• Menu
  • Menu

Haircuts as Tourism

It’s a cliche that the barbershop is a bastion of male camaraderie. I’m not sure I fully buy that notion, but I can say that I’ve always strived to become a regular with a barber that I felt cared about their craft and created a welcoming space.

Being on the road precludes the type of relationship you can only build over time of course. But one still needs a haircut every once in awhile. I decided that these moments would be an opportunity to seek out high quality, cool spots that had developed a strong reputation.

What I was looking for was a decent haircut, but what I got was something far more interesting.

What I was looking for was a decent haircut, but what I got was something far more interesting.

Finding a Craftsperson

In the end, it shouldn’t be surprising that finding a great haircut is similar to finding a great tea shop, or a unique bookstore, or a meticulous cocktail bar. You are inherently in a place with a person who cares about their craft and takes pride in their work. And that alone makes it an interesting place to be.

You are inherently in a place with a person who cares about their craft and takes pride in their work. And that alone makes it an interesting place to be.

But the barbershop or stylist offers something further to the haircut tourist.

First, by definition this place exists because it meets a need for locals. This means you’re likely to see some regulars and at least get to observe their interactions/be part of this flow for a minute.

Second, a good barber or stylist has probably honed the art of conversation. You didn’t know you were hiring a tour guide did you? Assuming of course that you have enough common vocabulary you’re going to learn about the best spots to eat, what life is like in the city, their family, how they became an entrepreneur and what it took to open up a business here etc etc. Plus you can trade some good phrases in your language and theirs.

Here’s what I’ve learned through the three haircuts I’ve had this trip so far.

Plovdiv Bulgaria: Shteri Style

I found my barber in Plovdiv simply by walking by his place and thinking that it looked like someone was trying hard to create an authentic, upscale barbershop experience (in contrast to many utilitarian looking places I had passed).

When I went in he spoke very limited English. But he was young and a pro with Google Translate. Between that and sign language we established a good enough rapport and I learned some about where he was from, how he learned to cut hair, and most importantly how he had come to open up a little shop right in the trendiest part of town: Kapana. More than our conversation, it was his participation in the revival of a neighborhood which we had heard about on an earlier tour that gave me a bit of human context for the history of Bulgaria’s move from communist to capitalist. I was happy to support a young, hungry new business owner with only a few google reviews to his name in an up-and-coming tourist destination.

Total cost: $4 cut, $4 tip.

Vientiane, Laos: Tony Paris Coiffure Haircut

In Vientiane I found Tony through an online forum. After over a decade abroad working in France Tony had come home to open his place because he was in love with a woman (who he had since left due to her gambling problems). Speaking flawless French and English, Tony and I quickly bonded over a shared love of tennis. It turns out he had been a tennis pro at various Club Med’s before changing gears!

While I wasn’t in town long enough to take him up on his offer to hit the courts, I did learn about Laos’s sports culture. For example, badminton is far more popular than tennis in Laos because it takes place indoors, and “the people with money, they avoid the sun in order to be as white as possible.” He went on, “I tell them, all my European clients, they want to be your color, and you, you want to be like them…but people just need to be happy with themselves.” Over a great haircut, Tony also told me about the various Ambassadors whose hair he cuts and what it is like going to them and navigating their security details and so on. Outside of the local insights and contrast of life here vs. in Europe I felt that Tony had become wise and his shop reflected his openness and tranquility. If you’re ever in town, Tony is a gem, and you might find yourself on a tennis court to boot.

Total cost: $14 including a tip

Siem Reap, Cambodia: Hatta Hairstylist

In Siem Reap I used google maps to find Hatta, of Hatta Hairstylist. Her website was polished and modern and her reviews were great.

Visiting her shop was a fast-paced tour of her life. She lived in the back of the shop with two roommates, one who chatted with us through most of the cut. She had adopted 4 dogs, two of whom demanded constant petting from me and one of whom had 8 puppies days earlier. She conveyed the hilarity of washing all the dogs in the neighborhood and the reaction of the neighbors to “this crazy woman.” It seemed she spent most of her free time and half her disposable income on the uncared for pets in the area.

I also:

  • Learned about the ex-pats of Siem Reap and why many of them lived there
  • Heard her compare the various cities of Cambodia she had lived in and why this one was the best
  • Got a bit of an insight into the younger vs. older generation through her comments about her mom and her fears that Hatta was living so far away

All this while I was getting one of the best haircuts of my life.

Total cost: $12 including a generous tip

What I’ve learned as a Haircut Tourist

My two most successful haircuts have unsurprisingly happened in larger cities with an international component to them (tourist or ex-pat). First, this is clearly more likely to be the home of talented stylists. Second, these people are more likely to have a good level of English proficiency which is of course more fun. And finally you’re just more likely to find these people through online research in a place where people use these types of tools (reddit, tripadvisor, and google maps have been the most useful). In terms of signals of quality, outside of reviews both Tony and Hatta had lived and worked abroad and owned their shop.

In the end I’m not recommending you abandon your local relationship. But if you’re ever traveling for an extended period of time, being a haircut tourist is a great way to dive into local life.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *