Jittery foreigners and locals immerse their callused heels in a fish tank and almost instantly, laughter erupts.
Swarms of little fish nip every surface of the foot, their fins caressing as they zip about in the water. It’s a fascinating sight to behold. One with apparent health benefits.
University freshman Ching Ching, whose family owns Dr. Fish Massage at house 171, Sisowath Quay, gets a kick out of watching her customers squirm and giggle during the 20 minute therapy session.
“It feels very ticklish at first,’’ said Ching. “But after doing it more than four times, it becomes very comfortable. The weather is so hot but when you put your feet in the cold water and have a beer, it’s a great feeling.
“I think fish massage started in Japan. There are a few in Europe too. Foreigners recognise it from their homeland and tell me it’s very expensive there.” At her shop, customers pay $3 per session, including a complimentary can of Angkor beer or Coca-Cola. Ching Ching and her brothers enjoy a good tickle.
It comes at another cost though. Over-gorging kills as many as 20 fish a day, but stock is quickly replenished by a Vietnamese supplier.
“We change the water in the tank and feed the fish every morning,’’ said Ching. “For the rest of the day, they just eat dead skin,” said Ching .
Legend has it that diseases may transmit if the fish bite an infected person, but Ching laughs it off. “I don’t believe these kind of stories. Customers are not afraid, the fish don’t have sharp teeth!”
At the other end of Phnom Penh, a more luxurious form of massage therapy awaits. A pair of feet feeds a school of fish. Photograph: Lareina Choong/Phnom Penh Post
“Maam, OK?” inquired my masseuse, Seo, as she relentlessly kneaded a stubborn knot in my shoulders.
I grunted “yes” as tension uncoiled itself under her surprisingly strong grip for a petite Cambodian woman. The scent of lemongrass, soothing instrumental music, soft light and Seo’s magic hands soon put me into a deep sleep.
After an hour, she gave my back a few final chops and gracefully left the room while I lay back on the futon, feeling light as a feather. There was a shared sense of kinship between us.
Seo laughed when I thanked her profusely afterwards. “It’s my favourite thing to do,” she said about healing aches and pains.
She’s been at Amatak Beauty Spa (St. 444, adjacent to Russian Market) for the past two years. The job is a far cry from her days at a stuffy garment factory. At first she hesitated switching to the masseuse trade. “People from the provinces think that being a masseuse is sex-related work. I was afraid there’d be gossip,” she said.
Indeed, cheeky requests are not uncommon even at upmarket massage parlours, regardless of the establishment’s strict no-sexual activity policy.
Seo says now there’s no other job she’d rather do. Not only does she heal, her monthly salary is stable enough to raise her 10-year-old son, her tips are generous and the work environment is family-oriented.
“Many people often request for Seo so she earns even more than I do!” said Channy, Amatak’s brisk customer service manager.
“We often bring lunch from home and eat together. Our lady boss treats us really well and taught us everything she knows – from oil and traditional Khmer massages to facials and spa treatments,” Seo said.
Back at riverside, albeit a bit shabby looking, a three-story shop house boasts 22 visually disabled masseuses (nine female, 13 male) well trained in Anma and Shiatsu therapy.
The rooms are basic. Rows of massage tables are lined neatly, with ample space for the blind staff to move about as they tend to customers.
My therapist – Sothy – graduated from the first batch of Seeing Hands masseuses in 1995. He lost his eyesight at the age of two, due to malnutrition during the Khmer Rouge regime.
“In 1994, I had the chance to attend rehabilitation for blind people at Maryknoll, a US Catholic. They taught me Braille, music and the skill of massage,” said Sothy in perfect English.
He believes that the blind have an ability to concentrate better during a massage session. “We can feel the body better,” he said.
I commented that women sometimes fear getting molested, and he nods in agreement.
“We have no separate rooms for males and females. Customers have to remain fully clothed,” he said.
During my session, a man across me squealed with ticklish delight as his female masseuse kneaded his back. Other blind masseuses in the room chuckled occasionally – they were used to it.
Concentrating on Sothy’s techniques, I realised what a happy environment it was.
The masseuses are not driven by financial gain; they earn between $100-$250 per month which Sothy says is “manageable.”
He himself got married last year to a co-worker. “My mother-in-law cooks and sends meals to us everyday. It’s a comfortable life,” he said.
At the end of the day, local Cambodians revert to a special massage they’ve known since childhood - an odd one at that.
Called coin massage, pronounced as “kok-chyol” in Khmer, it is a popular remedy for an assortment of ailments - headaches, colds, hangovers, and anything you can name, Cambodian friends told me.
This procedure can be requested at most massage parlours throughout the country, although shop owners balk at advertising it on menus.
“It’s too traditional and many foreigners will be scared off,” said Phary, who owns a popular massage franchise in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. “But our parents and grandparents have been practising it for years.”
“Family members usually do the coin rub for each other. But some of my customers have no one, so they come here,” she said.
My friends swear by it, saying that it’s the first stop solution if they feel under the weather. “You must first get a coin massage before eating medicine, not the other way around or else it will harm you,” they said.
The result of ‘kok-chyol’ is intimidating for newcomers in Cambodia. Ugly streaks of red and blue-back bruises lash the back, as if the person had been whipped sadistically.
“It’s really painful and sometimes you will sweat a lot. But it really works,” said my friends, who explained that the coin rub aids blood circulation. When used with Chinese oil or the fuel kerosene, it intensifies the burning sensation.