Losing it in Cambodia

Getting a haircut in Battambang is a good deal -- especially if you like getting more than you bargained for.

By Morrie Erickson
Published February 16, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

There must be a dozen reasons an American shouldn't get a haircut in Cambodia, but on a blazing afternoon with sweat pouring off me like the Johnstown flood and my traveler's growth beginning to look like Trigger's mane, I couldn't come up with even one.

So when I came across the Bangkok Hair Do Salon on one of the main drags in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city, I screwed up my courage and headed toward the door. First, though, I had to pick my way through traffic, dodging bell-dinging bicycles, buzzer-bleating motorcycles and klaxon-blasting trucks. After a week in Cambodia, I had heard every type of horn known to humanity, except the kind used in orchestras.

Once safely inside the shop, which was no larger than a one-car garage, I saw a strange scene: three women being fussed over by two female stylists on platform shoes wielding stainless steel scissors and pink combs, and a man with curly hair waving a blow dryer that looked like something out of "Star Wars." Looking somewhere between bored and hypnotized, five other women propped themselves up on their elbows as they stood around apparently waiting for customers of their own.

Suddenly, as if choreographed by an unseen director, the clipping stopped, Curly's blow dryer screamed hot air toward the ceiling, and all 11 heads swiveled in my direction, gaping as though Cambodia's King Sihanouk had just walked in wearing knickers.

"How much for a haircut?" I asked in English to no one in particular, my eyes finally settling on the first leaner to move, her puffed-up lips smeared with lipstick red as fire. The woman, Red Lips, pressed her palms against the front counter, where goods ranging from toothpaste to earrings to motor oil were on display, and said something I didn't understand in her native Khmer.

I fished in my pocket for some riel -- the depressed Cambodian currency that hovered somewhere around 3,500 riel to one U.S. dollar -- showed Red Lips a few bills, ran two fingers through my hair impersonating scissors and shrugged my shoulders. She smiled, then tapped the keys of a calculator and turned it toward me. It read 3,000.

She had to be joking. Three thousand riel is about 85 cents. "Riel," I said, just to make sure, pointing at the calculator. I didn't have $3,000 on me. She nodded.

In Southeast Asia, every price is negotiated. It's a part of daily life. You bargain for breakfast in the morning and for a ride across town in the afternoon. You wrangle with the boys selling newspapers on the corner, receptionists when booking a hotel, merchants when buying sarongs in the market. Prices are always up for grabs. But this time, I decided not to haggle.

"OK," I said. For all I knew, the going rate was a quarter. But, if it was, her poker face was a good one.

Whatever money the Bangkok Hair Do Salon was making, they hadn't put any of it in padded seats that can change height and spin around like those used by stylists and barbers in the States. Instead, I squirmed into a rock-hard plastic chair, similar to the ones on my deck back home. Both rows of customer chairs faced wall-to-wall mirrors, below which stood aerosol canisters, jars of creams and powders, bottles of colored liquids and an assortment of hair-cutting instruments, all on narrow shelves that looked like they hadn't been dusted since Nixon's first term. Above the mirrors, styling choices were depicted in color posters. All the models were Asian women with long black hair coiled atop their heads in unusual configurations, then knotted here and there with flashy bows and ribbons. Maybe men weren't supposed to come in here.

Red Lips barked out something in Khmer to one of the older women standing around, who then walked over to my chair about as enthusiastically as an inmate
stepping into the gas chamber. She gave me the once-over, spread her feet,
parked her hands on her hips, frowned, wrinkled her nose and shook her head no. She then retreated, lowered a broom to the floor and threatened a few hair clippings
with it.

Next up was the youngest-looking stylist, who on a dark night might have been
able to pass for 18. Stricken with the giggles, she was slim and
dressed like she had to rush off to a Madonna look-alike contest right after
work. Red Lips waved Giggles over, chattered rapid-fire, then ran Giggles'
fingers through my hair, like clippers. The leaners came off their elbows
with horse-laughs. Giggles looked like she might wet herself, then scurried
off to a far corner, covering her mouth with her hand like an adolescent at a
middle school dance.

By now, Curly glanced over, so Red Lips gave him "the look." He nodded OK. As a sort of reconnaissance, I watched Curly in the mirror as he stewed over his customer. He worked with flair and, unlike most Cambodian men, dressed stylishly young-American, as though he worshipped at MTV's alter. Repeatedly, he rolled a spiked cylinder into the black thicket above his customer's forehead, misted it with an atomizer, sprayed it with aerosol that smelled like mosquito repellent, then shaped the glistening mass into a tube the size of a small drainage pipe. Working counterclockwise, he clamped a few wads of hair, allowed them to stiffen, then nimbly removed the clips before pronouncing his customer finished by whipping off her protective apron with a flourish, cracking it like Zorro's whip.

