Beauty shops in Cambodia are filled with photographs of Western models. One Cambodian woman who opened a modeling school told Newsweek, “Girls here are used to caking on make up with no sense of style or beauty.”

White skin is regarded as a sign of wealth. Some women try to achieve this look by plastering themselves with what looks like layers of chalk.

In Cambodia there are signs that show the proper way to use a Western toilet. In the first picture there is a red X over the silhouette of a person squatting with their feet on the rim of the toilet bowl. A second picture has the silhouette of a person sitting properly on the toilet seat of the toilet.

Miss Landmine Beauty Pageant Banned in Cambodia

In August 2009, Thomas Bell wrote in The Telegraph, “The Cambodian government has banned a controversial Miss Landmine beauty pageant, claiming it is insulting to disabled people. Morten Traavik, a Norwegian artist who organised the pageant, said he believed there had been a "misunderstanding". He explained that the event aimed "to raise awareness of what landmines have done to the people" and said that it would be a "big shame" if people could not see the exhibition. [Source: Thomas Bell, The Telegraph, August 3, 2009]

"Why this situation comes now and not before two years of good relations, I do not know," said Mr Traavik. "I have requested a meeting with [the social affairs minister Ith Sam Heng] as soon as possible to try to correct the misunderstanding." As recently as last week the government expressed its support for Miss Landmine, despite banning other beauty contests. Along with Angola and Afghanistan, Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

"The land mine beauty contest would make a mockery of Cambodia's land mine victims," government spokesman Khieu Khanarith told AP. "The government does not support this contest." The Ministry of Social Affairs sent a letter to the pageant's organizers Friday informing them of the ban and saying the contest would damage "the dignity and honor of our disabled." contest was scheduled to be held this Friday. The Ministry of Social Affairs was supposed to be one of the pageant's partners, along with the Ministry of Women's Affairs and other groups, according to the pageant's Web site. [Source: AP, March 3, 2009]

The Miss Landmine site says the pageant's goal is to empower its participants and other disabled people and raise awareness about the dangers of land mines. The Web site shows photos of the 20 Cambodian contestants, all in crowns and dresses, with missing limbs. They range in age from 18 to 48. Organizer Morten Traavik said he was "disappointed" with the government's decision but would still hold the contest over the Internet and announce the winner on Dec. 31. "I am extremely disappointed with the government's decision," Traavik said. "I have tried to find a solution but we cannot reach an agreement." Traavik launched the first Miss Landmine pageant in Angola in 2007.

Clothing in Cambodia

The traditional Khmer costume consisted of a shirt or blouse and a skirt-like lower garment — sampot for women and sarong for men, a tube-shaped garment about a meter wide and as much as three meters in circumference. Made of cotton or of silk in many different styles and patterns, it is pulled on over the legs and fastened around the waist. On ceremonial occasions, elegant sampot as sarong, embroidered with gold or silver threads, may be worn with a long piece of material gathered at the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked into the waistband in back. Members of the urban middle and upper classes may wear Westernstyle clothing at work and more traditional clothing at home. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

At home both sexes wear the sampot and the sarong. In rural areas, working men and women may wear loose-fitting pants and shirts or blouses. Many men wear Western-style pants or shorts. A third essential part of Khmer dress is the krama, or long scarf, that is worn around the neck, over the shoulders, or wrapped turban-style around the head. Plaids are worn by men not women. School children wear Western-style clothing to school. The boys wear shirts and shorts; the girls wear skirts and blouses. *

The Khmer Rouge were noted for their unisex black "pajamas." Their typical garb was the peasant outfit of collarless black shirt — baggy trousers and checkered krama (a scarf knotted loosely about the neck).French anthropologist Marie Alexandrine Martin reported that the wearing of brightly colored clothing was prohibited under the Khmer Rouge and that women, young and old, wore black, dark blue, or maroon sampot with short-sleeved plain blouses. Women were forbidden to wear Western-style pants at any time. The conical hat characteristic of the Vietnamese has been adopted to a certain extent by Khmer in the provinces adjacent to Vietnam. *

Concerned about programming that showed "sexy young singers wearing short skirts," Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said, "If we all stopped broadcasting for two years, maybe young Cambodian girls will stop wearing short skirts and start wearing more traditional clothes."

Silk and Textiles in Cambodia

Cambodia is famous for its silk. Cambodian silk is similar to Thai silk but is slightly softer to the touch. Known for its bright colors and geometric, floral and animal ikat designs, Cambodian silk is made it into sarongs and other garments and also used to make wall hangings called pedan, works of art and items like purses and bean bags for children.

