When Chhav Souen joined the Cairde Khmer GAA club in Cambodia soon after its creation in 2017, she became the first woman from her village to take up organised sport. A handful of years later, she leads the branch in Siem Reap, and her club, after impressing in last year's Asian Gaelic Games when the majority-Cambodian squad (some of whom had only been playing a few months) made it to the junior finals after besting primarily Irish opponents, is hoping to travel all the way to Derry this summer for the World Gaelic Games. But they have a long journey ahead of them, and not just geographically: in a country where monthly income averages around $200 a month, the club must cover all costs, including flights, accommodation, and visas. They have now raised over €10,000 of their €36,000 goal; you can donate to their GoFundMe here.
Cairde Khmer GAA (named for the Irish and Cambodian words for 'Cambodian Friends') was founded in 2017, with the ladies football side spearheaded by Cork native Jennifer Ryan. Though at first mostly composed of Irish expats, the team quickly attracted local players— something special in a country where women's team sports are just getting started (for context, Cambodian women competed for the first time under FIFA in 2018.) Of the 13-player women's squad that competed in the 2022 Asian Gaelic Games in Kuala Lumpur, 10 were originally from Cambodia.
Women's team captain Sreypov Vat described that experience to Cambodian news site Kiripost: "When we first came onto the field and saw players from other countries, we didn't think we could make the first match. Amazingly, our players played their best. We said, 'Play until you pass out on the field and after you can relax.'"
"At first, we said if we get to the semi-finals that's a great achievement. But that wasn't enough, we had to go for it. It was amazing, we made history. I still get goosebumps thinking about it."
That determination paid off: both the men's and women's squads made it to their finals in the junior category, and though the women ultimately lost to South Korea's South Gaels and the men to the multi-national Exiles, their achievement impressed the Asian County Board enough to earn them the chance to represent Asia in this July's World Gaelic Games.
The selection was a well-deserved honour for both teams, but an especially worthy recognition of the women's team, who are actively challenging Cambodian norms for women, traditionally expected to be focused on childcare and domestic duties, not outside pastimes.
Sreypov hopes the attention the team is receiving will encourage more women to play.
"I'm really excited," said Sreypov, "I get to travel to another country, but I'm happier because our achievements have been noticed. It's also inspired a lot more Cambodians to come and play. To go to another country is one thing, but we want more people to join so we can have an even better team."
To prospective players, she said "If you've never tried it before, I'd recommend it, especially women who think it's a sport for boys. I'm a yoga teacher and playing this makes you feel the bond between males and females. We make friends, there's a good sense of community spirit."
Funding the trip to Derry is a major financial challenge for the club, which in an effort to make Gaelic games accessible provides free training to Cambodian players; many current players come from NGO backgrounds or are students who will require financial aid for travel, visa, and equipment costs. Average annual household income per capita in Cambodia was less than €1500 in 2021.
Since launching a fundraiser at the end of last year, Cairde Khmer has raised over €10,000 (the largest donor so far being team favorite Irish pub Healy Mac's) but they need about €26,000 more to reach their goal.
To help send the team on the trip of a lifetime, donate here.