From rural China to Brooklyn, you can find great massages in the most unusual places.

By Aimee Lee Ball
April 13, 2011
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.

Conversely, the worst massage I’ve ever had was wildly expensive. I arrived in Bora-Bora shortly after a cyclone hit, and the beach was still strewn with the detritus of the storm—bicycles and computer monitors had flown through the air. Miraculously, the beautiful overwater bungalows at my hotel were intact, and that water was turquoise blue. I requested a massage on my sundeck—there were no guests in the neighboring bungalows to impinge on my privacy because so many tourists had been frightened away by the cyclone. A lovely young woman arrived at the appointed hour, and soft breezes fanned me as I lay down. The setting could not have been more idyllic. But her technique was so wimpy, it was like being massaged by Raggedy Ann, and my frustration was exacerbated by the outrageous price tag.

I’m lucky that I need not travel far from home for all sorts of bodywork; New York City is virtually a United Nations of massage. I’ve been thwacked with a broom made of oak leaves before a pounding rubdown at the Turkish bathhouse; rolled with bamboo sticks from the Philippines (rather uncomfortable on the bonier parts of me but pleasant where I’m nicely padded); and walked on by a Korean woman dressed in what appeared to be the house uniform of blue polyester bra and panties, holding onto a pole suspended from the ceiling. (Sign in the dressing room: We love Americans!) My current favorite spot is in Brighton Beach. Since the 1970’s, Russian émigrés have turned this stretch of oceanside real estate into a Little Odessa, and it’s still possible to buy vodka and caviar by the gram at a club on the boardwalk. But recently and happily, Asians have infiltrated the neighborhood, offering amazing 60-minute reflexology for about $25. When I practically levitated after the therapist touched one spot on my foot, he looked at me knowingly and said, “No sleep,” correctly diagnosing my bout of insomnia. The only caveat is that I must escape into my own iPod world to drown out the Chinese warlord movies playing on a huge flat-screen TV.

I generally believe in the maxim that you get what you pay for. I go to world-class doctors; I buy cashmere sweaters that will probably outlive me; and I don’t expect that monkfish is going to taste like lobster. But after all these years, I’ve learned that massage satisfaction is not based on price. And the frequent language barrier off the beaten path is often a plus, eliminating the possibility of a Chatty Cathy. Because the best quality of any massage is…silence.

Aimee Lee Ball is the co-author of four books and writes frequently for the New York Times.

Circa 2300 B.C.: Weary Egyptians embrace reflexology enough to depict it on their tombs—perhaps ensuring a foot-rub-filled eternity.

Circa 400 B.C.: Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, writes about the physiological effects of “rubbing.” Without specifying parts of the anatomy, he concludes that “hard rubbing constricts, soft relaxes, much rubbing thins, and moderate thickens.”

50 B.C.: Julius Caesar gets massages for his neuralgia—he was said to have been “pinched” every day (a practice continued by Italian men on public transportation).

1813: Per Henrik Ling, a Stockholm fencing master and gymnast, is credited with developing modern Swedish massage.

1868: Ling’s place in history is challenged by Johan Georg Mezger, a Dutch practitioner who classifies massage techniques, using terms such as effleurage (stroking) and petrissage (kneading) that nobody on a massage table cares about, so long as it feels good.

1895: J. H. Kellogg promotes “The Art of Massage” from his Battle Creek Sanitarium, in Michigan. Not to mention Corn Flakes.

1922: Reiki, an ancient Tibetan practice, is discovered by Japanese businessman Mikao Usui. He and his disciples, known as Reiki masters, claim healing powers even without touching—their hands hovering over the body like low-flying aircraft.

1928: A French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, uses lavender oil to heal his burned hand. Aromatherapy is born, and forever after “aromatherapy massage” costs more.

Today: Ashram-style austerity is back, with the rise of detox and weight-loss spas and even “bikini boot camp” programs. What does it mean for sybarites? You now have to earn your end-of-day massage.