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Cambodia art and culture:

Sugar Talks? Stories worth listening to? Really? Put on by Sugar Spa – the place that does waxing, lashes, hair, and other ‘girlie’ stuff?  You might cringe with the mental pictures that immediately dance around the head and scoff it off – but you’d be wrong.

The congruence is strangely perfect. Culture and community depend on each other.  Historically throughout much of the world, these essential conversations go on in barbershops and beauty salons – especially in marginalized segments of societies and developing nations. Now, this historical role is being studied and implemented across the world. Sugar Spa in Siem Reap just decided to take you out from under the hairdryer or the shaving blade and sit you down with all kinds of other folks to listen to why and how people are moving Cambodian culture and arts forward. And it works. Every Sugar Talk is well attended and gives their guest speakers 10 minutes each to share the story of what they are doing and why it is important.

Sugar Spa’s guests for September’s programming were Seyma Thorn,  the artistic production manager and co-founder of The Khmer Magic Music Bus that is part of the Cambodian Living Arts who mesmerized her listeners with how music transformed her life; Leang Ngov, a Deaf Khmer-American who confidently shared the hard process of re-rooting for self-love and healing from inter-generational trauma (with the help of two ASL interpreters); Alyson Morrison, an English teacher from the UK who used her vulnerability as her strength in sharing her  pride in creating a teacher-training program for Cambodia; Wath Saw, Founder of ‘To Asia Travel Co‘, who commanded our attention with his humor and bold honesty to share his story of how he was the first person in his village to graduate from high school and build a business to share the real Cambodia with foreigners; Terry MciIkenny who co-founded TRIBE Cambodia gallery who pointedly illustrated the importance of art and discussed their mission to support emerging Khmer artists; and an energtic and charismatic Katey Lippitt, Program Coordinator for Kids Play International which utilizes sports to promote gender equity in genocide affected countries.  The space was packed and the stories were heartfelt, authentic, informative and crucial to creating culture and community.

Not bad for a beauty salon, right?

Here’s why it’s both historical and essential. UNESCO finally stated the obvious when they pushed governments to embrace cultural policies whose chief elements of human development is the social and cultural fulfillment of the individual. Governments cannot determine the culture of a people, they are partly determined by the culture its citizenry decides to address. If a government is to have a positive influence it must explicitly contemplate the private sector and the cultural activities of individuals. It is the willingness of neighborhoods and localities to create high levels of cultural engagement that are most likely to become economically and ethnically diverse. They provide a means for learning and creative expression, allowing a community a constructive way to give voice to issues that may be controversial or divisive.

If you are raising your eyebrows and assuming an expat-owned beauty spa cannot or should not participate in such community conversations in a Khmer culture it would be advantageous to read the growing academic and social studies being done worldwide exploring how these small enterprises are providing an important venue for education, safe sharing of personal stories and community development. They are the locations of open debates, voicing public concerns, and engaging citizens in discussions about contemporary issues – whether in an inner-city, cosmopolitan posh neighborhood or rural village.

It is beyond the purpose of this article to review the robust and growing literature on beauty salons and barbershops as intervention settings, health promotion and places to create dialogue within a community – but employing community building tools are now part of the international discussion in the industry and regardless of where they are located or who they cater to, they are all echoing and studying the role that African-American barbershops and beauty spas have played since the 19th century.

The tagline for Sugar Talks is ‘stories worth listening to” – and they are. The storytellers can be hesitant, afraid and often emotional as they share their stories publicly but they all seem confident and triumphant after doing so.

Elie Wiesel, the  Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor once said, “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” When we tell our stories, we give our struggles a name and a face and we invite the listeners into our lives.

To construct a story of our lives is to make meaning of it. To compose memory, emotion and internal experience, as well as autobiographical facts into a story helps us become who we are.  The power of telling your story allows you to transform the foreign into the familiar—making the unspeakable, speakable. Your narrative (and yours alone) can bring you awareness, closure and open new windows.

Applaud Sugar Spa. Methinks they know they are doing more than just telling stories.





How does it work?
Local members of our community volunteer themselves to tell a true, 10-minute story about themselves on stage. Notes are not allowed and each storyteller just gets to tell one story at Sugar Talks.

If you have a story to tell for one of the themes this season, you can submit your story through email on

The volunteers that make up the storyboard will meet with you to hear your story in person. Together, we can go through your story and give you help to structure it. That’s a great chance to get even more feedback on your story and make any final tweaks before the show.

What makes a good story?
Every story is different, but here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Structure: Your story is unique, but nearly every great story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, all of which relate to each other. You should be able to identify those three parts in your own story.
  • Stakes: The audience gets invested when what’s happening in the story really matters to you. What did you have to lose or gain?
  • Timing: 10 minutes is short, and it doesn’t accommodate every type of story. Stories about well-defined events in which you know every detail translate well. Stories that span multiple years, much less a lifetime, can be very difficult or impossible to pare down into a 10-minute story and still keep the details that we all want to hear about. If your story is too broad, try picking one event or part of your story that best illustrates the point you’re trying to make, and think about just telling that portion.
  • A strong ending You’ll see or hear a warning from the hosts at five minutes into your story when you have two minutes left. Be prepared for your ending, but avoid wrapping up with a “the moral of the story is….” Instead, finish your story in the same way you began, with a final fact that signals the end to your audience.

The website for “The Moth,” a similar event where people tell true stories in front of a live audience, includes more valuable tips.

Can I help?
Our logistical needs are constantly changing, but the one thing we always need is help finding stories. If you have access to unique communities or are willing to coerce your friends (or strangers) into telling their best story, please e-mail us at

The home of international-standard beauty services in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Sugar Spa Siem Reap is a social enterprise offering professional hygienic, quality technical & luxury spa and beauty therapies. We provide employment to vulnerable women, supervised and trained by our experienced local and international beauty team.

Sugar Spa

Images courtesy of Sugar Spa