One of the very few Cambodian women to have successfully reached the Kingdom’s three highest peaks is now eyeing Malaysia’s tallest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, and potentially even the world’s tallest straddling Nepal and China, Mount Everest.

While in many Western countries it is not uncommon for women to engage in extreme sports like skydiving, bungee jumping and mountaineering, in Cambodia, a country that remains relatively traditional and rigid in its gender roles, it remains an unusual sight.

But civil servant Chum Pesey is doing her best to change that.

As a child, Pesey spent her holidays in her father’s hometown of Kampong Cham, where she found herself enjoying adventurous outdoor pursuits.

But as is the case with many Cambodian women, these types of active hobbies stopped when she reached puberty.

This changed when she went to study English at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 2015.

“My friends, all foreigners, would invite me to take walks in the hills to see beautiful views of mountain ranges in New Zealand,” says Pesey.

Her first trek was a 4km hike with friends, a long distance for her maiden voyage.

“I was similar to many other Cambodian women, in that I was afraid of my skin going darker while outdoors, but my friends insisted. I agreed to walk with them on a not so difficult mountain to trek. It looks like the mountains in Kep province, but it required four hours trekking. It was my first time that I had walked for four hours under daylight between 10am and 2pm,” says Pesey.

“Was I happy that first time? Not at all. My first experience was not exciting and I was angry that they took me. I hated everything about it,” Pesey says laughing.

But after struggling with the stresses of living alone in a foreign country, she met with a student counsellor who recommended that she once again go into nature and hike in the hills behind her university.

This time, for whatever reason, the pleasures of the great outdoors seemed to click.

“I could see beautiful views of mountain ranges and I felt happy. This was the start of my adventure activities,” she says. When back in Cambodia in 2017, Pesey, along with another woman and a group of male friends, hiked to Phnom Oral in the Cardamom mountain range, Cambodia’s highest peak at 1,813m.

Spending two nights on the mountain, she found the experience with friends joyful.

“Though we only had two women, we were happy as the guys were really helpful. That was the first time I trekked and stayed outside overnight in Cambodia. The second time we did it, we slept in a hut built for travellers. Even in July, it was as cold as 10 degrees Celsius,” says Pesey.

With the urge to climb again growing inside her, in January this year Pesey then climbed Cambodia’s third highest mountain, Phnom Tumpor in the Cardamom mountain range.

She says even though the peak was smaller at 1,515m, it was the hardest to hike among Cambodia’s three highest.

“It was really hard to climb because it was almost a 90 degree angle at points. If we did not wear proper shoes and did not have strong knees, we would not have been able to reach the top. At some points we needed to climb on trees, and some members helped by laying down rope,” says Pesey, who climbed the peak with four women and nine men.

Another difficulty faced was that Phnom Tumpor did not have natural water to support the team when they spent the night on the mountain.

She then completed the trio of Cambodia’s highest peaks in February, as along with six women and 10 men, Pesey reached the Kingdom’s second highest peak, Phnom Samkos, which is 1,717m high in the Cardamom mountain range.

Scaling Samkos was similar to Oral, she says, but Oral has a clear trail and water resources, while Samkos is off the beaten track for visitors.

Pesey, who mostly travels to Kampong Speu and Pursat provinces to climb, said she has already climbed in ten locations across the Kingdom. She has also trekked in Indonesia, Lao, Vietnam and of course New Zealand.

Next, Pesey plans to scale Malaysia’s highest peak Mount Kinabalu, and even the world’s highest peak Mount Everest.

“I am studying whether to choose Kinabalu or Everest as both are very high. Since I can’t stand the cold weather, I may choose Kinabalu first,” says Pesey.

“I found a package trip to Kinabalu where I could spend almost $1,000. While trekking to the Everest base camp could cost me almost $3,000. It’s pretty expensive.”

What motivates Pesey to do these climbs and break social norms is simple.

“Importantly, as I experienced myself, sport helps heal mental health. I love challenging myself. Sometimes we know that it is difficult, but we have to try. When we reach a destination, we feel that we have succeeded. First we think that it is impossible, but when we do it, we feel very proud,” she says.

She recommends other Cambodian women follow her lead and get out into the great outdoors.