As I step from the tuk tuk and off the dusty street, a thin Cambodian male opens the enormous white doors, revealing a wide concrete sidewalk lined by two reflection pools of crystal clear water. Lily pads float in the oasis of calm, and for a moment I wonder if I’m in the right place.
Ahead, a pair of glass doors parts and I step a world of unknowns. I am instantly out of place, twitchingly uncomfortable, a bit lost. I am Ted Nugent at the New York Philharmonic; the Queen of England in an NFL locker room – like a little boy heading off to buy a football in a department store and finding himself in the lingerie department; disoriented yet intrigued, a bit frightened.
After being greeted, registered (I now have my own De Gran customer number so I won’t have to give them my name for future appointments. Thank goodness!) and am led to a seating area which I believe is close to the bathroom my wife says I simply must experience.
But I don’t have time for that, as Kenzo arrives on the scene. He’s soba-thin Japanese man with raven-black hair exploding from the center of the top of his head and rushing toward his shoulders. I think: this is terrible advertising for what is rumored to be an an amazing set of skills.
I am in what would qualify as Wonderland for most men – Salon De Gran of Phnom Penh. De Gran is the ultimate upscale hang cut sok (haircut store), which for most males in Cambodia is a street-side barber chair facing a mirror nailed to a wall. Pay more than a dollar for a haircut and you’re either rich or a fool.
Not so in this place. De Gran’s physical presence – an enormous white building of minimalist statement that might pass as a Mormon temple were it not for the shapely young women flitting about and tending to customers’ needs – sets it apart from the villas, storefront apartment buildings and street vendors who stream by its location on Street 352.
Curiosity – as well as an appointment with Kenzo – beckons me within.
I am led by a tractor beam of customer service, a sheep to the slaughter at the hands of a scissor-wielding maestro. A different young person leads me from one station to another, as if it’s obvious that I might get lost along the way and not show up for the big event.
How did I get myself into this mess?
This whole thing began when Kenzo spied Gabi while we were having dinner at a restaurant near our home last month. He hugged her and then shook my hand when she introduced us.
“Oh!” he exclaimed, pointing at my head and cementing the introduction as one of the weirdest of my life. “I can do something with that.”
So here I am.
First stop is for hair washing, tended to by a lovely young Cambodian woman assisted by two others, all of whom seem amused (bemused?) by the big baraing in an electric purple-checked shirt and tan shorts. I sit and am wrapped in a plastic drop cloth with purple designs on it.
The electric-powered chair in which I sit shockingly rises and the back collapses as my head flops into the sink to be washed, caressed, poked, pounded (gently) and rinsed. A scented cloth is draped over my eyes to provide soothing relief and, I suppose, prevent me from staring at the waif who’s working over my head.
I hear giggles from the nearby attendants. My hair-washing expert seems to use half the water in the Tonle Sap to clean my locks, but nary a drop is allowed to stray beyond its intended target and I emerge dry from the neck down.
Led from the washing station to the cutting chair, I am carefully draped once again and the chair swung into place by yet another staff member. Kenzo arrives on the scene like a man running for a subway, a belt strapped to his slim waist glistening with all kinds of scissors hair clips and other undefinable stuff.
He asks, in halting English, what kind of a cut I would like. He growls softly and responds to my clueless shrug by attacking my head with a vengeance, furiously combing and cutting with alarming speed.
He is Edward Scissorhands on crystal meth, a manic whiz of scissoring and flailing about as he works his way from the base of my skull to the top, then moves with a vengeance to the eastern and western flanks. Bits of hair which land on my nose, eyebrows and cheeks are deftly routed to the floor by a staff member standing by with a soft blue cloth.
I begin to worry about my ears and I think of my aging Italian barber back in Boston. Mario’s use of a straight edge razor would invariably become more of a concern as our conversations drifted towards controversial subjects. Once, I recall fearing for my scalp as he slashed away, angrily commenting on the plight of a Red Sox player who had been arrested for domestic battery.
“Dat somnabeetch!” Mario fumed as the razor sliced once again.
Kenzo is more of a silent assassin, and his scissors flash and dip towards my scalp. His right wrist contorts at an inhuman angle as he slices into my hair, which gathers around my shoulders like grey-flecked snowfall on the side of a mountain. Surprised that such volume could come from a noggin so sparsely populated by hair, I wonder what the back of my head looks like.
Seemingly out to set some sort of new record for coiffure creation, Kenzo is finished faster than I can say “that’s too short.” Only it isn’t, and he knows it. He’s a pro, and like a sculptor tackling a can of Silly Putty, my former haircut has been no match for his scissors.
“Oh, you look so young,” he encourages, directing his attendant to hold up a mirror so I can see that there is indeed ground cover on the backs of the garden.
I dunno about looking younger, but since I’m a guy who’s willing to pay for the experience as much as the result, I happily fork over $20 – an amount that would pay for six haircuts in my regular place.
I head for the registration desk to pick up my De Gran membership card and remember Gabi saying that a trip to the bathroom is a must. She loves the fact that the toilet seat cover automatically raises as you approach, and the curious side of me wonders if it will also raise the seat itself for appropriate male use.
She also describes the room’s manual control system – the throne is said to be flanked by a control panel with more buttons than Apollo 13. Washing, drying, misting, hosing and other unmentionable treatments are apparently all part of the excretory experience at De Gran.
But I’ve had my fill of first-ever experiences for the day, and I tuck my membership card in my wallet, tip the hair washing staff and bolt for the doors.
I am steps away from normalcy – the dust of Phnom Penh’s streets and the welcome embrace of a smiling gold-toothed driver in command of a rusty tuk tuk.
He grins at me, pointing at my head.
“Oh, bong saat nas!” (Oh, sir very handsome), says he as he welcomes me as though greeting a brethren soul back from a stint as a castaway an uncharted island, which I suppose I am, sort of. We head off together in search of a good hang bai (street restaurant) for a bowl of tom yum soup and a return to more familiar haunts.
One thing’s for sure: I’ll have the most expensive haircut in the place.