In Chiang Mai, Fish spas are springing up like mushrooms.
The owner of this spa, Mrs Aphinphon Sonderquist, spends much of her time reassuring her customers that all is well and that the legions of garra rufa fish, swarming around their feet, mean them no harm and are simply removing dead skin, leaving the feet feeling fresh and healthy. Depending on the size of the fish, the resulting experience can range from a barely perceptible nibble to a fairly significant nip.
Despite the health benefits being extolled by the Chiangmai fish spa operators, some health concerns have been raised. Some people are worried that if the fish feasted on the flesh of a diseased foot, then the disease could be passed on to the next customer. The American government has banned fish spas for this reason. Regulations in the USA require that exfoliation instruments for the removal of dead skin cells, including live fish, either have to be sterilised, or discarded after use. At fifty five baht a fish, they are rather too expensive to throw away and definitely wouldn’t survive any form of sterilising process.
And Aphinphon is adamant that there is no risk of disease being spread because:
Garra rufa fish occur in the river basins of the Northern and Central Middle East, mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It is protected from commercial exploitation in Turkey due to concerns about over harvesting for export. In the year 2011 there were 1,341 fish spas in Thailand, so it’s no wonder the Turks were starting to worry about the numbers of Garra rufa being depleted. While still very popular in Chiangmai, the number of fish spas have dropped off a little and Aphinphon has diversified in that she also offers conventional foot massages for those too faint hearted to confront the terrors of the fish tank. The place was a 2nd hand book shop when she bought it and she still does a fair trade in books. Customers often browse the shelves for an appropriate bit of light reading while they dangle their legs in the water for a one hour session which costs them 99 baht. After an hours reading, they are often hooked and end up buying the book as well.
At the end of what many people regard as an indescribable experience,
Aphinphon takes a souvenir photograph which is printed on the spot and presented to the participant.
Mrs Aphinphon’s book shop and fish spa is located on Kotcuasarn Road, in Chiang Mai, just near the Tapae Gate.