It’s time for a little detour, folks. We’re going to talk about beauty.
I care about my appearance. I try to look good if I possibly can. And I know enough about fashion that people pay me to write about it.
But I also try to dress appropriately for wherever I am. In Southeast Asia, that means keeping your shoulders and thighs covered. Which sounds easy, but in practice I can’t find a way to do it that doesn’t result in my looking (or at least feeling) like a missionary.
It is almost impossible to find an attractive dress that is not stifling in tropical heat which meets those qualifications. Which is why I have now appeared in public numerous times in a dress covered with elephants. I hope my future teenage children will understand why I did it, and try to show me a little mercy, but I realize that’s a lot to ask.
The worst part is that I seem to be the only westerner here who even tries, so I look like the one sad old maid in a sea of Ke$has.
Another beauty-related topic that’s been on my mind a lot these days is skin color. I saw my first tube of skin-whitening cream my first day in Chiang Mai at the 7-Eleven (I was disgusted to see that big international brands like Ponds make them as well as local brands I’d never heard of). Since then, I’ve seen numerous billboards showing a man with a line down the middle of his face. On one side, he’s darker. On the other, he’s pale. Jacey, our tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap, told us that he wishes he were fairer. We told him that everyone in America wants to be tan, but it didn’t make an impression. (A slightly related aside: in Cambodia, they use US dollars for everything, but they won’t take bills that have even a tiny tear in them. I told them that nobody in the US would care—they would probably even take a bill that was torn completely in half—but they remained firm.) Anyway, it makes me so angry that these corporations are encouraging so many people to hate their appearance.
Now for a beauty tale that will leave your hair standing on end (which is a lot better than what it did to my hair while it was happening. But I’m getting ahead of myself).
I spent yesterday morning on my laptop in the hostel’s lounge, updating my blog, and booking my bus to Ho Chi Minh City and accommodations there. But I didn’t want to completely waste my last day in Cambodia, so at 1:30pm I decided I had better go out and see some sights.
I was slightly nervous that Andy (my tuk-tuk driver from the day before) might be waiting for me outside—he had stepped inside and waved at me earlier, and the thought that he might be counting on me to provide him with a good-paying tuk-tuk job (when I really felt like walking) was making me a little anxious. Fortunately, when I exited the hostel not only was he nowhere to be seen, there were no tuk-tuks there at all. (As I mentioned, Andy has tuk-tuk number seventeen for my hostel—so there are at least seventeen tuk-tuks that could be waiting there at any given time.)
I decided to make the most of my freedom and walk around the city. I was really starting to get the feel of it. Instead of avoiding eye contact with people, I looked at everyone and smiled. I still shook my head when they offered me rides, food, clothes, etc., but I did it with a positive attitude.
I saw some street signs pointing towards the Independence Monument—Phnom Penh’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe, only, somewhat ironically, it celebrates Cambodia’s freedom from France—and decided to walk there. I found myself humming “Aux Champs-Elysees” as I walked, because it really did feel a bit like walking towards the Arc de Triomphe. There were government buildings on either side (including the busy folks at the Ministry of Corruption).
I was struck by the number of portraits of the king. There are a lot of pictures of the royal family in Thailand, but they are not usually three feet high and on the outside of buildings. Some of them were wreathed in black, which made me wonder if something had happened to the king, but then I remembered that black isn’t a funereal color in China, so maybe the black was just to show that he is a serious man. (I later asked a Cambodian who told me that the king had died in October. I felt really bad for not knowing that. Normally I would make sure to know that sort of thing before visiting a country—when I was in Argentina former president/first gent Nestor Kirchner had just died and I made a point to photograph the graffiti commemorating his life. I’m not sure if I even got a photo of the many images of the king (I wasn’t sure how the guards at all these buildings would feel about my taking one). The same Cambodian told me that king was loved by everyone.)
By the time I made it to the Independence Monument (which evokes Angkor Wat’s towers, only on a bigger scale) I was starving. I walked up and down streets looking for a restaurant that wasn’t totally empty (it was about 3:00pm), or of dubious cleanliness. When I was approaching desperate, I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with BB World, “Cambodia’s most well-known burger and fast food chain.” This, I had to try.
BB World was a large, welcoming space with high ceilings and an attractive spiral staircase leading to the second floor. The dominant color was red—red booths, red chairs, etc. It looked very much like an American fast food chain—only cleaner and with much better service. At the front were pictures of the various options (the burgers come with a tiny Cambodian flag stuck in them!). After they took my order and I paid, I was told to go wait at a table. Next to my table were sinks, soap, and paper towels for washing your hands. I was very impressed! (Unfortunately, the food was not so great. The fries were not tasty at all—and I don’t know what my burger was made of, but it definitely wasn’t beef.)
