W HILE beauty hunters throng the city's beauty parlors in search of physical perfection, another breed of appearance-conscious Phnom Penhites are making a beeline for the city's two gymnasiums for the extra advantage of staying strong and healthy.
Many young Cambodians from all walks of life including students, government employees, the military and police go to body building clubs in the heart of the capital to practice what is now one of the most popular sports in town.
Nearly 300 young men come in for weight training every day, compared to a few dozen who used to drift in when the Reahou Asorin club started out 15 years ago, according to owner Samreth Reak-mony. "In the last two years there were four or five women who used the club, but they are now too shy and ashamed to use the club because the men here passed embarrassing comments," Reakmony said. This rather ragged gym is the more popular weight training club of the two in town.
Located in an alley off Street 63, the Reahou Asorin is the older of the two weight training clubs. It was established in 1979 near the Chinese Hospital and has moved three times since.
Reakmony says most of the weights were locally made and were bought by Americans and Australians who donated them to the club.
"I charge people only 100 riel per visit for using the weights, or sometimes even nothing if the people who come in are poor," Reakmony said. "I want people to realize how important sport is for their health." He says the increasing number of the sportsmen indicates the growing awareness of young folk about the value of physical exercise.
The demand has led to the starting of a new weight training club in March this year, the plusher Police Association Training Club on Street 134 in Borei Keila (sports city), a government-owned compound in the city's northwestern corner. It has been designed specifically to train policemen, but is also open to the public.
This more expensive club has an entry fee of 200 riel, and gets about 50 to 100 customers every day, according to owner Soy Sarak.
The club has newer equipment, in better condition than at the Reahou Asorin, with some of equipment bought in Vietnam. The equipment is now privately owned, but the government will take over the club eventually because it is located on its land, Sarak said.
Ros Ratha, 29, who works at the Ministry of Interior, is listed as one of the top weight lifters in the older club - after five months of training, he is able to pump irons weighing up to 70 kg. Ratha said his main purpose was to stay in good health.
Twenty-three-year-old Chea Sea, a student at the Institute of Economics, said proudly that with just a week's training, he could lift 40 kilos, only 14 kilos less than his body weight. "I exercise to improve my memory and my appetite and to sleep well," he said, adding: "I feel very ashamed when I see other men looking healthy and strong."
Training with Cambodian weight lifters is 31-year-old Swiss Stefan Brenken, whose wish is to be in good shape and more attractive to women. Unlike most of his Cambodian weight lifter friends, however, he already has two years of kick-boxing and two years of Taekwando behind him. But he denies he has any ambition to participate in lifting matches. "I'm too thin, so there's no chance for me in a competition," lamented Brenken, an English teacher.
Newcomer Ly Saroeun, 27, from the Institute of Technology, who has trained for just five days, can now lift about 20 kg, just a third of his body weight. Saroeun said he normally exercised wearing a long sleeved shirt and a pair of full length trousers, because he did not want his skinny body and muscleless limbs to be sniggered at by other sportsmen.
According to club owner Reakmony, no accidents have occurred to sportsmen except occasional crashes caused by over-ambitious new bodybuilders who attempt to lift too much.
When asked why he did not learn other martial arts which are also good physical exercise, a weight trainer who asked for anonymity said that in this sophisticated age things like karate are not much use against a gun.
He told of a story he had heard of a young man who trained in martial arts for 20 years to avenge himself on the man who had treated him wretchedly. When he was ready, he went to his enemy's house and gave a superb display of stylish martial art. But when he finally ran out of routines, his enemy pulled out an K59 hand gun he had hidden in his underpants and shot the man dead.