Cambodia's rich culture is speckled with a long list of customs that make it distinctive from neighboring countries. Even the simplest acts-like caring for one's body, doing household chores, and preparing and cooking food- reflect a nation's unique identity and the creative ability of its people to deal with daily life.
One still may observe some seemingly antiquated customs being practiced along Cambodia's dusty streets today. Local hairdressers in particular are notorious for drawing on the past for present beauty treatments. Looping a long string into the shape of a cross, a side street 'beautician' treats a customer's face with care. While the client sits oblivious to the world beyond, the beautician runs the cross of the string over her client's face in an up and down movement, supposedly lightening the sun-kissed skin with each stroke.
The treatment, a mixture of Khmer and Vietnamese beauty rituals, often is performed on brides before their wedding day. Beauticians promise to turn their clients into true blushing bribes, scraping their faces with string until they grow white and glossy. The road to beauty is a simple path. A beautician first folds a string of woolen thread into three cross-angles. Two fingers grasp two of the angles, while the beautician's teeth holds the third. The three points of the string create a moveable force that may be drawn up or down over the face to clear it of acne or hair. To prevent her clients from experiencing strong pain or irritation, the beautician sprinkles powder of the face. This helps to ease the pain during the treatment, but does not prevent the face from growing red and swollen in the few days to follow. Despite the temporary yet uncomfortable aftereffects, many women still are willing to undergo minor pain in the name of beauty.
The results of this string treatment are unmatched. A face scraped by twine appears more lovely and colorful than before. Some consider using string the most effective and efficient way to remove facial hair, since razors can not unearth deeply imbedded dirt and ingrown hairs. Razors still remain popular, however, because they are quick and easy to use. Despite its positive results, the string treatment is becoming a lost art. There are few elders today hone the skills to do it well.
Manicures and pedicures are universal beauty treatments, but there is no other experience like a trip to the Cambodian market for a nail treatment. The market is host to several nail and hair salons equipped with a lazy chair, side-tray and a box similar to a shoeshine boy's carryall. Side-street beauticians are so popular that many may boast about running a thriving business.
Customers, usually young girls, appear happy while having their nails cleaned, polished and painted various colors. Beauticians and their clients have much to talk about, since they sit in open-front stalls watching shoppers pass by. Few customers mind that folks stare back at them, as they've nothing to do but be pampered.
Most women indulge in this service before attending special ceremonies such as weddings, birthdays and parties. Before making public appearances, it is customary for women to paint their faces with makeup and their nails with polish. The preparation is far more laborious than expectant onlookers might believe.
Women first soak their fingers and toes in water for several minutes before lotion is rubbed onto each nail to soften the surrounding skin. The tough epidermis lining the toenails is cut away and the nail filed into a round or square shape. From a large assortment of colorful nail polishes, the customer chooses her favorite for the nail technician to use. Turning one's hands and toes from eyesores to eyesights costs a mere 2000 riel. The price rises depending on the complexity of the treatment, and some women are happy investing more for extra attention or to gather the gossip du jour. Financially secure women often bop to the market twice a week to have their nails maintained, while others reserve the day of beauty for a special occasion. And even men sometimes indulge, trading in their machismo for a manicure.
Two of the most fascinating self care treatments are less traditional than one might expect. Ear cleaning and tension-relieving services are widely available to those looking to wax away trouble. Ears are cleaned with a long, hard object resembling a mini chankol, a tool used for digging the ground. Coins and glass cups are employed to treat customers suffering from headaches and tension. Cambodians believe that tension can be alleviated by breaking the skin to allow blood to flow. This release of 'chi' can help relieve them of suffering. It is also believed that keeping one's ears clean is a sure fire way to keep sickness at bay. Rigid objects are frequently used to remove pieces of wax, which is sometimes removed in liquid form. This is not a recommended self-care treatment, as one's ear drum can be punctured with a slip of the wrist. Another controversial treatment involves coins, which are scraped against the skin to release a person's 'chi'. Children suffering from minor ailments like the flu, a high temperature, body pain, exhaustion or stress also can be subjected to this therapy. It is not uncommon to see headache sufferers walking around with raw red marks on the back of their neck. Coin scraping is usually reserved for three parts of the body: the back of the neck, back and waist. It is a painful process to attain relief, since very hard objects, like silver or gold coins, are used to scratch the skin. When the alternative doctors are finished scraping, their patient's back looks like the body of a tiger evenly marked with stripes. After the operation is complete, patients sweat profusely, purging the body of toxins and ultimately relieving the troublesome symptoms.
Another way to release tension is to heat glass tumblers placed on a patient's back with an open flame. The patch of skin beneath the glass is pulled upward, simultaneously releasing chi and tension. The glasses generally are left on the body for between 10 to 15 minutes, creating a strange visual effect. The markings make the person appear as a strange creature with rows of tiny cups sticking out of his body. When leaving the doctor's office, patients may look odd, but they feel on top of the world.
Cambodian beauty treatments may raise Western eyebrows, but Khmers are quite content with their home remedies. Even new advances in technology can’t spoil a trip to the Khmer beauty shop- proof that sometimes less fuss is more fun.