In a back room offstage, two dozen men pulled on colorful speedo-like bikinis, slathered on lotion to make their skin look more coppery and practiced showing off their muscled bodies as they prepared for the second-ever Mr. Cambodia competition.
The men -- one wearing a fuschia bikini that he accidentally stained with some of the lotion -- faced off before several hundred people who packed a Phnom Penh theater on Sunday night. They flexed their best triceps, biceps and abdominal and thigh muscles for judges.
"I was blown away with how qualified these guys are" for international competition, said organizer David Michael, an attorney from Berkeley, California.
Their physical fitness was particularly impressive as "many of them are really poor kids that can't afford all the supplements and vitamins, and the regimen and the expensive gyms that people in the Western world can afford," he said.
Cambodia emerged only recently from decades of civil conflict and remains one of the world's poorest countries. It held its first Mr. Cambodia contest in 1999, but hasn't had resources to promote bodybuilding.
Michael, a bodybuilding enthusiast, said he wanted to help organize the contest partly to show the outside world that Cambodia was moving on. "I guess it's just all part of ... raising the consciousness level of the world to what Cambodia can be," he said.
Most gyms in Cambodia offer only basic facilities -- reminiscent of those found in high schools in the US. One of the bodybuilders, Ly Bun Than, a motorcycle taxi driver, said he started lifting weights to improve his health.
"But later I saw some people doing it, and I liked their muscles," he said.
The owner of his gym, he said, also counseled him: "If my body looks good, my future will be more promising."
Michael started organizing this year's event with the winner of the first Mr. Cambodia contest, Khoue Sao, three months ago. Michael spent thousands of dollars of his own money and found local sponsors -- a modeling agency and a media company. His goal has been to prepare Cambodian bodybuilders for the Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines in November.
Although not as well known in Cambodia as sports such as soccer, bodybuilding clearly has its fans here. The theater crowd started clapping and cheering wildly when some musclemen began to pose to music -- a mix of techno and mainly American songs. One man flexed to Celine Dion's ballad My Heart Will Go On.
People in the audience also stood up and struck their own poses and laughed, particularly when one contestant who clearly forgot his dance routine started gyrating his hips.
Still, the pastime is growing in popularity, said Samrith Sophanny, 19, a daughter of a gym owner.
"I have seen more and more young people coming to train from year to year because they think that the muscle building will make them healthy, their bodies handsome and also help them avoid using drugs," she said.
After nearly four hours, the judges dubbed Dom Sarun, a well-sculpted 61kg middleweight, Mr. Cambodia.