After I ate I wandered down one of the streets that flowed out from the Independence Monument. It was the nicest I had seen in Phnom Penh—it had several attractive stores (including a “Face Shop,” which I suspect is being sued for copyright infringement as we speak since it looks exactly like a Body Shop). There was even a Mango (international Spanish chain that I love but can’t afford in the US).
After I passed the Mango I noticed a sign for a salon that advertised waxing. I was immediately interested, since I learned long ago that I am hopeless at shaping my own eyebrows, which are probably my most prominent feature.
I was slightly nervous about letting people who couldn’t understand me change my appearance (I had a bad experience with a beauty school in Quebec ten years ago that left me with my first bob), but I figured with eyebrows, how bad could it really be? The worst thing they could do would be to make me look like Claudette Colbert, right?
Wrong! (This is an example of a literary technique known as “foreshadowing.”)
I walked into this place (called Hong Kong something-or-other), and an old man sitting next to the door greeted me and had me sit down in a chair in front of a mirror while he brought a young woman over. I explained (with some pointing) that I wanted my eyebrows waxed. There was conferring. Finally, she led me into a back corridor and up a dimly lit staircase into an even dimmer room with several narrow gurney-like things. A woman was lying on one having her face covered in some sort of goo by a very confident-looking woman. A much less confident woman was given me.
She indicated that I should lie down and relax while the wax heated up (I inferred most of this—nobody there could speak very good English), which I did. Eventually she came over and began touching my eyebrows in a way that felt reassuring—like she had done this before. Then she began pressing my right eyebrow so hard that it was painful. I actually wondered if she were using wax at all or some technique I wasn’t familiar with it. Then I felt her add a strip of cloth and pull it off. (You know something’s different when actually pulling the hair off doesn’t hurt nearly as much as putting the wax on. It felt as though she were trying to insert the wax into my skull.)
Then, all of a sudden, she was asking me a question. Did I want (points to top of eyebrow) and (points to bottom). I was confused. Was she asking if I wanted her to wax both the top and the bottom? It felt like she had already done both. I decided to look in a mirror to confirm.
I should pause for a moment to tell you that I don’t scare easily.
I looked like an alien. Or the victim of some type of horrific accident. Half of my right eyebrow was completely gone. A thin sliver that began halfway past my eye remained (and it wasn’t even neatly done). Photos don’t do it justice—you really have to see it in 3-D to see how bad it is (it made a grown man who had never seen me before shout “Holy shit!”)—but here you go anyway:
You’d be proud of me—I didn’t yell. I didn’t cry. I just said: “That’s really bad.” They indicated I should lie down again and I shook my head. I made them remove the remaining wax from my face while I stood up (towering over them, of course). I asked the woman who had done it if this was her first time, but she didn’t understand me. Then I politely walked out of the building, artfully arranging my bangs and wondering if I should get a haircut like Zooey Deschanel’s.
I decided not to let it break my stride. I wanted to see at least one more site in Phnom Penh. I followed signs to the Russian Market, but I found it to be too much for me (trash, chaos), so I decided to get a tuk-tuk and see something else. I had read in my guidebook that the silver pagoda with its emerald Buddha was the city’s top attraction (even though I had yet to find anyone who had heard of it), so I decided to try one more tuk-tuk driver. I found one who claimed to know what it was, but when we got to the right neighborhood (I was able to tell him it was near the royal palace) it became clear that he didn’t actually know. Then, when we discussed it more (“A wat with a big green Buddha?”), he realized that it was actually inside the palace grounds—which had just closed for the day. Since we had just driven through a beautiful neighborhood with some very attractive shops (which was quite unusual for Phnom Penh), I told him to let me out and I started walking, trying to find the streets we had walked down.
(Spoiler alert: I failed.)
Not that there was anything wrong with the neighborhoods I did walk through—they were more of what I was already used to. And walking is a slog in Phnom Penh because there are hardly any sidewalks; cars are parked on them, and motorbikes and tuk-tuks are whizzing by in the streets, so you have to hug the curb and pay close attention to what’s going on around you. Which I did for blocks and blocks and blocks. All with the handicap of being a one-browed freak.
Finally I headed back to the hostel to meet Stuart (who very nicely claimed that my eyebrow wasn’t that bad. I suggested he get his eyes checked) and go out to dinner with people from Couch Surfing. “People from Couch Surfing” turned out to be Dan, a Cambodian American guy from L.A. We ate at Chinese House, a gorgeous tapas place that I would never have been able to afford in the US (in Cambodia it was about $6-8 a dish and $5 a cocktail). We ended up shutting the place down. We got the waitresses’ life stories (one wants to go to fashion school but it’s very expensive. The other’s father lives in Lowell, MA—I promised to go eat at his restaurant when I go home. She immediately friended me on Facebook so we can keep in touch.) The waitresses asked where else I was going in Cambodia and I had to confess I was going to Vietnam the following day. It made me sad, actually. I wished I could tell them that I were going somewhere else in the country that they were obviously very proud of. Especially since I was really starting to feel at home in Phnom Penh.