Friday, July 25, 2014
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Personal Journey: A hairy adventure on the Cambodian coast

The beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where "hair-threaders" ply their trade. (Kate Mottola)
The beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where "hair-threaders" ply their trade. (Kate Mottola)

Kompong Som, or Sihanoukville, is a coastal province in southwestern Cambodia along the Gulf of Thailand. Its beaches are frequented by affluent Cambodian city-dwellers and Western visitors on holiday. A classic depiction of the town reads like something out of an erotic novel, enticing audiences thither for an exotic island tryst.

Sihanoukville bears footprints of contemporary Western influence in a post-colonial country: an international-NGO, advertisements to teach English, hotel companies acquiring land, and KFC.

However, many forget to mention in postcards home the beggars. Without legs, they crawl along the beach wearing flip-flops on their hands; their cracked fingers grip tightly where their toes should rest. Somatic relics of the Vietnam War or survivors of Khmer Rouge torture, it doesn't matter. Their histories, like their bodies, have long been rejected and their voices silenced. It's a bizarre and gruesome reality to face so starkly, especially against the backdrop of a purported seashore paradise.

Bars line beaches where we sunbathe and libate. Women and girls (often mothers, daughters, and other family members) walk the sand, selling fruits and offering manicures, pedicures, massages, and hair threading. Every few minutes, you're approached and asked, "Lady, you want massa? You buy bracelet?" I'd never seen threading before. Unlike tweezing or hot wax, threading's the act of hair removal by way of a thin cotton piece of yarn; the yarn is twisted, then rolled over the hair (eyebrows, arms, legs), plucking rows at a time.

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  • During the day, I was clad mostly in my bathing suit. I don't shave my legs, and it's usually not very noticeable; but the girls combing for customers felt they'd stumbled upon a veritable goldmine. When they spotted me, they'd ask in loud and excited voices to thread my legs. They'd call to their friends and relatives, some of whom were in mid-manicure with other customers, to come take a gander at the crazy white lady with the fuzzy limbs. Suddenly, I found myself surrounded by young women all giggling and laughing and pointing. It was hilarious. What to do but laugh?

    The girls are excellent businesswomen; my refusal to be threaded was followed only by their hearty insistence, in addition to their complete and utter shock. Despite my rebuffs, they began unpacking all their threading equipment and speaking rapidly. The comedy continued as I was bombarded with offers for hair removal a dozen times in half as many minutes. The next thing I knew, other tourists began to plead on my behalf.

    "She doesn't want the threading," a nice lady chimed in with an elegant British accent.

    Another woman felt using hand signals might produce better results. "Stop," she cried, while choking back laughter and mouthing, "No threading!" Her arms waved wildly in a horizontal slicing motion across her chest, like a football referee vigorously denying a game-winning field goal.

    No matter the deterrents, the girls pushed harder.

    "But, lady, you never get boyfriend like that!"


    Kate Mottola writes from New Jersey.

    Did a travel experience move you, change you, or give you great memories? E-mail us how, in 500 words or fewer (include a photo, caption information, and daytime phone number): inquirer.travel@phillynews.com. Put "Personal Journey" in the subject line. If we publish your piece, we'll pay you $25. (Response volume prohibits our returning or acknowledging your submission.)

    Kate Mottola For The Inquirer
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