Cambodia hates my hair. I discovered this the second I got off the plane. As soon as I stepped into the 35-degree heat and 74% humidity, my hair exploded into a giant ball of frizz. The small elastic I’d been using to force my hair into something resembling a ponytail struggled to contain the unruly strands which were now fighting for their freedom.
As the days went on and the heat grew stronger and more determined to break me, I experimented with more complicated ways to contain my hair, as it wasn’t particularly professional to show up to work with a bird’s nest on my head and a new ecosystem growing inside. Every morning before work would be a battle. My weapons of choice? Elastic bands, bobby pins, extra-strong hair gel for men, hair spray…
Despite the impressive arsenal of weaponry at my disposal, by the end of the day, my hair had usually won. Little frizzy strands would have popped up in the front, surrounding my head like a lion-esque halo. And what started as a ponytail would, by the time I came home, be a giant ball of frizz, having managed to escape whatever chemical product / contraption I had used to try and control it.
When going out for the night, my former roommate, not one to shy away from brutal honesty, would look me up and down.
“Um… are you going to wear your hair like that?” she would ask, looking at the frizzy mess behind my head.
“It’s just… a little frizzy. Why don’t you put some gel in it?”
“There’s already half a bottle in there.”
“Oh… well, how about some hair spray for the back?”
“Hmm… well, maybe put some bobby pins in, at least at the front.”
“I put 12 in there already.”
“Well, why don’t you try to put it into an elegant bun?”
After a few minutes of wrestling with my hair, she gives up. There’s no way to make this shit look elegant.
I’m at work one day when the summer intern, Mana, walks in. Her hair, normally thick and wavy, is perfectly straight and glossy.
“Mana, did you straighten your hair today?”
“No, I got it straight-permed.”
“Yeah. Just at this little salon I go to near my house. It’s only $30 and it lasts for a year.”
Thirty dollars? For a year free of misery, unprofessional hair styles at work, money wasted on products that don’t work, and judgy looks from people who were genetically more fortunate than I and were given the gift of perfect hair? Totally worth it!
And that is what led me to this local salon on a hot Sunday morning.
Mana picks me up on her motorbike and drives through a busy market, stopping in front of a shop selling baskets. It smells like dried fish and diesel fuel. I don’t see the hair salon anywhere.
We walk across the street and then I see it. A small hole-in-the-wall place down one of the market lanes, it couldn’t have been more hidden away.
We step into the hot, dimly lit salon and one of the hairdressers greets Mana amicably. They chat for a bit in Khmer, while the others sneak stares at the tall gangly foreigner standing awkwardly by the door. From their looks, you’d think she’d brought in a pet unicorn.
From the rapid-fire exchange that’s currently taking place, I assume Mana is filling her in on what I want.
“Ok,” Mana tells me. “They know what to do. Mind if I take off now?”
“You’re leaving?? Now?” I panic.
While it would be unreasonable to expect Mana to stay for the whole day, I was expecting her to at least hold my hand for the first hour. Nobody here speaks English, my Khmer is garbage, and I’m not even sure what’s happening.
“Yeah, sorry, I have some things to do. But don’t worry, I explained what you want to the hairdresser. She understands, it’s okay. And you can call me if you need anything…”
I’m parched, and am about to ask her where I can get some water. But before I can get the question out, she’s already on her motorcycle.
I am completely alone, left to fend for myself in a sea of dead hair, blow dryers, and hair curlers.
The woman who spoke to Mana guides me to a sink and pushes me into the chair in front of it. Before I know what’s happening, my hair is filled with shampoo and soaking wet. Her strong hands massage my head and attempt to knead out the knots. I begin to relax – a full-on head massage isn’t a bad way to start the day.
But before I can get comfortable, she has my hair wrapped in a towel and is pulling me up from the chair.
“Aaldgkhsdglksdjfs,” she says to me, and directs me to a chair across the room.
