Beauty Culture in Cambodia

As much as we would like to believe that beauty is subjective to each individual, how we perceive what is beautiful is very much dictated by our culture. What is deemed as beautiful is subject to trends of fashion throughout generations and cultures, leading people of similar backgrounds to value similar traits in themselves and people around them, and people of different backgrounds to be attracted to people of different body shapes, complexion, style, age, face shape, and even personality. It is not surprising therefore that Cambodian people have a standard of beauty which contrasts vividly with the UK.

In Cambodia it is fashionable for women to have a small, thin body. It is also seen as elegant to have hands which curve back, replicating the style of traditional Khmer dancers: children from a young age will stretch and bend their fingers every day in order to achieve this. Long fingernails are also traditionally a sign of being wealthy, particularly among men, because people who work on the land (and are generally quite poor) have to cut their fingernails for practicality due to their physical job. Often men in Cambodia will have long fingernails, or a single long nail on the little finger of each hand, although this fashion is losing popularity in the younger generations.

The most prominent difference however is that pale skin is highly prized in Cambodia, especially among women. Often young women will go through extensive measures to keep their skin from tanning, such as wearing lots of layers – even hats, scarves and gloves – in 40° heat. Whitening products are also hugely popular, to the extent that it can be difficult to find non-whitening shower creams and moisturisers in shops. These products are very harmful to the body. The lotions can contain corticosteroids, and molecules such as hydroquinone (which are carcinogenic) or even mercury salts which are highly toxic. Every year women die from using these products, often when using them in excess in order to look more ‘beautiful’.

The fashion of pale skin is consolidated through the media. On television, every celebrity (male and female, although women are visibly lighter) has extremely pale skin, and even in televised competitions involving people from the public, such as The Voice Cambodia, the contestants are rarely more than a shade or two darker. In advertisements, and even paintings, illustrations and wedding photographs, everyone is depicted with white skin. A contributing factor to this may be because Cambodia idealises Korean culture, admiring their literature, television programmes, music scene, and fashion, including the Korean complexion. The prevalence of pale skin in popular images including the media strengthens the idea that to be pale is fashionable, and that the colour of your skin can dictate how successful you become.

Setting an example: talking about these topics should begin with the youngest generations

Dangerous and simply quite strange practises in order to look more beautiful prevail in every culture however. In the UK, we have our own beauty extremes which includes the culture of tanning. It is attractive to have bronze skin in Britain because a tan proves that someone has spent their leisure time in the sun, indicating that they are well-travelled, and world-wise.  Women especially will use tanning booths and go sunbathing, despite that the exposure to UV rays increases the risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer.

We value tall, slim, athletic bodies with hairless, unblemished skin in both men and women, and due to this every year we spend hundreds to thousands of pounds on products and services that will help us to achieve this ideal. For example we buy skin care products like moisturisers and spot creams, hair removal products, make-up, braces and teeth whitening services, as well membership to gyms, excersize classes and sports equipment, slimming “medicine”, dieting group membership and speciality foods. All of this is supported by the media which enforces the idea that to indulge in these beauty regimes is both fashionable and normal.

In Cambodia, women who do not comply within the normal beauty standards, for example if they have dark skin or acne or are tall or have a big body, will find it very difficult to find a partner. Both men and women can be ridiculed and bullied for having dark skin, so it is not surprising that people are very conscious of their appearance. In general, when people feel they do not fit into the cultural norms for ‘beautiful’ this causes problems with self-esteem, causing a higher risk of eating disorders, anxiety and depression across cultures. It can even lead to isolation from social circles and social stigma.

The importance we place globally upon being beautiful, particularly for women, is detrimental to our physical and mental health. The more we obsess about improving our faces and bodies, the less content we are with them. Individually, we must reconsider our own standards of beauty with the understanding that it is just a trend in fashion, not a universal or real measurement of value. We should endeavour not to judge other people around us for how they look or how much effort they put into their appearance, be content with how we look ourselves, and give our health and happiness a much higher priority.

Learn to love yourself using any means necessary

Earth Day at K’downg Primary School

To celebrate Earth Day on the 22nd April, Team Banan of VSO ICS Cambodia held a Community Action Day at K’downg Primary school in rural Banan, Cambodia, themed on the environment.

Our goals during the CAD was to teach the children about how important it is to look after the environment, focusing in particular on deforestation and waste management, both of which are prominent issues in Cambodia. We also wanted to improve the environment of the school for the children, so that they would feel inspired to maintain their own local environment and take responsibility for it in the future. We did this by helping the children to plant trees around their school yard, and by making their library beautiful (and, more importantly, habitable).

The CAD team buying plants for the event

The day was not without its obstacles. Before the event, the school director had told us that their library was empty and unused, and we made plans to paint and furnish it in order to encourage the children to use it. However, when we got there we found the library stuffed full of dusty desks, books, bricks and soil. It looked like it hadn’t been used for years. Luckily, by enrolling a team of students for the task, we cleaned the room in a surprisingly short time, the director lending a hand by moving the desks so that the central space was clear and clean for students to work.

…and after!

The moment before we were about to transform the library into a painted jungle scene, the director changed his mind, and was suddenly unwilling for the children to paint directly onto the walls. Although disappointed that our masterpiece couldn’t be created, we turned this idea around by using the resources we had with us, and instead conducted a painting workshop with the children, consolidating the theme of environment through their paintings of trees and plants.

Me making a poster with the children during the painting workshop

Despite these set-backs, the children and the volunteers had a really fun day. We taught the children about the environment through an informal presentation, and taught them how to plant and look after their new trees, which would provide valuable shade in years to come. We also improved the environment of their school, providing bins and a fabulous clean library, complete with new books, shelves, and a display of their newly created artwork.

Hopefully the students of K’downg Primary now understand more about people’s impact upon the environment, including their own. They can take a greater involvement in improving the environment both locally and globally, by simple acts such as not littering, burning plastic and by protecting trees.

Volunteer Thol helping three children water their first tree

Happy Earth Day!

The last two photos were taken by VSO volunteer Chantel.

Khmer New Year

The Cambodian New Year, this year falling on the 13th – 15th April, is a lively, exciting and holy celebration in the peak of the hot season. I was lucky enough to experience it first-hand and enjoy the national public holiday along with the locals in our host community.

New Year’s Eve

Like British New Year’s, most Cambodian families count the new year down – and there is an elaborate television programme assisting the process – however, in Cambodia the time is different every year, not always at 12am. Apparently there is an angel for each year, and at the end of the countdown the old angel is replaced by the new to watch over people during the following year.

People decorate an alter for the angel in front of their house (adverts on the television tell people the angel’s name and their preferred offering). This year, it had been announced that the new angel wanted a meal, so our alter was adorned with bottles of Fanta, tins of condensed milk and fruit. I found myself calling down the new angel, incense in hand, with my host family at 8pm. We then prayed by our alter for the angel to bless the people living in the house with happiness and good health, and, naturally, went inside to watch TV.

A normal alter with offerings to the angel

Religious Rituals

Although Khmer New Year is a light-hearted celebration, it is also primarily a religious one. The older generations of Cambodians will go to the pagoda to pray to the monks for blessings. They also offer the monks packages of food and soft drinks, which is collected around the back of the pagoda by some cheerful old ladies who prepare the monks’ dinner. The rice is taken away separately by the person giving the food, who divides it between bowls in front of the temple – one bowl per monk – with a small donation.

Since Khmer New Year is often one of the few opportunities in a year for people to see their extended family, when travelling around the community we would often bump into small celebrations outside people’s houses. This usually includes the younger generations blessing the older family members by pouring water over their heads, followed by giving each person a small gift, such as a scarf. The celebration then breaks down into a pandemonium as everyone chases each other to wipe talcum powder on their faces – a very fun ritual also meant to spread good luck. After this, everyone settles down for a meal, which usually contains rice noodles and copious amounts of fizzy drink.

