Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Close Encounters with Flesh-Eating Fish

I dangled my feet into the warm water and waited. At first, I felt nothing. Then, the fish came and started EATING ME ALIVE!!!

That's right. I paid money to stick my feet in a tank of flesh-eating fish. 

There are a number of Fish Spas all over Penang, and I've been meaning to try one ever since I arrived. When a Groupon showed up for a US$6 session, how could I resist? Garra Rufa (a.k.a. "Doctor Fish") were first discovered in a hot spring in Turkey. Some dude over a century ago went soaking in it and noticed that, after a few sessions, his skin was noticeably smoother. Flash forward to the 21st century. George Will is holding them up as a symbol of free enterprise while Nickelodeon's VicTORIous shows tweens the downsides of trying it out.

What you're probably wondering is "How does it feel to be attacked by flesh-eating fish?" Back in high school, my Biology II Lab teacher had a piranha. If we were good that day, he'd let us feed it a hot dog. Wowzy, it really had sharp teeth and could gobble huge chunks out of the sausage. Luckily, the fish spa was nothing like that.

I was a tad apprehensive at first. When I looked down into the tank, at least the fish were small, probably no more than an inch long. So, how big of a bite could they really take out of me? It felt like light, feather kisses, no more troublesome than a little fly crawling on my skin. The fish only eat dead skin cells, leaving the healthy skin alone. I giggled at the ticklish feeling of them nibbling at my feet. I even wiggled my toes a bit, trying to get more of them to come over.

How could I possibly be afraid of these small fry?
It brings new meaning to "The fish are biting today."

Then, my friends and I decided to move on to the medium fish. These were just a little bit larger, so I wasn't too worried about sticking my feet in the water this time. What was most interesting about this room is that it's also for the private VIP full-body fish spa treatment. Yup, some folks immerse themselves from tippy toe up to their shoulders. According to the brochure, the Doctor Fish "industriously yet gently exfoliate stubborn and unreachable dead skin layers from your body." Ack! My feet are one thing, but no way are they going near anything else.

I'll have an order of Medium Fish, please.

As I relaxed in the darkened room, so many deep, philosophical questions floated through my brain. Where does this put me on the Food Chain? Where on the karmic reincarnation scale do Doctor Fish fall? What movie should I see when I've finished up here?

We saved the big fish for last. These were about the size of a bratwurst, almost as long as my foot. Doubt set in again. How committed am I to my quest for baby-smooth feet?

Much, much larger fish
I can see it's eyes!

I waited until everyone else submerged their feet before gathering my courage. I gingerly lowered my feet, but squealed and pulled them out when one started in on my ankle. These weren't gentle, little nibbles. These fish felt like some person was scraping their nails on me. Eeek! I put my feet back in and was relieved when they started in on my heels which were much less sensitive.

After 30 minutes, the attendant told us our time was up. How effective was the treatment? Probably about the same results that I'd get from a session with a pumice stone or Ped Egg (As Seen on TV!). But then how would these little fishies get their food? They probably licked their tiny Trouty Mouth lips and thought all-you-can-eat buffet when they saw me coming.

Would I do it again? If my friends and family come and visit, I'd definitely take them there.

This post is part of the following link-ups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Okay, not only did I laugh, I read this one out loud to Joel! I passed on the tiny fish peds in Crete but there was always a little niggly part of me that thought I should try it. Now I don't have to - you've done it for me. Great post!

  2. I didn't know about the Turkish connection. I am a chicken about skin eating fish and worry about fishy infections!

  3. Oh my gosh- this post reminded me of a trip we took to Progresso, Mexico. We had toured the ruins of a Mayan temple and on the grounds was a cenote where we could swim or dip our feet. The flesh eating fish were there, nibbling on our feet. Like you, I was apprehensive about putting my feet in the water but I finally gained my courage. It almost tickled at first but then I found it mildly relaxing. These were little fish though. I'm not sure I could have watched something as big as a bratwurst chomp down on my toes. :)

  4. Hey! I did Dr. Fish in Daegu and loved it. It did tickle! Then we were dipping our feet in a river in the south of France, and guess what? I got or gave, hmmm, a free feeding to the tiny fish there. Too fun!

  5. This is one of those quirky things to do as a gang. We swam in a pool in Belize once that was naturally fed and had a bunch of small fish nibble on us. It's definitely a little unnerving at first.

  6. I'm laughing here. Fish spas have really evolved! I've been to them in Chiang Mai. I didn't realize that you submerge your entire body. I don't think so! Those big fish look like they could do some serious damage!

  7. I have seen those around... I wanted to try but my friend told me that often people get bacterial infections from them (if they are being used by heaps of people the chances are greater). I decided against it, but have heard nothing but good things from the people I know who've used them.

  8. You're funny. I tried this in Jamaica once, it was a pretty tickelish experience. I'd sit there anticipating the fish to start biting and when they started, I'd start to giggle (and move my foot) they'd swim away. Finally, I got the hang of it and sat still.
    We didn't have the luxury of trying different size fish (I thought of Goldilocks when I read that) where I went - it wasn't a spa. I'm not sure I'd do a whole body submerge though.

  9. Ahhhh! You're crazy! But you have very cute toe nails so I guess all is right with the world.

  10. YIKES!!! I have never been game to try this when Ive seen it. I am so ticklish and am kind of afraid of fish, so its a bad combo. And my whole body... UM NEVER! Good on you for trying it. BIG THANKS for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler - hope to see you again next week!!

  11. This is hilarious! I've heard about this and always wanted to give it a try. My feet are a bit tickly and I was always afraid that I would end up kicking the fish by mistake! But it sounds like such a unique experience that I would try it if given the chance :)

  12. I remember seeing those fish spa in Penang but with our small budget I never even thought of trying them. Then, on Langkawi, we were recommended to go to a lagoon where these fish live, and we had the same experience... i get ticklish just thinking back about it!

  13. I've always wonder how it feels - light feathery kisses seem pretty reasonable. When I was in Greece, my boyfriend and I went for a quick romp in the water and something started biting my feet. I don't know if they were the same kind of fish, but they certainly hurt! At first I thought I was imagining it, but then it happened again and again. I don't think I'd ever try one of these fish spas after that traumatic experience.

  14. I love it! My husband and I want to do it, but it is illegal in the United States (sanitation laws). We will definitely have to do it while traveling! Thanks for the laughs. I found you from the #SundayTraveler link-up! -Heather, Life of a Traveling Navy Wife

  15. Those fish SPAs are now everywhere. We also have here in Croatia, but I've never been to one. I don't like the idea of anything eating my skin. It grosses me out. And the big fish is really big (seems as big as your feet)


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