Cosmetic surgery in Cambodia

by AFP/Kounila Keo, Jun 18, 2009 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

PHNOM PENH, April 3, 2009 - Phorn Lisa isn't just prepared to go under the knife for a new nose -- she's willing to risk her health.

"I’m very afraid, but ready for it," said the 25-year-old at a prominent cosmetic surgery clinic in Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh.

"I want to have a beautiful sharp nose because I’m not satisfied with my Cambodian big nose."

Despite the global economic downturn, health experts say the business of cosmetic surgery in Cambodia has doubled, or even tripled in recent years.

Davy Ariya, the owner of a clinic in the capital, says clients include wealthy Cambodians as well as "medical tourists" from the US, France and Australia.

"They mostly come for nose jobs, silicon implants, breast enlargements and scar revisions," Ariya said.

A nose job usually takes less than half an hour at Ariya's clinic and costs 280 to 600 dollars, depending on the quality of materials used in the operation.

Breast enlargements cost 1,500 to 1,700 dollars, a bargain compared to many countries even if it's nearly three times the average annual Cambodian income.

"Although it is seen as frivolous, the upsurge in the number of customers who come to me shows cosmetic surgery has become acceptable to Cambodian society," Ariya said.

Amid this surgical enhancement boom, many women are aiming for the what they perceive as the more delicate looks of popular Korean and Chinese film stars.

But even as operations become popular among the emerging middle class, Cambodia remains a country where laws are loosely enforced and many people calling themselves doctors have little training.

"Some people have gone to learn (surgery) in neighbouring countries for just several months. They come back and boast that they are skilled," said Sann Sary, head of the Ministry of Health's department of hospitals.

Cosmetic surgeons are required to register at Cambodia's health ministry and have proper qualifications, but most of them operate freely and illegally, he said.

"Some (illegal clinics) even go to great lengths to broadcast their clinics on television," Sann Sary said.

Veasna, 40, profoundly regrets the face lift she had at a cheap clinic -- and it is easy to see why. Her face is swollen and red, especially around the eyes.

"I've been in terrible pain," she said, visibly upset and awaiting corrective surgery. "But I want to look young and beautiful. Otherwise, my husband will run away with other girls."

Chhim Vattey, director of Phnom Penh's Samangkar Luxe Salon, employs a doctor trained in Japan who often corrects the mess left behind by poorly qualified surgeons.

After more than two decades, Chhim Vattey said she is surprised that so many Cambodians visit surgeons who are not properly licensed.

"Look out on the streets and you'll see scores of clinics mushrooming but without real qualification and skills," she says. "That's why I still have many patients who are victims of cosmetic surgery."

Reid Sheftall, an American plastic surgeon based in Phnom Penh, said he often fixes breasts or noses that have been put out of position, or tissue which has been damaged under too much tension.

"Some patients have had free silicone injected into their noses, faces, breasts and hands," Sheftall said.

"This is very dangerous because the silicone can migrate to other parts of the body and will form hard rubbery masses of scar tissue wherever it resides."

Despite those horror stories, the health ministry's Sann Sary said dubious surgical practices have continued in Cambodia's quest for beauty.

"We have advised (people) that to open cosmetic clinics legally, they must have an expert with qualification and years of experience," he said.

"That's because plastic surgery is a dangerous thing to do."

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