Wielding blush brushes and flatirons, a new breed of diplomats descended on Phnom
Stylists from Thailand, they came to show Cambodian beauticians chic techniques in
a beauty course and contest, part of the second Thai Exhibition to be held since
the anti-Thai riots of January 2003.
Chea Sreysroh, 21, shows off a Hong Kong-inspired hairstyle.
They clipped. They teased. And when the event was over, these style delegates hoped
they had "furthered Cambodia's social development."
Whether or not that happened, the event did highlight one theme in relations between
the two countries: When it comes to Thailand and Cambodia, even fashion is political.
With plastic posters billing Thailand as a "land of refinement," the four-day
exposition, organized by the Thailand Department of Export Promotion and Ministry
of Commerce, kicked off September 16 at the Mondial Center.
The event, an attempt to further cultural-and economic-exchanges between the countries,
came just days before local TV networks rejected a push from the Thai Cultural Committee
to lift a ban on Thai soap operas.
While shoppers browsed through rows of imported detergents, hairsprays and sweets
in the parking lot, over 250 local beauticians stayed inside the center to learn
new makeup and hair-styling methods.
Thai instructors chose audience members as style guinea pigs, applying their makeup
and sculpting their coifs in elaborate up-dos. Once their looks were re-done, other
girls swarmed around them, examining the final results-ooing, awing and even snapping
pictures on their camera phones.
"We came because we wanted to educate Cambodians, especially for makeup and
hair," said Narong Srikriengthong, deputy managing director for Lifeford Beauty
Institute. "Thailand has an international standard of beauty, and we want Cambodia
to have an international standard of beauty too."
But some local beauticians objected to this attitude. Despite the event's large turnout
and seeming enthusiasm, many Cambodians were reluctant to adopt Thai styles.
"I want Cambodian style to be better," said beautician Khen Phavy, 23,
explaining why she fixed her hair in a simple Khmer Boko and wore a long, modest
dress to the contest.
Although Thai fashions do influence those in Cambodia, this desire for a homegrown
Khmer style isn't unusual, especially since the anti-Thai riots, said Sharon Soldner,
a VJ on TV5.
Before the Khmer Rouge period, Cambodian fashions were often more advanced than Thai
styles, with women wearing their hair in long, soft curls and using natural-looking
makeup, said Cindy, owner of Magic Shop.
But when the beauty industry once again began to blossom just a few years ago, "everyone
had to start from the beginning again," she said. This led to adoption of many
Thai fashions, including complicated up-dos and sexier clothes.
"Before the riots, Cambodians used a lot of Thai styles," she said. "But
now they don't want to."
Imports from Korea and Japan have gained popularity, especially choppy Korean-inspired
haircuts, Cindy said.
Although she admitted many women who come to her shop request Thai looks, Sapor Rendall,
owner of Sapors beauty shop and modeling agency, said she always encourages them
to develop their own styles.
She said Cambodian women should consider rediscovering some pre-Khmer Rouge fashions.
"I want them to get back to the old style, in the 1960s," Rendall said.
"Traditional Khmer style still looks good-it's natural, beautiful."
Many beauticians at the contest agreed. While some sampled from Thai, Korean and
Japanese trends, others swept their hair up in simple Khmer looks, decorating with
flowers or small gems. Several girls wore modest wedding dresses and many opted for
soft, rosy blushes and pale eyeshadow.
For those in the beauty industry like Rendall, this is good news.
"I don't want Cambodian women to always be copying someone else," she said.
"I want them to do their own style-their own Cambodian style."
(additional translation by Jun Soktia).