Cambodia’s fading history of hand-painted signs

As the country develops more quickly than seems technically possible, Cambodia’s landscape is increasingly filled with glitzy billboards for Korean products and commercial electronics ads. Even so, you’ll still find a dwindling numbers of traditional hand-painted signs all over the country.

A Cambodian hand-painted sign for a hairdresser.

Hand-painted signs still dot the streets of Phnom Penh.

Next month Cambodia Living Arts will open a new gallery and its debut exhibition, Living Cambodia through Signs opens December 4th at 6pm and features photographs by Sam Roberts of hand-painted signs in Kratie as well as some of the original signs. Photographs and original signs will be for sale, with all profits benefiting Cambodia Living Arts’ programs. Roberts has also recently released a book, Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie, which features more than 170 photographs of Cambodia’s hand-painted signs, as well as the stories of some of the men that paint them.

Cambodia Living Arts is a local non-profit organization that seeks to preserve historic Cambodian arts such as traditional performing arts and musical instruments and techniques that have become threatened since the Khmer Rouge era. (Be sure to catch their dance and music performances in front of Phnom Penh’s National Museum at 7pm Monday to Saturday). The hand-painted sign exhibition will run from December 4th through January 5th, 2013.

A hand-painted sign for dentist in Phnom Penh.

In Phnom Penh, a dentist advertises with a hand-painted sign.

Cambodia’s hand-painted signs are part of the country’s fading cultural heritage — many Cambodians seem to think that shiny and generic is preferable to the old-fashioned. In his book, Roberts documents signs replete with flying pigs, retro hairstyles and hand grenades, as well as many other mundanities that offer a window into Khmer life and culture, from ads for skin-whitening cream to intricate paintings of the Khmer language.

Roberts writes, “Cambodia is a country awash with hand-painted signs, but behind their quirky nature is a story entwined with the country’s own troubled history.”

If you’re in Phnom Penh, be sure to check out the show at Cambodia Living Arts, otherwise, have a look at Roberts’ book.

Hand-Painted Signs of Kratie by Sam Roberts is available on Amazon and Amazon UK in both paperback and digital formats for $19.95 and $3.99 respectively.

5 Responses to Cambodia’s fading history of hand-painted signs

    Lina says:

    Thanks, Sam! Do you happen to know the address of the new CLA gallery?

    Sam Roberts says:

    Thanks for the write up. The book will be available to buy at the exhibition for $15 and also from Monument Books for the same price. There will be a book launch at Monument Books on Wednesday, 5th December too. I maintain a blog about hand-painted signs in Cambodia in more general terms at

    Lina says:

    Ha! Yes, I have seen those, too. Another reason why hand-painted signs are superior. :)

    Running Amok says:

    A friend of mine opened a bar and he went through a regular sign company. They included the dimensions of the sign … on the sign. Like they saw 5 x 4 or whatever it was on the design drawing and kept it on the actual sign. They must be a popular company though, because if you pay attention as you go around town you’ll notice a LOT of places who have their signs dimensions printed in the lower corner of their sign. Not a one time mistake apparently.

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