Monday, 25 January 2010


I'd never heard of a fish spa until a few months ago, and now it seems I cannot go five metres without seeing a day spa, resort, massage place or souvenir shop exhorting 'fish spas'. I'm surprised that 7-11 are not offering them yet.

Anyway, I thought to myself: 'Fish spa ... how ridiculous that people would pamper their piscean pets to such an extent.' I mean Paris Hilton having her poodle pedicured is one thing, but having your pet fish massaged? That's just ridiculous.

As it turns out, yes it is ridiculous. But not as ridiculous as I felt when I was told that a fish spa was actually a place humans go for treatment by fish. Not the other way around. Oh!

Now apparently this madness has been going on since 1400 BC in ancient Egypt, whereby the Pharaoh's poor blistered feet were nibbled to a nice nubile finish by a fleet of fish from the Euphrates River. We're talking about the very cradle of civilisation here, folks.

But more recently it seems that Turkey is to blame. (I just got a mental image of a Turkey Spa ... where your toes are gobbled by our feathered friends.) You see, Kangal is the spiritual home of the Garra Rufa fish, which are the best at this sort of thing because these suckers -- pun fully intended -- are toothless and generate only enough sucking power (no sniggering down the back please) to remove the dead and flaky skin, not the live stuff. Hence they are known also as 'Doctor Fish'. They grow only to a maximum of six or eight centimetres, so it's not exactly like their fins are poking out of the water and the Jaws soundtrack is brooding in the background.

Now there is apparently a real scientific name for the act of the fish spa. It's called ... wait for it ... ichthyotherapy, meaning the use of fresh water fish for cleaning wounds. Drawings from the prisoners of war on the Death Railway show them waist-deep in the waters of the River Kwai whilst little fish cleaned out their tropical ulcers. In fact, in that same area, you can still get a free fish spa at Erawan Falls if you simply wade out into the waters beneath the cascades. They will nibble anything at within reach. And I do mean anything!

On that note, don't be suckered into any place that uses telapia from China. These do have teeth and are much bigger than real Doctor Fish. Just another cheap Chinese imitation on the market. So don't come running to me when your legs have been nibbled off at the knees!

The going rate seems to be in the 200-300 baht range for half an hour in the big cities, about 300 baht an hour in some of the outer areas. I recently enjoyed an 'all day if you want' session at Big Buddha on Koh Samui for 300 baht.

It is a unique sensation, dipping your legs up to calf height into the waters. Initially the fish dart for safety in the opposite end of the pond. Then slowly, tentatively, they swim back, lured by the tantalising upstream waft of my feet, which promise the multiple delights of raging tinea, psoriasis, overgrown fungal-ridden toenails, and generally years of podiatric neglect. An aphrodisiac to your average Garra Ruffa. One fish actually started humping my big toe. Jing jing!

Then the word got around: 'Buffet down the far end of the pool!' Suddenly both my feet were covered in sucking fish. There were fish sucking on other fish just to get the juices from my festering feet. It was a feeding frenzy. At first it feels like a slight electrical pulse, a tingle. Ok, I'll say it -- quite erotic. In fact there was a lady down the other end who was fairly in orgasmic rapture. (Just quietly I think she'd slipped a fish or two down the front of her pants.)

Fish jockey for position. They elbow (OK, most fish don't have elbows but the Garra  Rufa does, I'm sure) each other aside to have a crack at a particular morsel of skin. They squeeze in between your toes. All the while sucking, sucking, sucking. Those unlucky enough to be squashed by a careless foot, float off to the top, only to be reduced to a scaleless skeleton by their former best friends in no time at all. It's dog eat dog out there.

Which gives rise to another new business idea: EXTREME FISH SPAS. Wheel in the piranhas! Release the alligators! That'll make it more interesting and get rid of any dead -- or live! -- meat in a hurry.

And when it's all done, your feet are soft and smooth and generally more presentable.

It's funny the crazy human fads out of which empires and fortunes are carved. Still, gross as this might be to some, it sure beats the colonic irrigation fad that swept through Samui a few years ago.

That really proved there was a sucker born every minute!


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