The clang of metal on metal rings out, adding to the cacophony of grunts and groans, soundtracked by pop tunes blasting from a stereo. Across the room, an elongated mirror reflects a parade of flexed muscles and taut bodies that attract admiring smiles and more than a few selfies. For the more resolute, the posing swiftly ceases and it’s back to body business – bars are thrust overhead in determined displays of power and strength.
Welcome to Angkor Muscle Gym, one of the oldest gymnasiums in Cambodia’s tourist town of Siem Reap – and one of the few where the unmistakable odour of sweat competes with the pungent smells emanating from the kitchen.
Launched in 2001, this family-run operation is owned by Sok Sour and his wife Iv Kimsay. The gym is essentially just an extension of the couple’s home, hence the culinary whiff. However, any resemblance to its humble beginnings ends there.
“The gym has changed quite a bit over the years,” says Sour. “We started with nothing. I designed my own exercise equipment from studying YouTube videos. Everything was homemade. Our gym was very simple.”
“I was worried that no one would come,” adds Kimsay. “Fitness in Cambodia was a new concept. We started with very few members.”
Despite Kimsay’s fears, the idea of regular exercise caught on in Siem Reap. Sour’s homemade equipment – concoctions of bricks and wood – have since been replaced by modern cardio and weight machines, and the gym has expanded to accommodate the rising number
“We are not business people. We just go with the flow,” Kimsay says. “But the gym has exceeded our expectations.”
Angkor Muscle Gym is also the official gym of the Angkor Bodybuilding Association (Abba). Enthusiasts convene daily to share tips on diet and how to work on particular muscle groups. When they are not lifting weights, members hang out in the newly built office.
“It’s become a community,” says Rocky Lee, a co-founder of Abba. “We all help each other.”
Lee, with the support of Sour, aims to promote bodybuilding in Siem Reap, using the gym as a base for interested parties. However, Sour is quick to note that it’s not all about bulging biceps and titanic triceps.
“We have classes for children and a few cardio machines,” says Sour. “Everyone is welcome here.”