Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Close Shave At A Thai Barber Shop

A young Thai man gets his sideburns trimmed in the shop I visited

There's a saying I've used over the years about will power (or the lack of it) that goes "if you go to the barber shop often enough, eventually you're going to get your hair cut." Although I'd walked past a lot of barber shops on my first visit to Thailand years ago I was hesitant to go in with my limited Thai skills. Nevertheless, I'd passed them plenty of times, and eventually I went in.

This local shop is still there, but the barber I saw for a few years isn't - he opened his own shop on the other side of the Chao Phraya river.

I don't mean a fancy shop in a tourist area with the signage and price list in English, I mean a neighborhood shop, where the only familiar words would be brand names and where the prices next to the Thai script mean nothing. Still, I was curious, and when I saw the familiar cylindrical glass jar of blue "sterilizing" liquid in it - the same I'd grown up with while visiting the barber - I figured "why not?" and sat down in a row of chairs to wait my turn. It felt much like a neighborhood shop from my childhood: conversation between anyone inside (who spoke Thai), photos of discreetly seductive ladies on the wall and a TV with a sporting event on.

My regular barber knew two
words of English: my name,
and "okay"
Of course, short of using an autoclave or some other such device there is really no true sterilizing barbering tools, but I saw myself that they opened and clicked a new set of razor blades into the handle for the guy inside getting a shave and weren't re-using the same straight razor over and over.

When I arrived, one of the barbers was bent over a man in the window-side chair who had his head turned left ear up, and the barber (!) was doing something deep inside it.  Puzzled, I watched for a couple of minutes. Soon enough the barber stood upright, smiled and triumphantly held up a pair of fine tweezers. Between the tips of them was a flat, rounded piece of dark golden brown something that I soon realized was ear wax.

My friend later that day told me it was a common thing for some barbers to do such a procedure, and it was as safe as they were skilled; no more and no less.  I haven't tried that one yet. The man who'd had it removed shook his head a couple of times and gave the impression that his hearing was better, and seeing what came out of it I'm sure it was.

As it turned out, when the man who'd just had the haircut, shave and ear job done paid and left I was next up to sit in that same chair. I could see a price list in Thai and some numbers, and some quick figuring let me know they were a pittance compared to prices back home. A cheap haircut in my neck of the woods is $12USD (about 360bt), but that's unusual... usually it's closer to $20. A haircut and a shave here was about $3USD.

I'd just started a walk from the Asia Hotel, which meant I had only showered a half hour before, so I didn't add the shampoo to the package, but I have since.  Not too many commercial places you can be fully pampered for less than $5USD.

Using all of the pantomiming skills I could muster I let the guy know how I wanted my hair cut and that I wanted a shave. He, in turn, mimed digging in my ear, but I smiled and politely let him know I wasn't interested in that today.  He shrugged his shoulders, draped a towel across my chest and fastened it behind my neck with a clip. He went about his work while humming quietly to himself, pausing a few times to look at the television in the "reception" area behind him when the other barber would hoot about the football game in progress.

The haircut was quick and just what I'd wanted. He handed me a mirror and turned the chair so I could see his handiwork.  I smiled and nodded as he leaned my chair back and tucked the towel up around my neck.  I confess I did look up to make sure he was putting a fresh blade into the shaver, but I don't think he noticed my distrust. I'll risk a few things while on holiday, but hepatitus C and HIV aren't among them.  I was needlessly worried, but I'm glad I looked.

The tiny brush you can see being used below on another man was filled with foam which he then spread on my cheeks and neck, as I'd expected. His touch was light, and he worked faster than some barbers do. What surprised me was that he also shaved the light fuzz from both my ear lobes and my forehead.  I've had lobes done before, but never my forehead.  When he was finished my entire face was as smooth as... well, as a baby's butt.

I'm sorry that I couldn't visit with the man, but just closing my eyes and relaxing for a while was really nice, too.  It wasn't as good as a nap, but it was nice. Did I mention he also did a five-minute neck and shoulder massage when he was finished? I should have.

Getting up I thanked him, swiped my face with my hand and smiled "smooth!" and he laughed behind his mask.  The girl behind the counter said "100 baht", and at that price I thanked her, too. I asked the barber for a picture, and he agreed. Now being spoiled I've visited the shop five or six more times each time I've been in the area, even if only to avoid shaving myself. I tipped him Bt20, but I didn't ever notice a Thai customer tipping them.

The shop is a couple of blocks behind the Asia Hotel at Ratchathewi, but the barber himself has opened his own place on the other side of the river. When I first noticed he was gone I ended up having a friend ask about him for me. The receptionist called him on his cell phone and he told my friend where he was. One of these days I'm going to find my way to his shop.

I've had good haircuts and decent shaves at other local spots in Thailand since then, but I've never found another "hole in the wall" place quite like it.  Still, I keep looking.

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