Inside a pagoda

The Night Come to Life

As soon as the sun sets, the pagoda transforms into a chaotic playground. I was amazed to learn of “pagoda parties”, where the village congregates around the Buddhist temples – visited that very morning for prayers – to have a grand old time. Stalls selling sausages, barbequed eggs, sugar cane drinks, soft drinks and fairy lights spring up from nowhere. A large circle is fenced off for dancing, which is slowly populated by Cambodian children and teenagers, whilst a sound system booms out hardcore American and Cambodian remixes. The pagoda itself is lit up and thriving with excited children having powder fights away from their parents’ prying eyes.

The night is usually when everybody lets their hair down. The young women wear short skirts or vest tops (usually inappropriate in rural communities) and the men drink beer. It is a very jolly celebration, and we soon learnt that seeing foreigners dance is a favourite pass-time for a lot of Khmer people (and who could blame them when move so erratically compared to the traditional Khmer dance)!

Sweaty and happy: my fellow volunteers and two children who took a shine to us

Overall the people we have met in Cambodia are delighted when we take part in their  community activities and encourage us to get involved. As long as you are friendly and not boisterous or loud you will be included wholly in the celebrations – but be prepared to be laughed at a lot, especially when you dance.

An Ice Coffee for a Drawing

I have been living in Cambodia for over a month now and have been sketching  happily during my time off. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my oil paints (my luggage allowance was already teetering over the limit) which is a shame since the sunsets here are remarkable, and any other medium wouldn’t do them justice.

Every time I try to find a shady spot to draw to have some peace and quiet, I only need to sit down for three minutes when a tentative but curious child on a bicycle will suddenly appear beside me. After peering at my notebook for a few minutes they will leave, and I will momentarily breathe a sigh of relief and settle down to the next section of detail, when he will be back – only with four friends and a football. They will crowd around behind me (at this point I’m very worried about headlice and am practically bent double over my notebook) fighting for space as slowly more children come to see what the fuss is about. Last week I had twelve children around me, their attention riveted to my drawing despite my growing discomfort, until the original boy finally got bored. The rest of the children followed his example and left me, with a few backward glances, to finish the background of my picture in peace.

By the reaction of the children, I don’t think that drawing is widely practised by adults here – the only paintings I have seen were in the market at Siem Riep being sold to tourists. It is probably another luxury that mainly westerners, with ample time and money, can afford. When I told my host sisters that I studied Fine Art at University they were rather bemused by the idea.

For souvenirs I am giving drawings to my fellow volunteers for the price of an ice coffee, which is 2000 riel (50 cents) and have got a small queue forming already of commissioned artwork. One of these days I’m going to get a caffiene addiction. I’m looking forward to whipping out the oil paints again when I’m in the UK and painting some glossy Cambodian sunsets, pagodas, monks, Angkor Wot, and all of those stereotypical and very-Cambodian icons.

Below are a few of my drawings here. You can see more of my artwork on my Facebook pageEtsy and Twitter @KarisL_.


The pakoda near our village
View from our favourite WiFi cafe
The Bamboo Bridge and pakoda in Kampong Cham
The faces of Angkor Tom
Buddhist statues and a building inside Angkor Wot
A sunset butchered by watercolours


The School Under Crocodile Mountain

Yesterday members of our VSO team in Banan, Cambodia went to teach at a school near Crocodile Mountain in an area of limited means in our commune. This was to help with the Tompeang Russey Khmer Association (see more about their work here), who have been doing extra-curricular classes at both the school and at the library above their office. Since they rely on volunteer teachers, the frequency of classes can be unreliable, so we were happy to assist them on a day where there were no teachers available.

The school under Crocodile Mountain is very small and basic, consisting of two buildings: a classroom and the colourfully decorated community library that the TRK Association had built in one of their community outreach projects. About twelve children aged five to twelve were shyly waiting for us and when we started our lesson we immediately realised their grasp of English varied dramatically. Although most children could recite the alphabet and numbers from one to ten, the younger children struggled to write in both English and Khmer. However, despite their limited knowledge, all of the children were extremely enthusiastic and committed to learning. We taught them basic introductions with the aim to split up the group in our next session.

