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Great Massages in Unusual Places

An illustration of message in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Photo: Illustrated by Kagan McLeod

Marge Simpson, the cartoon character with the mile-high blue hair, once went to “Stagnant Springs Spa,” where she was massaged not with hot stones but with live turtles (later thrown into a bin labeled Used Turtles).

I thought of that episode last year in Bangkok as I removed my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and sat on the edge of a large water tank with half a dozen others at one of the city’s popular “fish spas.” Thousands of tiny fish called kangal rushed over to each pair of dangling feet, ready to nibble away our dead skin. The experience had been described to me as a pleasant sensation, a combo foot rub/pedicure.

I lasted about 15 seconds.

This may be more than you really need to know about me, but it’s (pretty much) okay with me to have (pretty much) anybody rub (pretty much) any part of me, and I have traveled the world in pursuit of great massage. There is nothing I like better than an extravagant $500 spa day, where I’m anointed with aromatherapy oils and bathrobes of astronomical thread counts. But I am not the queen of Romania or the manager of a hedge fund, so my massages are sometimes budget-priced and…unusual.

In many cultures, massage is a tradition handed down through generations of grandmothers, unencumbered by regulation or certification. I have a kind of Hippocratic attitude—first, do no harm (to myself)—and in unfamiliar territory, I usually start from the bottom up, on the theory that an untalented foot rub can be no worse than an annoying waste of money, while an unskilled person unleashed on my back could leave me flattened.

The creepy-crawly fish spa was the rare exception to the typically blissful Thai foot massage that involves actual human hands and rarely costs more than a few dollars. At one place on a side street—really just an alley—off Silom Road in Bangkok, I bought a CD of the music that was playing during my treatment (cheesy local “covers” of 1980’s pop groups such as the Carpenters that are impossible to listen to without giggling). After my treatment, the masseuse promptly set up a street cart and was soon frying delicious peanut fritters—clearly a woman of multiple talents.

The best massage (and best night’s sleep) I’ve ever had was in Anhui Province, about 400 miles south of Beijing. At the time, almost 20 years ago, the region was remote and unused to foreigners—Americans often traveled together in state-sanctioned groups, and crowds of local people stood outside the hotel just to get a look at us, like the Munchkins when Dorothy landed in Oz. The Chinese government had a program to train blind people in massage therapy—it was considered a suitable career path since the blind were supposed to have an enhanced sense of touch. The staff at our modest hotel spoke little English, but somehow my significant other and I managed to convey with vaguely lewd hand signals that we wanted massages. That night there was a knock on our door, and a blind man was led into the room. I took the first turn and lay down on my bed—there was no such thing as a massage table or a neck cradle, let alone a double bed, in those early days of Chinese tourism. By the time it was my S.O.’s turn, I was ready to endorse any policy of the Chinese government. (He later informed me that I snored through his massage, but I deny it.) The tab and tip were automatically added to our hotel bill the next morning: about $10 for each of us.

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