I was nursing a delicious Negroni while watching the pink sunset-sky turn to lavender and cobalt over Bangkok.
From atop one of Krung Thep‘s rooftop sky-bars, the expressway lit up below like a golden eel swimming through the city, while nearby, the great Chao Phraya River meandered lazily, at once peaceful and lively, with its fleets of party boats undoubtedly blasting eccentric playlists of 70’s disco and 90’s pop hits.
Having finished my drink and reached my fill of my fellow tourists, I made my way back to the skyscraper’s lobby some 60 floors below, and steadied my gait and steeled myself for the bustling streets outside.
But out of the corner of my eye, I saw the sign: FISH SPA HERE.
I had heard about fish spas before. Setting one’s feet and hands — and if you dare, your whole body — into a water tank with hundreds of rock-scraping fish of the genus Garra, upon which, not having any rock surfaces to graze on, would use their rasping mouths to clear away the dead cells and flakes off your skin. Exfoliation via fish.
You have to do it, the Negroni whispered.
A duet of sawadee-ka‘s greeted me as I walked inside the massage parlor. “Would you like Thai massage, sir?” asked one masseuse.
“I was curious about the fish spa, actually.”
“Oh you can see right here,” said the other masseuse, who gestured for me to walk over to a very large glass tank at floor-level, with a wooden bench built into its side.
The completely barren tank was full of small fish. They all looked starved, from the looks of their thin, tapering bodies:
“Here, put your hand in,” said the masseuse, and she took my hand and placed it in the water.
Immediately, the fish swam up to my hand:
For the most part, I couldn’t feel their nibbles. The medium-sized fish did feel a bit ticklish — more like little kisses — but with the smaller fish, I couldn’t feel them at all.
A gimmick is a gimmick, but there was no escaping this opportunity for fish geekery achievement. With 250 baht out the door, I took off my shoes and got ready for a dip.
“Please. We wash feet first.”
Not so fast. I was made to sit in one of the many lounge chairs set out for foot rubs. A basin was brought to my feet, and the masseuse rinsed and scrubbed my feet with a towel and what appeared to be warm water.
“Okay, you ready now.”
* * * * *
The genus Garra comprises of 100-some species of small fish in Cyprinidae, a taxonomic family that includes koi carp and goldfish. Unlike goldfish, however, Garra and related genera have mouths adapted to rasping river rocks and pebbles, scraping off algae, bacterial film and invertebrates to eat.
I was unsure which Garra species were in this tank. Most of the smaller fish had a distinct, dark stripe along the length of their body. Some of the larger fish were more drab and gray, while yet a third species was more mottled (and possibly not Garra at all).
An online search later revealed that the fish spa industry standard is Garra rufa, a species native to the rivers Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates, and elsewhere in Mesopotamia and Turkey. But looking back, none of my spa fish resembled the stocky body of Garra rufa.
The striped fish then servicing my feet did remind me very much of Garra cambodgiensis, a species known as the “false Siamese algae eater” or “false siamensis” in the aquarium trade, due to its resemblance to another, more popular aquarium species.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll run with the Garra cambodgiensis diagnosis here, given that the species is actually native to the Chao Phraya and the Mekong river basins of Thailand.
And regardless of their identities, all three fish varieties were quite hard at work on my feet. More than 50 little rasping mouths were nibbling at my skin like mice at cheese, and I definitely felt them now. The bite of the larger fish actually hurt a little, like slight pin-pricks — none breaking skin, but strong enough to startle you.
So how fast were these little rasping mouths operating at? For some closeups of Garra rasping behavior, let us turn once again to the miracle that is YouTube — for yet another installment of Random Fish Videos Set to Crazy Soundtracks.
Here’s one set to Chinese New Year cymbals and drums:
Here’s another from the same creator, with dramatic string-synth beats:
Then, the pièce de résistance:
Let me know if you laughed as hard as I did.
* * * * *
My time at the fish spa was soon over, as 250 baht only got me 15 minutes with the Garra.
Was my skin smoother and more radiant? My callouses polished and softened? I don’t know if they were, and actually, my feet were left smelling like a funky mix of massage oil and fish meal. And fortunately, I didn’t pick up any skin infections, as the CDC warned.
I got to check off a fish geekery achievement from my list, but the tank full of little Garra will probably go hungry for another night in that big, empty tank, living out their lives gnawing at people’s feet.
Fish Geeks: Take a look at these videos of my visit. Do you also see these as Garra cambodgiensis? What other species can you spot? Do you see any Gyrinocheilus aymonieri, which I suspect were in the mix? And what are the larger fish?
Garra cambodgiensis (Tirant, 1883)
False Siamese Algae Eater (click for names in other languages)
FishBase Page: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/27164
— Ben Young Landis