A second group of volunteers put on a lesson for high school students in the library above TRK’s office. Their English was much more advanced, and one of our colleagues Soramony Suong revealed a hidden talent in teaching as she lead the class through vocabulary, spelling games and an end-of-lesson quiz.

Education in Cambodia differs in quality due to a variety of factors. The cities, such as Phnom Penh, Siem Riep and Battambang, benefit from better education due to more highly trained professionals in these areas, particularly in regards to teaching English. Since fluency in the English language is often required to get University scholarships and better paid jobs, people growing up in the rural areas of Cambodia are immediately at a disadvantage for their future. Children can attend private schools in order to improve their education, but at 100 dollars a month this is obviously not an option for a lot of families.

For people in rural Cambodia, there is little incentive to stay in school. Some children will drop out of school in order to help their families with their businesses, or to work in factories to send money back home. Their parents encourage this: often they think in the short-term, and do not consider or plan for the long-term future of their children or see the real benefits of education. Young people can be discouraged from going to University, since without connections within the profession they are training for it is very difficult to get a job. This is particularly bad for girls and women, since the common attitude is that soon they will marry, and will therefore have little need for higher education.

Despite this, however, there is a fairly equal number of men and women taking University degrees. Although the older generation can have some short-sightedness (which obviously is not shared by a lot of people in Cambodia, mainly the very poor) this is an old-fashioned attitude which is slowly changing. Through meeting people, such as successful graduates, people in the community have begun to understand the benefits of higher education and are taking it more seriously.

Hopefully the students of Crocodile Mountain will overcome the obstacles before them with some support from TRK and their relentless enthusiasm to learn!

Photo credits: Julia Herritty (3rd picture), Dy Polin (4th and 5th picture).

The Reality of HIV in Cambodia

HIV is a global crisis, affecting 3.96 million people worldwide. The human immunodeficiency virus is passed between humans through body fluids, most commonly transmitted through unprotected vaginal and anal sex, although also by sharing needles, blood transfusions, and between mother and child during pregnancy and breast feeding. Once the virus is inside the body, it gradually attacks the immune system until, 10 – 15 years later, the immune system is damaged beyond repair, leading to poor recovery from illness and substiquently death. However, with early diagnosis and treatment, a person who is HIV positive can lead a normal, full life.

The prevalence of HIV in Cambodia is extremely high – one of the highest in Asia – due to the limited healthcare and knowledge about health and diseases in general. In 2015, there was a massive outbreak of HIV due to a shortage of medical supplies, meaning that syringes were re-used by unlicensed doctors. The people most vulnerable to catching the disease however remain to be drug users, prostitutes and homosexual people.

People diagnosed with HIV face stigma and isolation in their community. Often, they will be avoided or even cast out by their friends and family, and their relationships, businesses, income and mental health will suffer hugely because of this. This is due to a lack of knowledge about the disease and how contagious it is. People believe that touching, kissing or breathing the same air as the sufferer can give them HIV, even though the virus is only found in semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids and breast milk, not sweat, saliva or urine.

Through simple instruction and education, the attitude towards HIV can be changed for the better. Real life cases of doctors in Cambodia teaching people about HIV have shown that understanding can lead to inclusion of the patient within the community, and a conscious effort from the community to support the person and help them to lead a full and happy life.

In Battambang city, the book Around Battambang by Ray Zepp has recently been published. The profit made by selling the book goes towards nuns and monks raising awareness about HIV, and helping to support orphans of HIV. In Anchor Night Market, Siem Riep, and Phnom Penh, there is a shop called  Nyemo selling textile products, arts and crafts with all the proceeds going towards HIV prevention and supporting vulnerable women.

An informed society is a healthier and happier society, and this is why it is extremely important to share knowledge to help the prevention of treatable diseases such as HIV and their accompanying social stigmas. There are many charities that fight the HIV epidemic such as AVERT , The International HIV and AIDS Alliancee and the Terrence Higgins Trust, where anyone can get involved through fundraising and raising awareness.

