Hand-painted signs in Cambodia are a characteristic feature of the country’s streetscape. They were all but obliterated during the Khmer Rouge era but made a big comeback following this, only to find themselves threatened again by printing and digital technologies.
The charming and quirky nature of these painted signs soon captivated me, and my journeys around the country were soon broken with stops to photograph the countless examples that I found there. They are not just visually intriguing; they also provide insights into Cambodia’s culture and history. Here I share some of my favourites and some of the stories they tell.
01. Pig restaurant
This sign from Kratie is advertising a spit roast pig restaurant. I always imagined the pig to be flying, sensibly away from the restaurant...
02. 'Please hand your weapons in to the local authorities'
A reminder that until the early 1990s widespread violence was still commonplace in Cambodia. Since this photo was taken in early 2012 the sign has been taken down, perhaps an optimistic sign that things have changed.
03. Kratie restaurant
This sign is in Kratie, my hometown for two years and a small provincial town set on the mighty Mekong River. White rabbits are a symbol of good luck in Cambodia, hence these two involved in table service at this restaurant.
04. Dog meat
“Special meat for sale” says this sign, a euphemism for dog meat - as in dog meat for you to eat, rather than meat for your dog.
05. Skin whitening
Among the many more familiar services listed at this beauty salon is skin whitening. While those in my home of London pay for tanning services, those in South East Asia are attempting the opposite alteration to appearance.
06. Bull mating service
Cambodia is predominantly an agricultural society. This sign reflects that and is advertising the mating services of a pedigree bull. The price? 40,000 riel which is about US$10 a mating.
07. Electric repairs
This is a rare two-for-one sign, noteworthy because the electrical repairman advertising with the top portion has pointed out, in brackets, that he has a disability.
This sign is typical of those advertising dentists. The communications strategy is an interesting one, focused on the pain of treatment rather than any benefit resulting from it.
08. Barber shop
A typical barber's sign and, as with the dentist, imagery that depicts the process rather than the result of a visit.
One of Cambodia’s major exports in garments. While the major factories serving international markets are centred in Phnom Penh there is evidence, in the form of signs like this in Kratie, of tailoring happening all over the country.
10. Electrical shop
The use of an image in the TV is very typical among signs for electrical sales and repair shops.
11. Fisherman warning
This sign warns fishermen against using certain types of net in the Mekong River. The sign is found in the small town of Sambour which is close to the home of the critically endangered freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphin. Conservation and public awareness signs like this are found all over Cambodia, aiming to address the social and environmental problems faced by the country.
12. Barber shop
Another barber's sign, this one focusing on a good looking young man with a trendy haircut.
13. Retro shop sign
This retro sign was difficult to spot as it was hidden behind a modern hoarding. The women are straight out of a Bond movie.
This mechanic in Phnom Penh has made full use of the starburst effect on his fascia sign.
15. Anti-drugs campaign
This social awareness sign from Battambang province warns against the perils of drug use and its impact on others.
16. Wedding catering
This roadside sign is advertising wedding catering services. As in all places, weddings are big business in Cambodia with most couples outsourcing most of the organisation to companies specially set up to do so.
This sign is advertising a musician/band for hire for all kinds of events such as weddings and house warming parties.
18. Copyright infringement
I wonder if David Beckham’s brand management team cleared this sign?
19. Barber shop
This barber's sign is drawn with permanent marker onto a white board, perhaps a local businessman innovating due to lack of budget to get a proper painted sign...
20. Beauty salon
While most beauty salon signs depict slim women, this one has gone for the market for larger ladies requiring their services.
Words: Sam Roberts
Sam Roberts is a painted sign enthusiast whose first book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie (opens in new tab), about Cambodia’s hand-painted signs is available to buy in print and digital formats.