“You’re going to get raped, killed or both.”
This is what Sarah Botton gets told on a regular basis. By her friends, family, colleagues. By strangers she meets on her way. And to their credit, it’s a phrase that used to creep in the back of her mind when she first got into backcountry bike touring in the lush wilderness of rural Cambodia.
She can’t blame them, really. The pursuit of outdoor adventure just isn’t part of the Khmer cultural fabric, and even less so for women. But she refuses to let her endeavours be inhibited by the multiple threats that lie in wait out on the lonely roads of the high country. Faced with a lack of resources and available data, she’s had to teach herself the fickle art of navigating unmarked rough terrain, often damaged by the monsoon season; how to fuel herself for long efforts and learning about basic bicycle maintenance in one big character building exercise of trial and error, all whilst fine tuning her awareness of personal safety.
Her latest expedition journeyed roughly 300km through the Cardamom mountains in southwest Cambodia, where the beauty of the landscapes, unsullied by the tourism industry, comes at the price of severe remoteness and occasionally perilous weather conditions. “I refuse to be paralyzed by fear,” she says, “all it does is gives power to the perpetrators of gendered violence. Of course, I’m always wary of my surroundings, and perhaps my experience is tainted by naivety since I’ve never faced any major danger. But making that decision to explore, just me, unarmed, on my bike, is a big middle finger to the world. It’s not revolutionary or anything, but it’s empowering, and I hope that in a small way, it can help start to rewrite the narrative of traditional gender roles and encourage other women to take initiative, should they feel like it.”
Growing up as an avid equestrian, time outdoors was simply a means to an end for Sarah, and adventure sports didn’t occupy much space in her life. But moving across the world, followed by the termination of a long term relationship and stepping into a high pressure job as Program Manager for a child protection NGO at just 24 years of age, left her with deteriorating self-confidence and a void begging to be filled. It was thanks to a fellow expatriate who had solo cycled across Cambodia, that she tentatively dipped her toe into the obscure pool of outdoor adventure, and ended up hooked, line and sinker.
She says: “at an age where so many things are uncertain, and my sense of self is ever-changing, cycling has provided me with stability. Where identity and self-fulfillment are often wavering for young women, sports offer tangible structure, boundaries, and accomplishment in areas of our lives that may lack these things.”
Holding a leadership position so young is a challenge for anyone, let alone a woman in a developing country, operating within a male-dominated work space. Solo adventuring has redefined her preconceived notions of what she is capable of and boosted her confidence in all aspects of her life, professional and personal. “You’re completely self-reliant out there,” she says, “your mind and body achieve things that you never thought were possible.You have no choice but to become your own leader, an independent entity entirely and you learn to value yourself beyond the traditional sense of worth.”
As one of the very few women who compete in the Cambodian Mountain Bike Series, she is passionate about pushing for equal representation in the sport, particularly for the elite female cyclists who only have a single, low level, class reserved to them, and have to compete in the male classes for more technical circuits. She says “it is so important for men to see women breaking barriers, physically and culturally. It opens up a space for female athletes to exist in equal measure, and hopefully encourage other women to pursue their athletic endeavours. No doubt is my experience tainted by being a Westerner, but I do feel like the sport is welcoming to women and hopefully our small presence can free up a pathway for others.”
In the near future, Sarah hopes to tackle a 6 day traverse of the northern Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey to the hidden temple of Banteay Chhmar.
Written by Céleste Botton