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Spa jjimjilbang style

121026 09

At five dollars per session with an unending supply of complimentary fruit teas, the PGCT spa is one of the better-value bathhouses in town. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days

Movies teach us that there is something furtive and untoward, perhaps even dangerous, about groups of men conducting their affairs at the spa. In the British classic The Long Good Friday, a man is lured by a flirty Pierce Brosnan into a spa’s bathroom and then stabbed to death, one of a series of deaths that destroy the criminal empire of Harold Shand.

Takeshi Kitano’s underappreciated Kids Return shows high-school dropout Masaru’s rise and fall through the yakuza is interspersed with scenes of him and his tattooed brethren convening in the local sauna.

Viggo Mortensen’s climactic fight scene against his bosses Chechen rivals in Eastern Promises—gratuitous even by David Cronenberg’s standards—takes place in the Ironmonger Row Baths in Islington.

Parked out the front of the PGCT Centre on any given hour of the afternoon are neat rows of four wheel drives with just about every colour of licence plate and VIP sticker imaginable; it’s tempting to wonder whether the Korean spa housed inside is a similar magnet for the shady.

Opened two years ago, the PGCT hosts a number of Korean-run businesses, and it’s only natural that the building would house its own male-only jjimjilbang, the combination sauna/hot tub public bathhouses common in the more pleasant half of their home country.

Well-frequented by other expat businessmen hailing from nearby countries, by the early evening the tiles around the pools fill up with groups of men arriving in twos and threes, the low din of Korean, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Khmer barely audible above the sound of the hot tub jets.

A typical visit begins with a complete disrobing and change into the spa’s pairs of gym shorts. No-one could accuse the staff of lacking zealousness, and the more shy patrons of the spa are often seen engaged in a precarious battle to slide out of their undergarments while keeping a towel firmly wrapped around their waists. Most of the spa’s regulars lack quite that level of modesty, but that’s not to say the locker room attracts voyeurs or exhibitionists.

A trip to the sauna is first on the agenda, a Korean appropriation of Scandinavian tradition to add an extra layer of temperature extremity subjected to the body. While the rest of the spa is rather modest in size and scope compared to its jjimjilbang counterparts in Seoul, the sauna is one place where no expense has been spared, a room about 10 metres across big enough to seat 40, with a large flatscreen oscillating between Bayon and HBO’s seemingly never-ending Vin Diesel movie marathon.

Once the skin is coated with sweat and the lungs start to burn, usually after five to 10 minutes, the next stop is the slow crawl through three tubs of different temperatures: one cold to jolt the bather out of the addled sauna heat, the next to tingle the skin and the one after even hotter, for anyone who didn’t find the previous three steps to be masochistic enough for their liking. Rinse in the showers and repeat until the skin resembles lobster bisque.

While not offering female baths, Korean snacks or the massage and mani-pedi trimmings of other spas in town, at five dollars a session it’s a highly affordable alternative for those fortunate enough to be in possession of the correct chromosomes. Provided on the house in never-ending supply are assorted orange and lemon flavoured teas, a reasonable reward for such a luxurious punishment.

The best time to visit is midday, with less people in sight and the slight feeling of drunkenness when leaving the premises and stepping out of the air conditioning into the heat of the afternoon. After an hour or two in the pools, it feels like anything the sun could threaten with is easily conquered, a worthy regimen for anyone dreading the return of the dry season and without the attention span for yoga.  

The PGCT Spa is open between 9am and 10pm, and located at the eastern entrance PGCT Centre on Sihnanouk Blvd between National Assembly Street and Sothearos Boulevard.

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