While you begin with a layer of bold, heavy makeup, fake eyelashes and huge hair that would rival Katie Price on a night out, within half an hour you are transformed into ‘Khmer Boran’ (traditional costume) ready for the photographer to place you in set poses and snap away. Feeling like a Princess, albeit a slightly awkward one, a Khmer photo shoot is a brilliant experience. From $15-$30 you can experience what it feels like to dress up in these traditional outfits that are normally reserved for weddings and other formal functions.
Typically, Khmer couples attend a photo shoot before their wedding day and display the images at the ceremony, although many now do it just for fun. In both Siem Reap and Phnom Penh you will pass many photo stores advertising these photo shoots and although they are aimed at locals, Westerners are welcomed in to come and embrace the culture. Where else would you get to wear such a beautiful and elaborate outfit?
The photo session lasts approximately an hour to 90 minutes, which includes the makeup session (only for the girls!) and two or three photos in one outfit. If you want extra images or an outfit change you will be charged around $7 per photo. Without a specific time limit (‘Khmer time’- moving slowly – is the norm here), you may be tempted!
Once I had arrived in Siem Reap, I was bombarded by the huge billboards displaying the somewhat cheesy images and wanted to try it. My Australian-Khmer friend’s traditional parents were also in town and pushing for him to go since the rest of the family had it done. It was a win-win situation for us both, plus we would get couple shots… just like those cutesy billboards!
The first thing you do is choose your outfit from a rail that sparkles with a rainbow of colours and bejewelled fabrics! The clothing isn’t matched to your skin tone or hair colour, but instead you can choose whatever you like.
For women this includes the most beautifully decorated tops that glisten with gemstones and sequins, and a matching Sampot (a delicately folded skirt). The outfit is later finished off with striking jewellery and beautiful headpieces. Guys will be presented with the option of a long jacket and black trousers or (if you choose gold as your colour of choice) a number of fancy layers, pointy ‘King’ shoes and a very manly accessory – a sword!
After choosing my outfit the women got straight to work on my hair and makeup. A pale powder was applied to my face which was followed by a thick layer of bright pink blusher the need to accentuate ALL of my facial features – thicker eyebrows, dark eye shadow (which included an orange base layer), three layers of various pink lip-glosses, black liquid and pencil eyeliners and HUGE fake eyelashes. As for your hair, be prepared to go back to the 80’s when the CRIMPERS come out. The front section of your hair is crimped, backcombed and layered to create the volume needed for the intense amount of fake curls that are then applied to your head. If you have blonde hair like me, be prepared to rock the two-tone look!
Looking in the mirror was a little frightening and I felt like a clown. However, once I put on the outfit the makeup appeared to compliment the excessive amount of bling I was rocking.
You only have to wait four or five days to collect the photographs. In that time they are retouched to give you the much loved pale skin look and transformed with all manner of interesting backgrounds such as Angkor Wat or an extremely opulent room. The overt outfits are a stark contrast to your newly whitened skin and you look nothing like your true self, but it sure creates few smiles and lots of giggles.
Not only do you come away from the photo shoot having had a very unique experience, but you will have experienced a slice of Khmer culture that is still very much in place today. What do you think of my new look?