In a striking array of photos featuring two Apsara grandmothers, where elements of the modern blend seamlessly with the traditional, one figure stands out. Not just for her age, but for her embodiment of a cultural legacy that has endured for centuries.

At 104 years old, Granny Mao, may very well be the oldest living Apsara in Cambodia's long history. 

Her life, interwoven with threads of joy, tragedy, and resilience, now serves as a vivid tapestry that captivates and inspires.

The transformative journey of Cambodia's beloved grannies from life as scavengers to celebrated Apsaras is a narrative that was crafted by the visionary trio of Taing Huang Hao, Ken Bo, and Raphael Pech. They are the creators of the “FeelTheWarmth” campaign, a collaboration with the Cambodian Children’s Fund which marks the 20th anniversary of the organisation.

"We didn't intend to follow the 'Apsara make-up trend’. I enjoy capturing street scenes, as well as Apsara. Thus, the inception of our campaign,” explains well-known photographer Pech.

Dressed in the ornate gold ornaments and intricate patterns typical of an Apsara, Granny Mao's recent photo shoot has not only gone viral, but also sparked a widespread renaissance of interest in Cambodia's cultural roots among the younger generations. 

"Granny Mao", at 104 years old, was photographed in the traditional attire of a Cambodian Apsara. The photographer says he was honoured to get the chance to capture her resilient spirit and share the poignant images with the world. Cambodia_streetwise

“The creative shoot for these two beautiful grannies was planned before the trend started. It was just that the date of our shoot and peak popularity of the trend happened at the same time,” Pech tells The Post.

“We decided to incorporate it to showcase the energy and joy of the grannies,” says Pech, who runs the popular Facebook account Cambodia_streetwise.  

Hem Len, CCF campaign coordinator, explained that the two women were chosen because they have positive, confident personalities despite difficult backgrounds. 

“The project is to celebrate women and particularly older women for Mother’s Day, which is May 12 in Cambodia this year. They were selected to represent older women in Cambodia and the role they play in Khmer culture,” she tells The Post. 

Huang Hao, founder of food drive initiative Local4Local, notes that CCF is an NGO which is dedicated to supporting children and the elderly. He said they collaborated with the NGO because they wanted to contribute to supporting their cause.

"We are not a company but a collective of Cambodian creatives on a mission to uplift Cambodian tourism by highlighting the 3Ps - People, Place, and Plate," Huang Hao tells The Post.

Their initiative, FeelTheWarmth, aims to shine a spotlight on the indomitable spirit and cultural significance of these women. 

"It's a creative-led movement telling stories about Cambodia that go beyond stones and skulls," says Huang Hoa who launched Local4Local in April 2020, with the intention of supporting elderly cyclo drivers and families living on the streets.

At 104, Granny Mao is renowned for her joyfulness and resilience. Surviving the Khmer Rouge regime's horrors—losing her husband and six children—she persevered, raising her four remaining children. 

Each wrinkle on her face tells a story of the decades gone by, from surviving the harrowing years of Democratic Kampuchea to her current life, where she finds solace and support through the CCF.

With no relatives left, she scraped by as a scavenger at Steung Meanchey, collecting plastic bottles for recycling. Now part of the CCF Granny Program, she enjoys a more comfortable life in Phnom Penh.

As CCF's oldest member, she is the most venerable of the CCF Apsara Grannies.

Another elder stateswoman, her Apsara sister, Granny Raksa – a septuagenarian at 79 years young – embodies warmth and generosity, and is often seen sharing food with her community.

"Granny Raksa, the younger of the pair at just 79, was also pleased to recapture part of her youth and act as a link to the ancient culture of the Khmer people. Cambodia_streetwise

She radiates the elegance and dignity of Cambodia's cherished Apsara heritage in a stunning portrait that captures more than just her age. 

Dressed in traditional regalia, her attire is adorned with intricate golden jewellery and an elaborate headdress that symbolises the rich cultural tapestry of Cambodia. 

Her expressive pose and joyful demeanour bring to life the spirit of a bygone era.

A mentor in the CCF’s Girls2Grannies Program, she's adored as lok yiey (Khmer for Granny) by the girls she guides. 

Also a survivor of the Pol Pot years, she too faced immense losses and struggled with depression. Now, finding solace in weekly Buddhist blessings, Granny Raksa's joy at her current life shines through, symbolising the Kingdom’s spirit of resilience and hope.

The photographs of the Apsara Grannies went viral, earning more than 16,000 shares in less than 24 hours of being posted.

According to the organisers, the spirit and energy of the grannies during the shoot was incredible, and with the support of the CCF, StudioKH and LPC Studio, the challenges were kept to a minimum. 

“We kept the shoot short and sweet to avoid any fatigue to the grannies. We hope this video and pictures will put smiles on faces and touch the hearts of Cambodians, says Huang Hao.

“Most importantly, we wanted to give the grannies an unforgettable and amazing experience and memory. This is just the start of our campaign – we hope to bring more content to uplift Cambodia,” he adds.