Siem Reap innovators say the fish-massage business is attracting fakes, and profits are dipping
I hear they get their fish from Cambodia cheaply ... but it's not tHE same.
IN the touristy Pub Street area of Siem Reap, it seems like you can’t turn around without bumping into a vendor with a fish-filled kiddie pool on the sidewalk offering the chance to dip in for smoother skin, less stress and a bit of a nibble.
In this case, it’s your hands and feet, or at least the dead skin coating them, that’s on the menu: Fish massage is becoming a hot business in Siem Reap.
Siem Kongkeopisey, 25, and Yann Sothearavy, 22, the owners of Siem Reap City Massage, say they were trailblazers within the niche – but rapidly expanding – industry, launching the first such operation in January 2008 at the tourist town’s Noon-Night Market.
The start-up was financed by a US$9,000 advance from their parents to buy the equipment, build the pool, order delivery of the Garra rufa species of fish, and pay the first month’s rent of $500. The idea came from the Internet.
“We saw a Web site about fish massage. Then we ordered the fish from Turkey, which was expensive because it’s so far,” Siem Kongkeopisey said.
The business took off quickly, and they were soon able to expand and set up locations in the Old Market and near Pub Street.
“We were very popular with foreigners and with Khmer people,” Siem Kongkeopisey said.
A 20-minute foot feast with the Garra rufa would cost about $50 in the US, so foreigners were more than happy to spend just $3 for the same treatment at City Massage.
The operators enjoyed heady profits up until about four months ago, when, they say, immitators began to muscle in on their territory. These new operations set up shop right on the roadside in and around Pub Street with fish in blow-up pools, and fish-massage businesses have now grown exponentially.
“Right now business is not so good because there are so many on the roadside,” says Siem Kongkeopisey. “They offer free Angkor beer or Coke.”
He said he didn’t know where these other operations got their fish, but was certain they were not Garra rufa from Turkey.
“I hear they get their fish from Cambodia cheaply, something like 300 riels per fish. But it’s not the same, and it doesn’t work,” he said.
Most of the operators on Pub Street said the fish are sourced from Turkey or Singapore, but Thorn Sokhim, 29, who runs an operation in The Alley in central Siem Reap, said that’s not the case.
“My fish and all the fish come from the Tonle Sap Lake,” he said.
Thorn Sokhim said that he sells the fish to all of the massage operations in the area, and that no one uses actual Garra rufa fish from Turkey.
But he says it’s kept under wraps because “if everyone knew that the fish were Cambodian, everyone would want to start a business”.
Garra rufa, native to the Tigris and Euphrates river basins in Turkey and northern Syria, are toothless and harmless fish that feed only on dead and scabby skin, leaving healthy vibrant skin. They can even be effective in the treatment of eczema and psoriasis. But Thorn Sokhim said he used small fish from the Tonle Sap and simply didn’t feed them for a few days so they’d eat anything.
Mystery still surrounds the origins of City Massage’s fish — Siem Kongkeopisey declined to produce receipts proving they’re from Turkey, but there’s no doubt that they nibble on feet.
Despite hard times, the two owners said they would like to expand again at some point.
“We want to open more, but now is not the time. We want to make fish massage around the world,” Siem Kongkeopisey said.
They would also like to offer full-body fish massage.
“I saw [it] on the Internet. I think there’s only one place in Singapore that does full body fish massage. I think it would be wonderful, but we’d have to buy more fish,” he said.
Whether those fish would come from the Tonle Sap or Turkey is hard to predict.