There are three main styles of Cambodian silk and cotton weaving: 1) silk sampot hol, a twill weaving with ikat floral and geometric designs created by dying patterns into the weft yarn before weaving (smaller more intricate designs are more expensive han larger ones); 2) pamung, solid-colored silk twills ; and 3) simple Cambodian weaving used in making sarongs and other everyday garments.

In the past men raised the silkworms, and women tie-dyed the yarns and wove them into ikat fabrics. Women gave up their looms when civil was started in 1970s and were forbidden from practicing the craft in the Khmer Rouge years. Silkworms died, natural dyes disappeared and women forget how to weave.

There are three important silk textiles in Cambodia: 1) ikat silks (chong kiet in Khmer), or hol; 2) twill-patterned silks; and 3) weft ikat textiles. Patterns are made by tying natural and synthetic fibers on the weft threads and then it is dyed. It is repeated for different colors until the patterns firm and cloth is woven. Traditionally, five colors are used: red, yellow, green, blue and black. The Sampot Hol is used as a lower garment and as the sampot chang kben. The Pidan Hol is used as a ceremonial hanging used for religious purposes. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Sot silk weaving has been an important part of Cambodia's cultural past. It has been documented that people from Takéo Province have woven silk since the Funan era and records, bas-relief and Zhou Daguan's report have shown that looms were used to weave sampots since ancient times. Since ancient times, women have learned highly complex methods and intricate patterns, one of which is the hol method. It involves dying patterns on silk before weaving. What remains unique to Cambodian weavers is the uneven twill technique, the reason remains unclear why they adopted such an unusual method. The ancient bas-reliefs however provides a complete look at how fabrics were like, down to patterns and pleats. Silk woven pieces are used as heirlooms, in weddings and funerals, and as decoration in temples.

Silk sampot hol and pamung were used primarily by nobility. A piece of naturally-dyed Cambodian silk large enough to make a dress costs about $50. A piece of high quality silk goes for about $100.

UNESCO has set a project in Takeo province to resurrect Cambodian silk making and sericulture. Kikuo Morimoto, a Japanese weaver and textile expert, has tried to resurrect Cambodian silk making the same way Jim Thompson did with Thai silk making in Thailand.

See Crafts


Cambodians wear a sarong-like garment called a “sampot” . The sampot is the national garment of Cambodia. The traditional dress is similar to those worn in the neighboring countries of Laos and Thailand, but variations do exist between the countries. The sampot dates back to the Funan era when a Cambodian king allegedly ordered the people of his kingdom to wear the sampot at the request of Chinese envoys.

There are many variations for the sampot, each is washed according to social class. The typical sampot, known also as the sarong is typically worn by men and women of lower class. It measures approximately one and a half meters and both ends are sewn together. It is tied to safely secure it on the waist.

Cambodian women wear mostly dark sampots and white blouses. In Phnom Penh traditional ankle-length sampots have gotten shorter over the years.

Krama - Khmer Scarf

Cambodians like to wear “kramas” (scarves also spelled kroma) wrapped in various ways around the neck, waist, shoulders and heads. There are reportedly eight proper ways in which a scarf can be worn. See Khmer Rouge

The krama is just like a narrow piece of cloth. Krama are sold in several different lengths. Traditionally regarded as a peasant garment, they have traditionally come in different colors that often had political associations. Red ones were associated with the Khmer Rouge. Yellow and red ones were worn by Hun Sen's troops during the 1997 coup so they wouldn't be confused with royalist troops that wore the same uniforms.

The Khmer scarf, woven from cotton or silk, has been a fashion staple since ancient times. While some claim the thin cloth, wrapped around one's head or neck, is used primarily to wipe the sweat from a hot face, others say wearing a kroma is as 'Khmer' as wearing a necktie is American.Srey Yar Savdy, head of the Buddhist Institute's Mores and Tradition Department in Phnom Penh said that the kroma has had a home in Cambodia since the first century reign of Preah Bath Hun Tean. It is not clear when exactly the kroma hit the streets, but it has been a symbol of the Khmer kingdom and its people ever since.

It is common to see Cambodian men and women with checked cotton krama cloth wrapped around their necks. "Nowadays, people are more particular and they like to have some quality instead of the less expensive kroma they used to use," said Channavy, the co-manager of a small weaving business. She said the demands of discerning customers have compelled her to prepare her loom with greater care in order to meticulously spin the cotton thread into a bobbin.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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