It's lunchtime on a sticky Monday and a friend watches on bemused as Tonle Bassac hairdresser Theara lathers and sculpts my hair into a huge, silvery Marie Antoinette-esque coiffure.
She’s spent almost half an hour vigorously scrubbing and massaging my scalp and a wave of shame washes over me—I fear my mane must be particularly grimy and greasy.
Two young Khmer customers with glossy, raven locks flank my sides, receiving the same robust hair wash.
“Don’t worry,” Theara reassures while kneading pressure point in my neck, “This is the Khmer style for hair washing, we do it differently here. The streets are so dirty and dusty—hair needs to be washed thoroughly. It’s relaxing though, yes?”
Near the corner of Street 294 and Sothearos Blvd, Vo’s Salon in Kabko Market, christened in honour of the store’s previous owner, is wedged between pharmacies and kitsch Khmer wedding dress boutiques and is indeed an agreeable place to while away a two hour lunch break.
Open for less than five hours on this particular Monday, all eight swivel chairs are now full and a handful of suited women sit cross-legged on the floor, patiently waiting for their turn.
According to Theara, who has owned the diminutive parlour for four years, preening and grooming at local salons has long been a ritual for Khmer women.
“Many, many women come to have their hair washed two or three times a week—it’s affordable and the women don’t wash their hair at home—they become lazy! It’s cheap and you get a massage,” she says.
“[The women] come here and talk about things perhaps they can’t at home or feel embarrassed about in front of their friends…sometimes they will discuss the news, although most want to gossip about Chinese romance movies.”
Theara has up to 25 clients file through her doors over weekends and says that during the week she sees around five to 10 people a day.
A wash and blow-dry hair scrub for around 20 minutes costs a mere $2, to have it styled is an extra $2, a wash and straighten is $5, while a manicure will set you back all of $2.
“We wash hair very differently—not in the sink with lots of shampoo, and more thoroughly. All Khmer people tend to do it this way. It’s the only way to get the hair clean enough here,” she says.
Thera says it’s a lucrative business for her—she pays $300 to rent the building and lives in a room upstairs—and one that makes her happy.
“The worst part of owning a salon in Cambodia is that it’s hard when it gets really busy, but that makes me happy too,” she says. “It’s not hard having so many salons nearby; I think my salon is pretty popular and people tend to come back here.
Some come from quite far away, not just Tonle Bassac. I think they must like me, they become close friends. No men ever come to the salon—beauty and grooming is very much separated in Cambodia, they will only go to a barber.”
She says she’s seen an increase in expat clients over the last few years, although “barang hair” was harder to style.
“It’s a different texture to Khmer hair, which is very soft,” she says.
Prices for preening and pampering plummet even further at Phnom Penh’s plastic stool Psar salons.
Under the canopy of Psar Kandal’s food and fruit stalls, cramped nail bars and hair basins are sprinkled between fortune tellers, noodle bowls and coffee vendors.
Typically, a wash and dry will cost one dollar and we’re quoted just 2000 riel for a pedicure by manicurist Srey Pov.
The heady mix of Acetone and raw meat fumes lingers in the air and I don’t know how enticing the “one hour face massage” could really be in Psar Kandal.
But Ryan Taylor, owner of the capital’s swanky Dollhouse salon, says the beauty habits of local women differ enormously to those of most expats, who make up an enormous slice of his customer base, and market beauty stalls were all most could afford.
Many Khmer women choose to have their nails and hair styled on a daily basis, he says, and there was simply no way any could afford to sit in air conditioned salons and indulge in Brazilian keratin treatments, balayage colouring or GHD straightened locks that frequently, if at all.
“The beauty rituals of Khmer women are really, really different,” Taylor says.
“I notice on a daily basis, in the early mornings or evenings, they get their hair and makeup done at the markets, whereas this is something we only do on special occasions or for a function.
“The training is certainly different and these places don’t really stock what I would call professional colouring or product—but it’s shifting, we’re seeing some more internationally trained Khmer hair stylists and salons with good product sprouting up.
“I think as this changes the beauty habits inevitably will. Better products and services cost more and women will not be able to afford to go three times a week or daily.
Taylor said he witnessed a similar transformation of the beauty industry from 2004 in Ho Chi Minh City.
“It was the same in Vietnam and now they’re all trying to be like a Toni&Guy… As more money comes into this country, more people will travel and want to emulate what they see in Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok.
“I think some of the cheaper salons will survive and you need that, it’s a good thing, but overall it’s important that the products and services improve.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]