I’m a pretty low maintenance sort of girl – my hair’s usually pulled back in a simple ponytail and my make-up minimal, though I will occasionally shave my legs as a “treat” for my boyfriend.
On Monday, however, I was looking even more dishevelled than usual; I’d just returned from a weekend camping in Kampong Cham province and the long ride home on the back of a moto had left dust engrained in every crinkle of my skin and my hair a mop of tangles. Perhaps this explained my editor’s sudden enthusiasm for packing me off to Boeung Keng Kang market for a mid-afternoon intervention.
Ten minutes later, while squeezing through the ramshackle stalls, I came across Srey Mom, who was radiating in her salon under a shaft of light pouring through a hole in the roof. She was perched under leaning towers of plastic buckets, bushels of bristly brooms and piles of terracotta stoves that over spilt from the opposite stall.
Srey Mom’s salon is a tiny raised and tiled platform with one big fan, a shelf of cotton wool and a glass cabinet filled with nail polishes of every imaginable colour. She motioned me to sit on a low stool in front of her and plunged my pinkies into a steel bowl of cool water.
Although, at first glance it was anomalous – a makeover amidst chaos – Mom’s salon was much like any other I’ve been too: a middle-aged woman sat behind me gossiping with the beautician applying colour to her nails. To my right, a young girl giggled as she chose patterns while her boyfriend sulked beside her with an iPod plugging his ears.
With the enthusiastic help of my translator guide, I learned that Mom had been working as a beautician in the market for 30 years and is renowned for her expertise in nail design, crafting patterns with polishes that can be as intricate as those painted on ceramic or engraved in silver.
Mom takes my hands, smears them with a softening cream and goes to work with a pair of glinting silver clippers. Working quickly with deft and gentle movements she trims my nails into neat ovals, filing away the ragged edges before rubbing the tips of my fingers with half a lime to cleanse and refresh them.
My mitts already look miles better than they did but Mom has bigger plans. These days, younger women want “sexy nails”, she explains. While older women prefer subtle tones and classic shades, the rising taste is for brightly coloured varnishes, intricate detail and a surfeit of bling. I’m astonished to discover that Mom’s salon is famed for its nail art depicting the ubiquitous computer game Angry Birds.
Selecting a vibrant scarlet, Mom skillfully paints on a few glossy coats before passing me over to one of her young assistants. With incredible skill and a steady hand, the apprentice draws a delicate hibiscus flower on each nail and pats a sprinkling of glitter over the top. I’m starting to feel quite ladylike.
Now Mom starts on my toes and I’m embarrassed to say that she tells me they’re the worst trotters she’s confronted in three decades. However, she’s a professional and gets down to business. As Mom works away, the lady behind me and I waggle our glittering fingers at one another in delight.
I was nervous about a pedicure, disliked the idea of someone manhandling my feet, but Mom’s hands were cool and gentle and her movements swift and capable. No wonder that a queue often develops outside her stall; at weekends she will often see 10 customers, spending as long as an hour with each. Some visit her every two weeks for market pampering.
At home that evening I found myself positioning my hand around my glass to showcase my astonishing fingers to friends. Even now I’m smiling as I glance at my nails hovering over the keyboard. I feel transformed by the sparkling artwork. At only US$5 for a manicure and pedicure with “sexy nails” ($2.50 for a single colour) my market makeover feels lavish. This low-maintenance girl is set to become another regular at Srey Mom’s.