Finding Glam in the Street Salons of Southeast Asia

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Last Updated on June 19, 2012 by Christine Kaaloa

Street Salons southeast Asia
Street Salons southeast Asia

From Moroccan mendhi to Korean spasLaotian herbal saunas to cheap Thai massages, …each country has its own beauty rituals and every woman loves a little posh and pampering.  As a traveler,  I began to realize that I can experience some pretty unique beauty rewards for my miles. So I started a Glam around the World category on my blog.


When you’re backpacking solo, it’s easy to let your feminine wiles go to pot. I’ve given in to regimen of cold water baths (due to a lack of hot water), hoisted my pants up over my ankles for squat toilets, doused myself in a lemongrass oil ir?source=bk&t=grrrltraveler 20&bm id=default&l=ktl&linkId=47bbf02f306d35972d8d157d3bc4ce68& cb=1478601099805of scented mosquito repellent, lathered on sunscreen to keep from sunburn and I’ve often dug the dirt out from under my nails with anything, well,… pointed.

Months on the road, my travel style has gone from basic to downright nappy! Who’ll notice a week’s worth of un-plucked eyebrow hairs? Let it blend with the new tan. If that doesn’t work, just don’t let anyone get too close to stare at you.

It’s not difficult if you’re a solo traveler.


Getting your glam at Street Salons in Southeast Asia?

Spoiled with fish pedicures and inexpensive massage parlors (charging as low as $6 an hour), Southeast Asia is a wicked place for a traveler to luxuriate without splitting her wallet.  However, despite how inexpensive these services may seem to a traveler, these joints are mostly for tourists and well-to-do locals.


fish foot therapy thailand
(Above) Fish foot therapy in Thailandfish foot therapy   fish foot therapy   thai massages chiang mai Cheap Thai Massages in Chiang Mai  thai massages on streets in chiang mai (Above) Cheap massages offered on the street sidewalks of Chiang Mai   ;  (Below) Cheap massage salons in Luang Prabang, Laoslaos massages (Below) The inside of a massage parlor.
laos massages


Many local women coming from little (or no) income brackets, seldom frequent them.

Does this mean these women can’t get their glam or pampering on?


They’re just catching their loveliness from somewhere else…


What does a ‘real’ local beauty shop look like for the rest of Southeast Asia?

As a local, you can find nail or beauty salon stalls setup on streets, in alleyway shops and local market places. Women recline in plastic chairs or on stools to get their hair curled or to dangle their hands and feet in soup bowls for a good soak.

These shop stalls may not offer much upon first look, but ‘glamor’ is to be had when you file down the surface.

 thai beauty salonThai local beauty shops in Bangkok

beauty salons in southeast asiaWomen in Laos get manicures and pedicures on the street.

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Local nail salon booths in Central Market, Phnom Penh

Kampong Cham Market’ s local street salons

When I was visiting Kampong Cham Market, I came upon the beauty section, which consisted of a hair styling shop and three of rows of make-shift nail stalls.

I was hot, sweaty, strapped with a bulky DSLR camera and looking ‘travel nappy’, at best. The only thing that subtly reminded me of my femininity was the lemongrass oil I had put in my hair (a scent I like to wear as perfume, but is also known to drive away mosquitoes!).

To tell you the truth, these local salon stalls were something I’d been dying to try for a while and I was in dire need of a little on-the-road Rx glam!

beauty salon cambodia
(Above) The market’s hair salon shop;    southeast asian beauty salons        (Above) Kampong Cham Market’s Nail salon stallsIMG 759716   beauty salon stalls cambodiacustomers getting their nails done  cambodian nail salon


Undergoing my beauty transformation

Whether it’s a hair stylist or manicurist …all women go to their ‘favorites’.

A lovely 21 yr old manicurist, Psai, sat in her stall waiting for customers to arrive. Three empty stools lined her bare stall. Dressed in a jacket and long pants in 90 degree weather, she looked like a crazy teen waiting through winter. She obviously wasn’t as busy as neighboring manicurists, who were older, more experienced and better equipped to handle one, two… three customers.

Psai’s English wasn’t strong, so she spoke little. She stated her cost (approx. 50 cents). I agreed to her price and she pointed to her small stash of nail polish colors for me to choose. All the heads in the surrounding stalls turned to look.  The ‘tourist’ was taking a seat in the kid’s stall.

I chose a demur light pink.  So different from how my travels have molded me.

Psai started clipping and filing my nails, ever-so-often bringing my hands to close examination, while continuing to chat with her girlfriend in Khmer. White earbuds slung around her neck, hinted at her other conversation options. She clipped my thumbnail and held it up for a closer look; the cut looked visibly “off” and to an angle. She clipped the other thumbnail.  Same slanted result.

Maybe she’s got lop-sided vision? I thought.

Maybe this is the reason her stall is empty… or perhaps this is the rage of Khmer nail styles, just as ‘mismatched nail colors’ have replaced the ‘uniform’ color choice in South Korea.

For 50 cents, a flaw wouldn’t be the end of my world.

Psai took out a small red plastic soup bowl, filled it with water from an old plastic water bottle and pushed my fingers in. After a few of minutes of soaking, my fingers came out and she smoothed cuticle remover lightly over my nails. The tough and raised skin around my nails were carefully descaled with a clipper. Did I wonder whether her tools had been properly sanitized? Yeah but not really. The fact she was treating me carefully, it didn’t cross my mind, which in retrospect may not have been very wise. Anyways, it’s something to be mindful of in the future.

Then Psai applied the color and blew a little after each finish. When all coloring was done, she turned a small fan towards me to help the drying process. I waited.

Seven minutes passed. Done.

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manicure khmer
Best 50 cent manicure I’ve gotten (ps. that doesn’t include tip. Don’t forget to tip your manicurist !)

The Results:

How did my manicure experience compare to a nice nail salon in Thailand or a posh Seoul salon (like this)?
Was it posh? No, I obviously wasn’t offered tea nor was I surrounded by gentle music and air conditioning. I got a hard plastic stool and instant respite from the heat though, as I listened to the ongoing chatter of neighboring Khmer women and the distant sound of meat being chopped in the market stalls. Furthermore, it smelled of a marketplace blended with an overpowering nail acrylic smell … vs lavender-scented aromatherapy oils.

But for a simple soul like me, those stalls were an ideal place to get my glam on! Why?

It was still pampering.

Most women will agree that doing your own nails is completely different from having someone do them for you… whether you’re offered tea for your sitting or given a plastic soup bowl to soak your hands in!

Do local Southeast Asian women know how to get their glam on? Uh yeah, …they definitely do!


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