April 24, 2010


There are some things you should do just because you can. Today I did one of those things: Khmer glamour shots. Drop a twenty dollar bill and you can spend an entire morning with a posse of women scurrying about, fussing over your hair, makeup and wardrobe while a cheeky photographer and a team of Photoshoppers click away to make you totally unrecognizable.

Giving up vanity has been rewarding for me in Cambodia. I've learned that I'm not so bad au natural, and I've saved a lot of time by eliminating all cosmetics and settling for pulled-back hair everyday. There are sometimes, however, that I miss that extra zing in my look. Today I got to play Khmer dress up, and I think it fully satisfied my inner girly-girl.

The make up artist had one shade of stage make-up foundation. For many Khmer women, the perfect pinkish-white skin tone is the most important element of this type of photograph. She smeared it onto my face. The “powder mitten” cemented the foundation into my suffocating pores. A perfect basecoat for the yellow-gold eyeshadow and massive tarantula-style eyelashes. As she put more than a dusting of blush on my cheekbones, I watched the tomboy in the mirror morph into a femme fatal, complete with fake hair and a golden crown.

The first outfit was a beige toned, bedazzled and cinched corset top with harvest gold Khmer traditional pantaloons. The pantaloons are deceiving because they begin simply as a long piece of silk. First you stand in the middle of the sheet, then someone helps you match up the ends and twist the fabric into a rope. The rope goes between your legs and tucks into the waistband to form pantaloons. They are wonderfully practical for a girl who never finds pants with enough leg room. Checking my reflection, I felt like an Apsara dancer, even though I could barely breathe. Thick gold jewelry was clamped around my ankles, wrist and neck. Final adjustments to my makeup and hair were completed by the tiny women who had to stand on chairs to reach my head. I took a seated pose, sitting fully upright (as you do in a corset made for people half your size). Channeling my inner Cambodian beauty queen, I smiled into the lens, hoping for a decent Facebook profile picture.

After the first round of photos, I switched outfits into a royal blue color that was my destiny in fabric hue. My friends kept saying Grace Kelly as the big crown with blue jewels was tucked into my hair. I felt like real royalty as I looked in the mirror at a woman with the sultry eyes and blinged-out crown. More matching jewelry and another round of photography, this time standing with more traditional poses. I felt good in the spotlight, pretending I was more important than just some foreigner paying for a good time.

I may never be Khmer, but I can have a good time being a tourist. I get to pick up the retouched photos next week!