“Hair Cut Aircon”, read the sign painted on the window of a Khmer barbershop-salon wedged shyly between retail shops on a block between the North Korean Embassy and the Asian Development Bank on Sihanouk Boulevard. Sweating from brow to toe, I was hooked by the lure of a cool breeze. The shop was small, with two only seats for customers wanting their locks sheared. One was taken by a middle-aged having his hair trimmed around the nape of his neck.
The menu offered hair cuts for US$2, hair straightening at $7 to $10, colour and highlights from $3 to $10 and a wash and a blow dry for $4.
But it was not the cheap prices that caught my attention – there on the menu sat an “ear clean” for $2. Having your ears cleaned is not an absurd treatment in Asia. In Japan, China, Thailand and Vietnam you can have your ears cleaned in hair salons, medical clinics or, if you’re brave enough, on the street. The experience is just as much about pleasure and relaxation as it is cleaning, and is sometimes included in the price of a hairstyle.
At $1 per ear, I decided to give it a go.
A lady in the shop ran out and returned two seconds later with a translator. “What would you like?” the stranger asked me. I asked for a hair cut and, drawn in part by curiosity and part by naivety, to have my ears cleaned. She translated my request to the hairdressers then rushed out of the shop.
The ear cleaning took place behind closed doors, in a darker room portioned off from the hair-cutting area. When the ear-tician laid her cleaning tools out under a bright lamp I quickly second guessed my decision. In the lot were spindly, twisted wires, which I later found out were called “wire loops”, cotton balls attached to long wires, called “down puffs”, ear picks used to scrape out wax, and to my horror razor blades. The language barrier, and my ignorance, left me discomforted.
The ear-tician seemed not to notice, reclining my chair and swiftly going to work.
She started with a razor blade, shaving my ears. I didn’t know whether this was a welcome or dangerous precedent: images of tough whisker-like re-growth flashed through my mind. I envisioned myself with “ear beards”.
Surprisingly, the feeling was sensational. The tingling went as far as my toes, and goose bumps popped up and down my arms and legs, as she lightly dragged the razor over my ear to sever the frizz. I felt relaxed and pleased.
The wire loop came next, I think. It was difficult to see due to my backward-lying position. Her technique was gentle, as she stuck the wire deep into my ear twisting it around the edges to scrape off wax. Despite the increasingly disconcerting feeling as the wire went deeper, I found myself enjoying this experience too.
The pain began with the down puff. The ear-tician jabbed the cotton-balled wire deep into my ear, swirling it around left, then right and then thrusting it into the centre. The grating caused me to squirm and fidget. All previous feelings of pleasure and relaxation dissipated, and I desperately wanted her to stop. Finally she did, and the built-up frustration caused by the swabbing and jabbing was eased as she covered each ear with one hand then tapped in different pressure spots.
When this finished, my ear-tician hopped out of her chair, cleaned her tools and disappeared. The entire process took about 15 minutes.
Ear cleaning done, it was time to succumb my locks, whose tips had become crusty and withered thanks to hot and humid conditions, to the scissors, or rather the razor blade. I decided on a trim only: the language barrier would have made it difficult to describe a style, and also – after the ear invasion – I did not trust them anymore.
After showing the young Cambodian barber how much to shear, he began the hacking. Within 10 minutes he was done. To my relief, my hair was a couple of inches shorter, just as I had asked and with no horror story attached.
After a trim and clean ears I felt lighter, refreshed and better equipped to tackle humid conditions. The only drawback was that the sound of the bleating traffic was a few decibels higher. Ear invasions make Phnom Penh noisier.