It’s been six weeks since my last haircut so I dropped by at my local barbershop for a trim. I picked this establishment because it looked down-to-earth, with no frills. After investigating the fancy Burmese salons showing illustrations of swooping hairstyles last month, I decided a elderly Thai barber was more my style. I took this photograph while I was waiting, sitting in a sunken leather chair with no arm rests.
The television was blaring out daytime Thai entertainment. Above the set, there was a photograph of David Beckham, sporting a “fin” hairstyle from about ten years ago, when he was being sponsored by Brylcreem. On the floor, there was a grass brush and a beer can. The price list on the wall suggested that whatever cut you got, it cost 60baht (£1.20). I assumed that the 180baht option was for full body depilation, or the Thai version of a Brazilian for chaps. I didn’t want to go there.
The barber’s chair was superb. Red leather, with stainless steel superstructure. It swivelled around and could be tilted to the horizontal, just like in Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber of Fleet Street. There was a bewildering array of instruments on the counter below the mirror. Tools to scrape out earwax, different versions of cut-throat razors, ancient scissors, clippers and shears. Under the counter were several drawers containing powders, creams, spare blades, shaving brushes and talcum powder. Perhaps even something for the weekend.
I was surprised to see a framed newspaper article featuring my chosen barber fixed to the wall on my left. The paper was yellow, faded and fly-blown, but it clearly showed “my man” in action with comb and scissors, probably from a decade ago. Perhaps the Mae Sot Daily News had a regular column on hairdressers, and this was his fifteen column centimetres of fame. But I like to think that, in his day, he had been a star, a real player worthy of note.
When it was my turn, the barber asked me what I wanted. Not knowing the Thai for “short back and sides”, I just motioned to my hair, and he seemed to understand. See how easy it is for us blokes, ladies? I didn’t even bother pointing to Beckham’s portrait and then to my head. He tucked a towel around my neck rather more tightly than was necessary, and shook out a yellow cape over my body, tucking it in firmly. I looked in the mirror and noticed for the first time how thick his glasses were. These glasses were like the spectacles that people used to get after having cataract surgery when they didn’t replace the cloudy lenses with plastic ones. Too late now, I was trapped.
He started off conventionally enough clipping the back and sides, but then he started mixing some shaving soap and applied it above my ears and around my neck. He used an open razor to define the edge of my hairline. He strimmed my
eyebrows and ears, then cranked the chair into a horizontal position. Now I’m taller than most Thais, so my head was hanging over the back of the headrest, even with it extended. He left me in suspense while he brought a scented cold towel to drape over my face. This was it, I thought, the ear-to-ear slash with the razor. But no, he started giving me a massage.
The massage was mainly around my neck and shoulders, but also down to my forearms and hands. He obviously realised how tense my neck muscles were, holding my head up, so he gave them a few gentle karate chops. Then I was cranked back to the vertical, and he used the cool scented towel to give my whole head a gentle rub down. That’s it, I thought, but the next stage was a wet shave. With cold shaving soap. And a dull, cut-throat razor. Rasping.
Now when I shave, I tighten the skin of my face to get a smooth, taught surface to scrape. The barber was stretching the skin of my cheeks to get this effect, but what about my upper lip? I decided to help him by stretching my upper lip over my teeth, my tapir impersonation. Goodness knows what he thought, he just kept on scraping. Finally, it was over. I paid him £1.20, gave his apricot poodle, tethered to the table leg by its leader, a friendly pat and left feeling a new man.
Next time, I’m going to Tesco, for a Vidal Sassoon Experience, at four times the price, that I’d enjoyed in January.