Just then, a woman in her 30s walked in, with a half-slumbering, naked-below-the-waist baby riding on her hip. Strikingly attractive and surprisingly tall, she seemed the type who knows what she wants and usually gets it. She was followed by a well-developed girl who wore a 15-year-old version of the woman's face and sported a wide-brimmed hat about the size Eric "Hoss" Cartwright used to wear on "Bonanza."

Red Lips sprang into action. After a flurry of Khmer, she escorted the 15-year-old to the chair on my left. When she lifted her hat, enough hair to stuff a mattress cascaded down her back, dancing to a stop about a foot above the floor. That brought the leaners off their elbows again, as the 15-year-old's mother and Red Lips frumped, twirled and folded the teen's hair into imaginary creations. Curly came over with an apron tucked under his arm, smiled politely at the mother, played a little with the girl's hair and finally turned to me. He shook stray clippings off the apron like he was mad at it, then draped it around my neck.

It was time to talk length. He grabbed a handful of my hair, lifted it above
my ear, then turned up both palms: How short did I want it?
There was no sense in overdoing it, prices being what they were. So, I
pointed halfway up my ear, drew a line with my finger, then another on the
back of my neck, playing it safe a couple inches above my shoulders. About

Curly nodded. Then, he circled me with measured steps, studying my head, slowly massaging his chin with his thumb and forefinger and occasionally framing me with his hands and tilting the frame at odd angles. I wondered whether he intended to paint my portrait or cut my hair.

Finally, he reached for his atomizer, doused me with mist, then combed
out the day's snarls. Scissors came next. He worked his fingers feverishly,
starting on my right, lightly turning my head left to give him a better angle.
That put my eyes squarely on the 15-year-old waiting her turn.

About that time, things got confusing. The teen's mother bellowed orders like a
drill sergeant, prompting her to lift her blouse, exposing both breasts. I
hadn't expected that. I've been around the block a few times, but a semi-mature-looking 15-year-old whipping up her shirt in public is a new one
on me. I wasn't sure what to do. Turning away from the exposed breasts seemed to make the most sense, but when I traversed to the right, Curly twisted my head
back to the left like a ventriloquist aiming his dummy toward the audience.

Curly continued to snip. Everyone seemed bored. I wasn't, but was willing to pretend. Eyes riveted toward the breasts while I wracked my brain for boring thoughts. Usually, that's not difficult, but today boredom was alluding me. My brain was locked. If my cheeks weren't blushing, they were missing an opportunity. Suddenly, from behind, the teen's mother handed the baby to her, and she began nursing the child. Oh, my goodness! So, that was it. The 15-year-old was the mother!

By the time I recovered, Curly had worked his way well up my neck, clipping
considerably higher than I had intended. I glanced at the floor and saw a
pile of light-colored hair. Oh no.

"That's enough!" I barked, probably sounding frantic. He backed away abruptly and nodded, then inched forward to finish the left side. The teen's mother shifted her weight from foot to foot and frowned. Curly must have noticed her, so he turned me over to Giggles, who by now had settled down. She stripped off my apron, stretched a towel across my shoulders, and daubed white powder onto the back of my neck, making it sting. My pulse quickened when she repeatedly slapped an old-fashioned straight razor against a strop, then went to work. It was a dry shave, but she worked the blade confidently, slicing first my sideburns, then peeling the stubble off the back of my neck, even scraping fuzz off my ears.

She nicked me once near the end and then casually applied some white powder
with her finger. In the States, drawing
blood might have brought out surgical gloves and launched a frenzy of fist
waving, threatened lawsuits and angry denials. But, on a hot day in
Cambodia, it brought only a giggle and a grin.

I handed over my dollar, although Red Lips couldn't understand the extra
15 cents. "Think of it as a cover charge for the entertainment," I told
her, pressing into her palm the 500 riel she had tried to return. She

I left with my new haircut and headed back to the hotel. On the way I
passed another salon, and out of curiosity stepped inside. "How much for a haircut?" I asked a woman up front.
She reached for her calculator and tapped out 2,500 riel. About 70 cents.
"Thanks," I said, laughing. Red Lips did have a good poker face
after all.

Morrie Erickson

Morrie Erickson is a freelance writer.

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