No, no, this tale isn’t about a visit to Soi Cowboy. Different kind of fish, but the ewww! factor is just about the same. The first time I heard about doctor fish, I assumed it had something to do with gynecologists. Eh, okay, so occasionally I’m wrong. The first time I saw one of those ‘fish spa’ tanks along Suriwong Road, I wasn’t too impressed. Worthy of a momentary pause to take a look and wonder about the future of my species, the idea of sitting streetside with your feet in a slightly oversized fish tank while little swimming creatures nibbled away didn’t cause me to jump up and down screaming, “Me next!” But when you are travelling with friends on their first visit to a SE Asian country, it’s not difficult to convince them to try new things. Even if it involves flesh eating fish.
On our stroll through the streets of Patpong one night, my friends and I stumbled past several fish spas which were quickly becoming all the rage. At least all the rage for Thais trying to make a quick buck off of touri. None were doing blockbuster business; few ever seemed to have a customer. Meanwhile, traditional massage shops offering the ever popular happy ending always had customers cuming and going.
Part of their lack of appeal was the ambiance. The idea of a spa treatment stirs visions of serenity, pampering, and indulgence. Sitting a foot away from sex touri on the prowl with your pant legs rolled up and feet steeping in the murky water of a fish tank smaller than that friends have in their homes does not have much of an allure. Visiting the rooftop bar at Lebuha, there was a larger and more refined fish spa in the lobby. But the spa part was hidden away so there was no way to tell if it was just another large fish tank, and dressed to the nines for a red carpet moment descending the staircase under the dome didn’t really suggest a stop off for foot soaking. That’s more of a Khaosan Road type of experience. And so it was.
I spend time on Khaosan Road every trip I make to Bangkok. For business. Which would not make any sense, if this wasn’t Thailand. The premiere backpacker haunt in Bangkok, Khaosan is filled with the scum of society, both local and foreigner. Overpriced Thai food restaurants offering badly prepared food with rickety tables spilling out and taking over the sidewalks compete for space with the most aggressive strolling merchants in the country and hordes of the type of people you try to avoid back home. So it’s a great spot to visit for color and the flavor of a non-Thai version of Thailand. The first time I took my friend Noom there he was stupefied. Thai bar boys do not tend to hang out in Khaosan. He thought he knew what crazy farang were but his definition took on a whole new meaning thanks to the habituates of Khaosan Road. For a change of pace, the backpacker ghetto seemed a perfect place to take my first-time visitors from the U.S.
The nice thing about being a group’s official photographer is that you get to take a pass on things you don’t really care to do using your photographic duties as an excuse. That works especially well when everyone else in your party is obsessed with themselves. Dee, one of a pair of lesbians along for the trip is a cutey. Dee’s smile just makes any picture that much better. The other dyke, Helena, is not as photogenic, but makes great face. So she’d been proving herself the champ for reaction shots throughout the trip. Chris, with lesbian tendencies of his own, managed to always look gay in any shot. Bless his little heart. But he was in love with himself enough that it didn’t matter. Noom was along for the day too. He showed a bit more decorum that the rest of the gang and it was enjoyable watching him watch the others trying to figure out what made these crazy farang tick.
After we’d strolled the length of Khaosan, we ran across a large open-air fish spa with several large wading pool sized tanks that looked like a lot of fun. I thought, “Oh, photo op!” The gang though, “Oh shit, now what is he going to make us do?” They know me well.
Besides location, this fish spa was different. As in all things, size matters. And this place was huge. It had two pools (younger fish that nibbled in one, older fish that bit in the other). Both could comfortably handle a good ten spa aficionados at a time. Plus, knowing their customer base well, their’s was a party experience instead of a spa outing. Rock music blaring, the opportunity to order and suck up a few beers while being eaten alive by the fish added to the party-like atmosphere. The walls were filled with graffiti; you were encouraged to add your own words of wit about your experience. I bartered with the girl running the place; she wasn’t about to lower her price but finally agreed to extend the amount of time for soaking knowing it never hurts to have a gaggle of people having a good time on display for potential customers walking by. The trick to getting people you are travelling with to do things they really do not want to do, and which you have no intention of doing, is to pay for their experience. After I’d handed over a wad of baht, it was difficult for them to say no. Any hesitation on their part was quickly allayed when the girl asked for drink orders.
The business made a small attempt at hygienic care, spritzing down your feet with water before you were allowed to dunk them into the pool. The fish knew their job and immediately headed for any flesh entering their world. In the front pool, the fish were young, curious, and had tiny little teeth. The result was more of being tickled than bitten. Even then there was lots of screaming until everyone told Chris to knock it off. Noom, ever the gentleman, let the three girls go first, carefully watching their reaction and carefully eyeballing the fish. My boy’s no dummy. Since it seemed safe, he finally dropped his feet into the pool too and immediately became the focus of attention; the fish had excellent taste and appeared to be particularly fond of Thai food. Helena is never happy to have someone rain on her parade and wasn’t pleased that the fish that had been swarming around her feet headed over for a meet and eat with Noom. So she decided to advance to the adult fish pool and reclaim her crown.
The second pool with the larger fish was a different experience and the little tickling turned into being chomped on. That became obvious from Helena’s screams (the gang’s response confused at first, because naturally everyone looked at Chris when the screaming began). The idea behind the fish spa is a therapeutic one; the fish are supposed to nibble away the dead skin off your feet. The adult fish confused ‘nibble’ with ‘tear away large chunks of flesh’. Helena, who had been trying to regain the proper amount of attention she deserved, all of a sudden was more than willing to share the wealth, encouraging everyone to switch over to the adult pool so the little fishies had fresh blood to spill.
A few beers and your feet being attended to by piranha, the natural response of a group of entrepreneurs is to channel the Thai within and start discussing the millions they’d soon be making back home offering the fish spa party experience on the county fair circuit. The ideas came fast and furious and a business name was picked; Sucking Fish!
Throughout the rest of the trip, anytime there was a lull in conversation, the Sucking Fish biz got discussed again. Seriously. When we all got home we began major investigation into the idea but were quickly brought up short over the little details: what to do with the critters between fair dates, how to dispose of them when they got too big, or just died, what besides human flesh they’d need to survive, etc. The projected gross still looked good, but the net continued to dwindle until we dropped the idea completely. And a good thing because many states have banned fish spa operations due to health concerns. But in Thailand, hygienics are never allowed to take precedence over profits.
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