Thank you to Lwiza, Sony, Avex and Chantel for sharing this information with me in their Active Citezanship Day as part of their placement with VSO. See my interview with Kov Soriya about her experiences of having diabetes in Cambodia.


Bread, Mango Juice, and Community Empowerment

The Tompeang Russey Khmer Association (TRK) is an NGO based in Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia which aims to help people in the local community. We spoke to the executive director, Loeurm Sowath in their office in Banan this morning to learn about the organisation and see whether we (VSO Cambodia) and TRK could combine forces in the future.



TRK was founded in 2008 with just two projects (providing English lessons and building a community library), no government funding and a small group of volunteer staff including some University students. They established a branch in Battambang Province in 2010, as well as a partnership with a Korean organisation, who provides volunteers and some targeted funding. They now work in several different areas on eight types of projects, which include providing University scholarships for people who can’t afford the fees, providing electricity in order to hasten community development, and establishing credit unions for local middle- and low-income families.

One of their new projects is creating a social enterprise for women. Their aim is to recruit vulnerable women – women who might have low income, who have suffered from domestic violence or who have been victim to human trafficking – and provide them with training in order for them to earn a better living. They will learn about hygiene, basic business management, baking, and coffee making in order to be able to run a café. The training will give these women valuable skills, which will lead to them generating their own income, which with lead to independence, which in turn will lead to personal empowerment.

TRK are targeting people in the rural areas of Cambodia, including Banan, because they have less opportunities and, often, wealth than the people living in towns and cities. They are also extending their social enterprise project to include making a community vegetable and herb garden, and are planning to expand their office into a café and kitchen at the front which will use the products grown in the garden. This is so that, once trained, the women will have somewhere to work straight away. Sowath also suggested selling local products in the café, such as soya milk and mango juice made by a local farmer – which, take it from me, is delicious – in order to further include members of the community and provide more people with a sustainable income.

The training centre currently being built behind TPK’s office in Banan District


The Tompeang Russey Khmer Association is a fairly young but strong organisation that is powered by commitment to the welfare of their society, as well as a realistic attitude towards sustaining their organisation as well as their projects. It was a pleasure to meet the staff and make plans to help with their education programme. They certainly give reasons to be optimistic about national and global development, since there are so many amazing outcomes of TPK’s eight short years as an NGO: an organisation with such humble beginnings and big plans ahead.

You Know You’ve Been Living in Cambodia For a Month When…

• You are unperturbed by sharing with your shower with a frog, cockroach, or large spider
• You are used to negotiating your way through a herd of cows on your way to work
• 32° feels positively chilly
• You think that spending more than $3 on a meal is scandalous
• You have a mutual agreement that the locals are crazy for wearing lots of layers in the heat, and that you are crazy for wearing thin t-shirts
• You now stroke pet dogs without fear of catching rabies
• You look forward to eating rice, despite having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner
• You know the best spots for getting WiFi, ice coffee and fake oreos in your village
• You have founded a complex system of body language, which your host family enjoys but unfortunately doesn’t understand
• You have the shape of your sandals branded onto your feet due to a bad suntan
• A cold glass of water is the best thing in the world, and ice is a precious commodity
• You have accepted that washing the dishes under four times before putting them away is just not an option
• You wake at 6:30am and go to bed at 10pm without question
• You have graciously agreed that it is your duty to shout “hello” cheerfully back at every child who sees you
• You catch yourself looking at white people wearing short shorts and thinking scathingly “tourists!”



An Introduction to VSO Cambodia

Volunteer Service Overseas is an international charity that aims to fight poverty around the world, and is part of the umbrella organisation International Citizenship Service. VSO works in 23 countries in Africa and South Asia, implementing projects there which focus on four areas: education, health (particularly HIV and AIDS), participation and governance, and secure livelihoods.

