Pour un Sourire d’Enfant is a large organisation with educational programs from kindergarten to vocational training in and around Cambodia. All programs are set up to support the schooling of around 7000 students every year, and amongst them, the extracurricular activities program offers different sports and cultural activities to maintain the focus and motivation in school. All connected through the same ideas: teach values while having fun and learning by playing. So when Phnom Climb Community Gym offered us the opportunity to bring a group of students regularly, we couldn’t be happier. We just needed to explain the activity to the children. Easier said than done.
The first reaction of the children at school when told there was a climbing activity was disbelief, followed by curiosity and an endless torrent of questions: what are we climbing? How is that a sport? Is there a competition? Most of the students at PSE were brought up with the bare minimum in the outskirts of Phnom Penh or the province. Climbing when they were small wasn’t really about fun, but rather a way to get a juicy snack from the neighbouring trees.
The challenge is even bigger considering that climbing is such a new sport in Cambodia that it doesn’t really have a proper name. It is normally translated as “going up a mountain” and climbing in a gym is simply “going up a wall”. This cultural gap made the children imagine that climbing was a foreign thing, like running for fun, eating bread and wearing shoes indoors. In order to explain it, they had to see it by themselves.
But as soon as they accessed the gym, their confusion turned into amazement when they first arrived and saw the shining holds and colourful walls, and eventually into admiration when they saw that the place was run entirely by Cambodian youngsters from Siem Reap that grew up climbing mango and cashew trees just like them. This wasn’t a foreign activity, this was for everyone.
It’s been almost a year and a half since the PSE students started climbing and it’s become such a varied group. Most of the students change monthly but there is always the hard core: there’s Vannara, an 11 year old from Sihanoukville that started out of curiosity and is now one of the strongest climbers of the group. She’s used that same curiosity to start other sports back in school and is an accomplished student; there’s Kimrong, a 15 year old from Siem Reap that has a hard time fitting in school and back home and is the most helpful belayer of the group; there’s Mit, a short 11 year old from Sihanoukville who’s built a strong confidence based on his climbing ability despite his size; and then there’s Mon, a problematic 16 year old from Phnom Penh that struggles in school and yet turns into the most disciplined and focused person the moment he stares into the bouldering walls. They’ve all learned to work hard, dedicating themselves every time they put on the climbing shoes and, as Mon puts it: “even if you’re surrounded by people, you’re competing against yourself.”