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Getting steamy at city’s first hamam

In a promotional photo, a customer enjoys a scrub at Phnom Penh’s answer to the Turkish bath
In a promotional photo, a customer enjoys a scrub at Phnom Penh’s answer to the Turkish bath. PHOTOGRAPH SUPPLIED

Getting steamy at city’s first hamam

A Turkish bath on the riverside has put a Southeast Asian twist on the centuries-old tradition

As I lay on the marble slab of the Turkish bath, staring through the thick steam at the ceramic floral mosaic on the domed ceiling, an attendant scrubbed me from head to toe with a rough piece of cloth. I soaked up the scent of Istanbul as she poured imported oils and gels over my skin.

With the country’s only Turkish bath, or hamam, the River Palace Hotel on Sisowath Quay has brought a centuries-old tradition to Cambodia. The spa, which opened two years ago, is a hidden gem that has yet to catch on with the local market, according to the manager, Pang Modaly.

“Some people really don’t understand, and some think it is just like a shower like they do at home every day,” she said. “But it’s not true, because the process is special and makes the skin soft and healthy, and the blood circulate well.”

A direct descendent of the ancient Roman bathhouses, the Turkish bath preserved its primary essence: a lengthy, sociable bath time consisting of a hot, warm and cold phase. While the Romans began with a cold pool and progressed their way through the increasingly warm baths, the Turks reversed the order and put more emphasis on steam than water.

Le Bain Turc (The Turkish Bath) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
Le Bain Turc (The Turkish Bath) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. PHOTOGRAPH: WIKICOMMONS

After proliferating throughout the Ottoman Empire, the baths caught on in Victorian England among the upper class in the mid-19th century and took off around the Anglophone world.

The hamam was also a source of lore among Western orientalist artists, who would often erroneously depict the Middle Eastern bathhouses as exotic dens of debauchery.

Traditionally, the experience begins with an elegantly decorated hot room – the River Palace makes do with an ordinary steam room, shared with the hotel spa. The real action starts as you progress to the “warm” steam room, which, although modest compared to the grand hamams of Istanbul, mimicks the Ottoman architectural style complete with column arches and domed roof.

The marble slab in the centre of the room is where the scrubbing takes place. The therapist used a rough mitt to scrub me head to toe, peeling off dead skin and grime. She periodically covered my skin with bubbly oil, gels and soaps, washing them off with hot water and massaging my back.

After around 40 minutes of that, I headed to the main spa’s cold tub – once the initial shock of entering the frigid water subsided, I felt immensely clean – after purging my pores in the steam room, my body had the most thorough scrubbing down it has had to date. I left a tad drowsy and ready for bed, despite it only being 4pm.

In a groggy interview afterwards, Modaly explained that the idea for installing the bath came from a European architect contracted to design the hotel spa. The architect, who has Turkish ancestry, suggested installing a hamam despite the concept being unheard of in the Kingdom.

“We wanted to make the River Palace Hotel spa special for Cambodia, so the designer had the idea of building a Turkish bath,” said Modaly, adding that no one at the hotel had any previous experience with hamams.

To make the baths authentic, the hotel flew out a team of Turkish-Germans to train the staff. All products are imported from Turkey. Modaly added that the hamam has proved particularly popular with European and Middle Eastern guests, though it has been slow to catch on among Asians.

“Some of the Asians, they don’t know it, but I want to let Asian people know about hamam,” she said.

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