As the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia was departing in 1993, street-side barber Bunhean Khem arrived in Phnom Penh with a pair of scissors and a comb, figuring the capital offered more opportunities to make a living than his village in Svay Rieng province did. After a year snipping locks near Norodom Boulevard he shifted to his current spot on Street 294 near Kabko market.
“The street wasn’t even paved then, it was really bumpy and whirls of dust appeared when a vehicle went by,” he recalls. The iconic Bassac building was the tallest one in the area, there were few houses and most of them were small. “A lot of people came in the morning to buy vegetables and fish at Kabko market, but afternoons were quiet until about 10 years ago when the neighbourhood began to boom,” Khem says. Small houses were replaced by mansions and multi-floored shop houses and businesses that required men to wear suits proliferated. When electricity became more accessible, Khem invested in clippers and a cord, which he plugged in to a neighour’s home.
His business began thriving, with customers lining up some days for haircuts that take 15 to 20 minutes each “depending on how big the head is”. Overhead is low. Khem pays no rent, and requires just two chairs, a mirror, scissors, clippers, a couple of combs and a brush. His only advertising is a sign that reads “5,000 riel” on the mirror hanging on the concrete wall.
Khmer has no formal training and first began cutting hair under the Khmer Rouge. “I was just told to do it,” he says, adding that the style was uniform and simple. “I had never cut hair before. The cadres said ‘just cut, don’t worry about beauty’.” He was assigned to cut children’s hair and it took him up to 50 minutes for one kid, he says.
Now, he’s swift, cautious and accomplished enough that most of his customers are repeat ones. “When somebody tells me to cut a particular hairstyle, I can do it right away. I don’t have problem at all,” he says, adding that he keeps abreast of the latest styles by keeping an eye on teenagers.
He’s busiest on weekends and before holidays, but business drops off a bit in the rainy season and during December and January when it is cool. “Maybe it is so cool, they want their hair long to keep their heads warm,” he suggests.
Khem charges foreigners the same price, but because he does not speak English he advises bringing a translator. Language barriers can spark style confrontations. “Once, I got a complaint from a foreigner. He didn’t like the style and he shouted, ‘If you don’t know how to cut hair, you shouldn’t be a barber.’ I think it was just a misunderstanding. Normally, they bring translators who explain the exact style,” he says. “I charge everyone the same price,” he adds.
Besides cutting hair, Khem also plays the tro, a traditional stringed instrument that is a bit like an elongated fiddle that rests on the knee rather than a shoulder. He plays at weddings and other celebrations, and when business is slow he plays on the street. Motodops and tuk tuk drivers, both old and young, often gather around to listen to his sometimes cheerful and often mournful melodies, which still strike a chord among those making a living on Street 294.