In now touristy Thailand, where pride still needs no flag, a one-stop-shop unsung salon might break the bank at $5. You'll find the ultimate haircut bargains in the Philippines, Southeast Asia's wild east. PJ's Barber Shop (Lapu-Lapu City) in Manila is where charming hard-working locals patronize this highway-side open-air barbershop featuring Hellie Pulvera, who will fashion lasting travel memories and only charge 60 cents per cut. Surely the Philippines's 7,000 islands offer epic natural scenery, but the glorious grit of get-up-and-go lives in its urban centers.
For a few bucks more, a still uber-affordable option is waltzing into a fancy lady-filled Filipino salon (oh-la-la) where your female or flamboyant-dude stylist mane reinvention becomes an official social event. Some places instantly invite you to make laughter the shortest distance between strangers.
A decade earlier, I trekked through the Northern Philippine "boondocks," a mountainous, rice-terraced cloud forest called the Cordillera, where highlanders relax in a state of eleventh-century harmony. Boondocks, or boonies, are terms derived from a native Filipino word meaning "out in the woods." Bundok is the Filipino word for mountains. U.S. Marines imported the slang after WWII. Up here, a traditional Ifugao men's haircut is executed by placing the customer's forehead on a block of wood and draping their frontal bangs over its side. Then a buddy-cum-barber uses one machete hack to trim the bangs to mid-forehead length, leaving the rest of the hairdo flowing like a Woodstock devotee.
Indeed, a machete-brandishing guy named Hygee rested my head in prayer onto a fallen tree. He elevated his glistening machete blade of steel over me, and a thundering whack shattered the dawn air. I slowly raised my head and looked about the highlands anew with no strands obscuring my view. I proudly sported an Ifugao mullet. Some ancient ways of life—and hairdos—never go out of style.
In countries like Laos and Cambodia, itinerant haircutters often set up shop by unfolding chairs and parking a mirror on an easel upon the busy sidewalks. It's all about doing more with less and letting inner beauty be the most stylish thing you wear.
It's not hard to get back down to earth in trendy Ha Long Bay where (like most places) a 20-minute stroll from the insulated tourist hotels unearths authentic barbershops where families, couples, and wiry elders shoot the breeze. The Vietnamese government recently banned the use of English nicknames in all public schools, so I'm watching my step.
My hairdo quest in the Republic of Georgia landed in a utilitarian shop in Tbilisi's Avlabari district. This one set me back $2 (5 lari) and included an eyebrow trim. This was thanks to Hovik, a patient, macho hairdresser.
A haircut in Kathmandu, Nepal, rounded up to $4, included a merciless head and back massage beating along with a swerve into a neck and back cracking. Cotton-swab earplugs were inserted before the procedure. I requested a combo of their swanky storefront-advertised hair-model images.
Not in the mood to jump on a plane? My signature NYC walking tour—The Undiscovered Lower East Side—passes a barbershop where I've added a spiel about an exception to taking vacation selfies that serve as the traveler's ultimate postcard. New York City's Astor Place Haircutters ($18) has 40 slapdash barber chairs with as many international snippers standing by. You can ramble about and interview the barbers till you find a match. This is where an employee insisted, "To really see, sometime you'ze gotta cut your own bangs."
In America, our hair obsession has been brainwashed into a toilsome slavery demanding a regimen of shaves, plucks, waxes, color, and $100-plus trims. Lacking locks or presenting back fur is taboo. Mops have become way too complicated when a hairdo is really a hair don't. You shouldn't be afraid to drift out of bounds.
Capturing your haircuts around the world—barbers, shops, onlookers, and all—is a selfless selfie, and one helluva way to write postcards to yourself. Sages tell us, don't ask the barber if you need a haircut. But, from pole to pole, barbers double as everyman shrinks. When body, soul, and skull trimmings are individually served, your mind won't forget what your heart has felt.
Follow your colorblind instincts and ask a local where they get their hair cut—because there, chances are, you'll rediscover the world's deep reservoir of goodwill. Use that mirror, baby.
Hiking the Original Boondocks - Bruce Northam
Karaoke at Sea on a Cargo Ship - Rebecca A. Hall
The Life of a Backpacker in Asia in the 1970s - Kevin Kelly
Two Degrees of Separation: An Introvert's Travel Encounters in New Zealand - Cynthia Trensahaw
See other traveling life stories from the archives
Books from the Author: