Women in Cambodia just love dressing up. Heavily sequined outfits, intricate gold jewellery, heavy make up and elaborate hairdos are a must, on wedding days or any other special occasion. While we see heavy make up on Balinese brides and dancers only, the Cambodian woman has embraced it as her own as soon as there is something to celebrate. This comes as no surprise when you consider the ostentatiousness of the Khmer culture that stems from its roots as a sacred royal kingdom. Extravagant detail is everywhere.
The Khmer version of the kebaya is the highly embroidered av pak blouse worn with the sampot hol, the Khmer version of the sarong. In the 16th century the Nyonya style kebaya arrived as the Portuguese settled in the area. Nyonya or Peranakan style was infused with Indian, Portuguese and Arab influences, as seen in Singapore and Malaysia as well. Interestingly it wasn't until the 21st century that the Av Pak in its current style became a hit, after a tailor introduced it at a cultural show. It is now made by tailors across the country and worn by every Cambodian woman on special occasions.
I visit Orrusey Market in Phomh Penh on a regular basis, to buy trims, groceries, or take visitors. It's totally old school and you can get everything in this labyrinth....from coffee to spices, to kitchen appliances and plumbing, through to hair extensions and fashion. Find the stairs to the first floor, ignore the dirt, dodge the guys carrying huge bags on their shoulders, pass the lady selling bugs, and you will be rewarded with aisles and aisles of brightly coloured lace, dazzling gowns and busy tailors.
Although stylistically and geographically Cambodia is not far removed from either Singapore or Indonesia, their version of the kebaya is just that bit over the top to the western taste...