I recently returned from a five-month-long trip to Thailand. Actually, it was only two weeks long, but I am the most homesick person in the world, and it felt like five months.
Living in South Africa, I thought that I had the most access to every culture ever and that nothing the Thai could show me would shock me. Wrong. False. Not true. Thailand was a huge culture shock in the best possible way, especially the city of Bangkok, where I exhaustion-cried outside of the giant reclining Buddha statue one afternoon.
One of the best things about Thailand is the abundance of salons--like, every third store is a salon. I received FIVE massages ON THE BEACH, all for the price of one cheap massage at home. And their massage skills are impeccable, I might add.
At some of the salons in Koh Samui, the island paradise I visited, there were tanks with those weird fish that eat your dead skin in them. These fish, called doctor fish, or Garra rufa, originate from Turkey, and have been used for many years to treat anything from your average dead skin to psoriasis. In recent years, they have become popular at salons worldwide for their ability to give a pedicure-like experience. Because the fish don’t have actual teeth, they can’t bite off your healthy skin, only your dead or flaky skin. Regardless, the prospect has always creeped me out.
I decided to fully immerse myself in the holiday experience and just try it, so we stopped off at a salon pretty close to the beach. Their fish were in a tank outside the travel agent next door (Thailand!) and it cost roughly $7 for 20 minutes. If you ask me, I think I should have been getting the $7 for feeding the fish, but nobody asked me, so I just gave in and asked the lady how it would feel. She told me it felt like little kisses, which didn’t sound terrible.
“Ticklish?” I asked, but she didn't know that word, so I just nodded my head to signify that, yes, I would let her parasite fish eat my mortal flesh.
She handed us a pamphlet that claimed that the fish could not only cure multiple skin conditions, but could also help with any numbness caused by nerve damage. My boyfriend decided to do it because a couple of weeks ago, he hurt his toe at work and hasn’t regained full feeling in it since then. I suffered a similar fate from walking around Bangkok in its entirety, and my one big toe was also partially numb. My boyfriend’s sister just wanted to try it and see how it felt and what results it could yield.
After getting our feet rinsed, I carefully dipped one and then both feet into the tank and waited for the little suckers (literally) to come at me. Slowly, they began circling my feet. Once they started to attack, I realized how sensitive my feet actually are (I regularly squirm during pedicures) and tried my hardest to just keep still. I barely succeeded.
Because of this, the fish kept swimming away from me to go be parasites off of my boyfriend’s sister, who was much more disciplined in keeping still. When they did come to me, the fish seemed to be particularly obsessed with my ankle bone and heel. I tried everything to keep still, including biting my fingers to try drown out the tickle. I’d say it was so ticklish it was basically unbearable. The fish hated me, and I them.
My boyfriend and his sister endured the full twenty minutes with finesse. He reported a slight return in feeling in his big toe, as well as softer skin; she reported that her feet felt “quite pillowy after” and the result was similar to a pedicure.
Luckily for me, I don’t see this alternative pedicure method really taking off any time soon because these fish are quite pricey and a lot of Western areas are banning the use of doctor fish, citing that it is unhygienic because the “tools” (fish) are not disposed of between clients.
To be honest, I’d pick squirming in a poofy leather chair for a human-performed pedicure any day.