Instead of sending aid to a country in terms of money or material aid, which can often be passed into the wrong hands or lead to short-term outcomes rather than sustainable ones, it sends volunteers into countries instead. The volunteers work on one project in cycles until completion: when one volunteer team finishes their placement, another will take over and so on. A project may last for about 3 years. The volunteers work towards educating and empowering the community that they are working with, in order for the people to learn the necessary skills to be able to improve their own lives after the volunteers leave, rather than just temporarily relieving the situation.

Our volunteer team in Banan, Cambodia

I am currently working for VSO as a volunteer in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia on a Secure Livelihoods Programme. One of the concerns VSO has targeted in Cambodia is the high rate of immigration, which is due to people in Cambodia seeing little future or money in staying home and trying to earn a living there. It is particularly prevalent in the youth of Cambodia, who usually express a desire to study or live abroad in Thailand or America where there are more jobs.

VSO are trying to combat this by establishing youth co-operatives in places like Banan so that the young people can support each other and learn the skills necessary to succeed in their future career. At first the youth co-operative we are working on was aiming towards creating interest and knowledge in agriculture, due to 85% of the population being farmers. However, after researching our community’s ideas we are currently reviewing this.

An important part of development is assessing the needs of the community and adapting to any changes that arise. This can make development a very slow process but gives a much better outcome in the long run. Although the statistics pointed VSO towards an agriculture-orientated youth group, after speaking to the young people we felt it might be more valuable to them if we instead facilitate learning soft skills such as leadership, conflict management and ICT skills. This will not only provide the youth with a greater chance of earning a higher wage at home, but it will also help them with their applications and future studies if they do decide to go to University abroad.

If you are interested in volunteering abroad, I could not recommend VSO enough. The experience I have had so far working for them has been full of highs and lows, and has not been devoid of frustrations and obstacles, but the positive outcomes are far greater. You can expect a lot of hard work, but also learn what real teamwork looks like, experience the reality of a country from an intimate perspective, and make a great impact which will outlive your stay in the community. Read more about it and apply here.

Road Safety is Fun – Our First Community Event

Today we had our first Community Action Day in the commune of Phnom Sampov.

As volunteers for VSO, we work on a set project in the community, targeted by VSO before we arrive, which is continued until completion by successive volunteer teams. In total these projects can last for 2-3 years. Our group in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia are working on a Livelihoods project as the first volunteer cycle, where we are aiming to empower youth in the community to be able improve their situation and forge a good future for themselves.

We also have the chance to engage with other issues we feel need addressing in the community through one-day events called Community Action Days. After asking members of the community the issues that they thought were important, we discovered that traffic accidents were a big problem in our area, with more than 2’400 fatalities in Cambodia every year. Drinking and driving is particularly bad here, and is a huge factor in the high figures of accidents on the road. We therefore decided our CAD should be on road safety.

For three weeks we planned and implemented the event. We contacted important members of the community to ensure their attendance and also to recruit some guest speakers. We also organised a range of interactive, engaging activities to consolidate the lessons taught during the speeches, for instance about helmet safety, alcohol awareness, and the dangers of speeding.

As a member of the CAD committee (the small division of volunteers dealing with the practical requirements of the day) I felt extremely responsible for the success of the event. Our main challenge was ensuring the attendance of people from the community: although we advertised and got in touch with the head teachers of the commune schools, we still had no sure way of knowing who would turn up, and how many.

We soon learnt that trusting members of the community to pass on the message was too unreliable, and we would have to spread the word ourselves directly to our target audience. Luckily our event was well attended with over 50 people meaning that the facts about road safety was shared with a lot of people, and on a personal note we also got to know our neighbours a little more! The children especially enjoyed our activities, including the “protect the egg” game where they had to wrap up an egg to stop it from breaking, in order to demonstrate the importance of wearing a helmet.

One team deeply involved in wrapping their egg

We were very pleased with the result of the event and grateful to our guest speakers, Professor Sue Fatima from Battambang University, and the Police Chief of our commune, for delivering messages about the dangers of the road. We will soon start preparing for our next Community Action Day in order to address more important issues and make a small impact upon the community that has welcomed us so kindly into their midst so far.