during peak
hours it remains friendly, vital, and unpretentious. Equipment is old, much of it
dating from the 1960s, but generally functional.
Unlike men at a western gym, the patrons at Reahu Asorund don't hesitate to admire
each others' bodies openly. The same was true at the training sessions for Mr Cambodia,
held at Ringdal's house. According to Ringdal: "Women are untouchable in Khmer
culture, until you marry. So a lot of their natural physicality expresses itself
However, the contest's organizers did find a few inhibitions that still needed to
be shed. A week prior to the event, some entrants were refusing to wear the revealing
briefs required by the rules. And certainly none of them had previously been asked
to shave their armpits. Ringdal and others assured the men that these procedures
helped them to display their physical beauty. "This is a narcissistic sport,"
says Ringdal without flinching. "You have to have some vanity."
Son Chamroen, winner of the veterans' division
At the local gym, Ringdal's kind of vanity visibly collides with another. Outside,
an unusually high number of flashy motorbikes are parked, and inside as shirts are
stripped away, jewelry flashes on the men's hands and necks. Frequently, someone
on the chin-up bar will be lifting the extra weight of a mobile phone, or an automatic
pistol in its holster.
Indeed, many of the Mr Cambodia competitors were policemen, bodyguards or soldiers,
and with 50 delicate egos to manage, the organizers sometimes found themselves hard-pressed
to keep the competition friendly. Ringdal joked it was "hard work getting the
guys to take off their clothes, put their guns in the yard and play gently with each
These problems, unfortunately, did not end with the competition, as some judging
decisions provoked a storm of controversy. In the 'Best of Show' category, competitors
and audience alike remarked that the number one, Hy Dynarin, had been outscored in
his weight class by Kheou Sao - the third place finisher. A murmur ran through the
crowd when his results were announced. Acording to Ringdal, supporters grumbled that
bribes had been paid.
There was also some bitterness over the prizes themselves. Top winners had to content
themselves with a trophy and a case of beer; those who placed lower received medals,
certificates or necklaces of 500 riel notes. One competitor was overheard saying:
"You lose, you get nothing. You win, you get nothing."
Matters came to a head at the local gym, several days after the contest. One organizer
was accosted by a man who screamed: "Give me some of that money you made."
On a different evening, gun-toting supporters of a disappointed entrant threatened
one of the Cambodian judges. "I was afraid to go to the gym for three days,"
The organizers moved swiftly to contain the situation. An emergency meeting was convened
with the bodybuilders to discourage them from pursuing their disputes, and a financial
statement was released, indicating that the organizers had worked for free.
Now, as the dust settles, the organizers are hoping to put their problems behind
them. They plan to send a team to Bangkok for the Mr Southeast Asia contest this
May, and to contests in Vietnam and Burma in the two years following. Yin Sopheap,
who says she has already put aside her contribution to Mr Cambodia 2000, expressed
hope that prize money can be found to lure more Cambodians to the sport.
Nils Ringdal, creator of Mr. Cambodia: "My size earns me a lot of respect."
Sopheap also recalled her late husband's example. Reak Mony, who died in 1994, retained
his legendary strength through the Pol Pot years by carrying bags of cement - "three
or four at once". Today, he is considered the father of Cambodian bodybuilding,
and the Mr Cambodia T-shirts featured his portrait, with biceps flexed.