As the local barber in Kampong Thom sharpens his razor, ouk enthusiasts sharpen their wits with a few rounds of the Cambodian version of chess
Closer to a hybrid of checkers and chess, there is a volatility to it. Less strategy, more gun-slinging."
IT is one of those moments in provincial Cambodia when appearances and reality part company.
This squat barbershop in Kampong Thom is, by all appearances, merely that.
An open structure set into the side of the harried Kampong Thom Market, its only furnishings are a rickety chair facing a mirror and three plank benches.
And it is these benches which provide a clue that there is more to this barbershop than scissors, razors and hair-covered gowns.
This modest Kampong Thom barbershop has an alternate life as a chess hall of renown, where serious men play serious – one might even say cutthroat – chess.
It is this pursuit that has brought me here, in an effort to learn the rudiments of Cambodian chess.
In Cambodia, chess isn’t often played in shaded parks or smoky coffee houses, but in barbershops.
My supposed tutor, Touch Makara, is late. We have an agreement that he will show me the game if I teach him some English. But at 7am on a Sunday, it seems punctuality isn’t a concern. The barber Chou Sokha and I are alone in his shop.
All around, the town awakens. A woman squats with a wooden spoon and hammers pinkie-sized fish into a paste. Mopeds cough to life as their riders light their first cigarettes of the day.
It is nearly 8am when I look up to see a sleepy-eyed Touch. I met the 20-year-old the day before, while he was drunk off palm wine and I was trying to unravel the intricacies of a game that, though it resembles European chess, is most assuredly not.
The rules for ouk, the Cambodian version of the game, are, unsurprisingly, same same but different. Closer to a hybrid of checkers and chess, there is a volatility to ouk, with less strategy and more gun-slinging.
The origins of ouk can be traced back to 800 AD, when a version of chess was imported from India or China. Both Angkor Wat and Prey Khan temple boast carvings which feature chess-playing.
As with chess, an ouk board has 64 squares, but only the rooks and knights move in the same manner, and the queen is the weakest piece – as it was in the earliest version of chess, before becoming the most powerful piece.
These differences in the movement of the pieces provide a much-needed excuse for my poor performance as I am pummelled by this half-awake Kampong Thom local.
“Ouk,” Touch says, which, I gather, means I am in checkmate. Touch stands the pieces up again and performs the same opening play.
Later in the morning, three cigarette-smoking men stand around to watch my game-play, but don’t remain spectators for long. One man sporting a toothy grin shakes his head at my play and, leaning over, takes control of my game. I’ve been benched.
The pace quickens with the addition of my ouk strategist. After each move, Touch musters his command of English to ensure I understand the proceedings.
“OK?” he says after hopping a knight.
“Yes. OK. Very good,” he says again, skipping a rook.
“OK, yes? Very good,” he says after no piece is moved at all.
Time meanders by, the hours easily lost in cigarette smoke and the sounds of chess as Chou quietly maintains his hairdressing equipment. The barber hasn’t played a single move or cut one strand of hair all morning. He watches the games or stands, arms crossed, staring out into the market.
It’s not until mid-morning that Chou has his first taker, a wiry, bespectacled man.
No conversation is exchanged between the two before Chou begins clipping. He does so lazily, working the scissors and humming to the radio.
My head hurts. I’ve played, or watched someone play for me, six consecutive games of ouk. It’s close to noon, and at lunch time in Cambodia, almost everything – including chess – stops. But as I get up to leave, the barber’s chair opens up and I notice my reflection’s somewhat shaggy hair and three-day scruff.
I ease into the seat, pay Chou the asking price of 3000 riels, and the barber starts snipping. I look into the mirror and see Touch sitting behind me.
“Yes. OK. Very good,” he says.