The floor hasn’t been swept, and the hair of about ten people has been laid to rest under this chair. I sit down, trying as much as possible not to step in the pile of dead human hair below me.
The main hairdresser and her assistant immediately get to work. In a can of product that smells like aluminium and gasoline, the two dip small paintbrushes, removing them once they’re covered with thick, gluey liquid. They start painting my hair with the foul-smelling glue. The scent makes me gag.
This is some kind of practical joke, I think. I’m gonna wake up tomorrow with clown-orange hair – and just to spite me, it’ll still be frizzy.
As soon as my hair has been painted and looks like a city pigeon shat all over it, I’m moved to another chair. This one has one of those space bubble machines attached to the top. I’d always seen them in salons and had wondered what they were used for.
My hairdresser places the bubble over my head and switches it on. Heat instantly radiates to my head. I sit still and try to ignore the sweat beads trickling down my scalp into my eyes.
“Duk…” I plead, in Khmer, my dry lips barely able to form the words. Water…
Nobody hears me, or if they do, they ignore the weird sounds emanating from my mouth. It smells like paint fumes and wet hair and fire. I am in hell.
After two hours of sweaty misery, my hairdresser removes the machine from my head and beckons me to the sink. I am weak, dehydrated, and hot.
The assistant gently washes the grey chemical mess out of my hair. I breathe in gulps of air and relish the cold water hitting my scalp and forehead.
I’m moved to the chairs in front of the mirror. The hairdresser and her assistant scan my wet hair, still pungent with the smell of aluminium, and pull out their blow dryers.
“Uh… that’s not a good idea,” I tell them in a panic.
Every time a hairdresser has taken a blow dryer to my angry mane, it has not ended well. Each strand of hair, after a few seconds of being fried under microwave-like temperatures, gets its revenge by increasing threefold in size and frizzing up higher and higher as if to reach the sun.
“This…” I say, pointing at the offending blow dryer, “makes this!” I indicate a giant circle around my head.
The main hairdresser laughs.
“It’s okay, no problem.”
They start, and at first, everything is fine. Then, as expected, my angry hair starts to rebel. The women are visibly shocked as the ball of frizz gets bigger and more untameable.
“Kdslkweogiweudgslngwhf!” one says to the other, laughing hysterically. I don’t understand Khmer well, but I’m sure she’s saying something like: “WTF???”
My hair is now at least four times its usual size, and it looks like I’m wearing a hat made out of an adult raccoon.
“Sovanny!” They call over another girl, enlisting her help in fixing the mess they created.
The three of them pull out straightening irons and get to work taming the wild animal sitting atop my head.
It takes the three of them well over two hours to finish the job. The heat is again causing streams of sweat to roll down my face. My lips are dry and scaly, and my throat aches with thirst. My hair smells like a bonfire. And the new enlistee keeps burning my right ear.
“Ow!” I scream, after the third time.
“Ksltksherlskeufsdfjs!” The main hairdresser chides her.
She grins at me, her way of apologizing for burning my skin off.
Why do women do this to themselves? I wonder. Why do we torture ourselves and waste money and time, just for beauty? And what if it doesn’t work? What if all I did was waste hours of my life and I still end up with hair that looks like a hostile porcupine?
Finally, they are done. The three women are laughing and patting each other on the shoulders in relief, as if they had just detonated a bomb.
They turn me towards the mirror. I can’t believe the transformation. Miraculously, these three magicians have managed to turn the wild beast on my head into sleek, straight, manageable hair.
I stumble out of the salon and into the market. The sun is high in the sky and burning hot, and it still smells like dried fish and gasoline.
It is six hours after Mana dropped me off at this salon that I will never again be able to find. My scalp, neck, and face are dripping with sweat. My throat is parched and aching with thirst. I can still catch whiffs of aluminium and paint fumes emanating from my head. And my ear is on fire from being burned eight times.
So was it worth it? I still don’t know…