The driver who picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Penang suggested things I might want to see while visiting this part of Malaysia. “Of course, you want to spend time in George Town to see the many UNESCO World Heritage buildings. Kek Lok Si, Goddess of Mercy, and the Snake Temple are all interesting. And you must go to Batu Ferringhi; they have a good beach and the most incredible night bazaar.” Indeed, most of my time on Penang Island was spent wandering around George Town, but one day I just wanted to lie on the beach, so I caught a bus up to Batu Ferringhi.
From the moment I set foot on the beach I was disappointed. The sand was coarse and grainy and trash was scattered around. Granted, I’ve been spoiled by sugary white sand beaches in Thailand, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and the Caribbean, but even the water here seemed dirty and signs warned of danger from jellyfish. I walked a couple of miles up the beach, hoping it would improve, but instead the further I went the more erosion was evident, forcing me to walk over sandbags in places.
I’d cut back over to the main highway and was making my way to the bus stop when rain came pouring down. I ducked under the first available store canopy and found myself standing in front of something called a fish spa. Intrigued, I peeked in the windows, until one of the proprietors stepped outside and reeled me in.
Since he had limited English skills, he handed me a brochure that explained the concept of the spa. Garra rufa, also known as “doctor fish,” occur naturally in the waters of a hot spring in Kangal, Turkey. Locals realized that the fish would peck away at dead and diseased skin of bathers, helping skin conditions such a psoriasis. Also known as “lickers,” “nibble fish,” and “red log suckers,” these fish can grow to a length of 7.5 inches. They have bodies covered in gold scales and use their crescent-shaped, toothless mouths to nibble away dead skin, which supports renewal and rejuvenation. The high temperature of the water makes it difficult for any nutrients to survive, turning the fish into insatiable diners that will attack nearly anything that enters their domain.
The Fish Spa has recreated the conditions of the Turkish springs as closely as possible and stocked a giant tank with these skin-eating fish. $50 Malaysian Ringit (about $14.50 USD) buys clients the right to sit with their feet in the water for half an hour while the fish munch on their corns and callouses, followed by a 30-minute reflexology foot massage. It sounded a bit strange, but since I have bad feet, I’m game to try anything. They led me to the tank room, where I sat on a pillow and dangled my legs over the edge of the concrete pit, allowing the fish to do their thing. Instantly they swarmed and began feasting. The initial sensation of a million critters crawling up my legs gave way to a sort of tickling, until I totally relaxed. Twenty minutes later it was time to let the big boys – the larger fish – have a go, so I changed tanks and, reminding myself that they have no teeth, gingerly lowered my feet again. Ten minutes later I pulled my callous-free feet out of the tank.
By the time my 30 minute foot massage was done it was late afternoon, so I had some dinner and stuck around for the night bazaar. I emerged from the restaurant after dark and wandered out to the main road, which had magically been transformed into a mile long strip of vendors selling accessories, artwork, crafts, souvenirs, clothes, and much more. Since I’m not much of a shopper the bazaar was of little interest to me but I enjoyed listening to the intense bargaining going on all around me. I’d go again, but not for the bazaar or the beach. I’d go for the fish foot cleaning.
Many thanks to the Heading There travel blog for featuring this post in their recent carnival: “Getting away from it all: retreats, spas and spiritual travel.” Check out this week’s Heading There blog to read some other inspirational posts from some of the world’s best travel writers.
19 thoughts on “In Batu Ferringhi, Skip the Beach and Go to the Fish Spa”
My sone was stung by a jellyfish in Greece and it was extremely painful – I like the idea of those little fish nibbling away my dead skin though – just so long as they don’t have any teeth.
What a fascinating connection between Malaysia and Kangal – a tiny town very famous for it’s dog breed of the same name.
Traveling is always been fun for me, I have traveled the worst and the best places but the feeling is still the same. It is always exciting. Why? Actually, I don’t know the reason I just feel that way. And as much as possible even how worst is the place I still find way to enjoy it.
What an interesting idea. Not entirely sure I like the idea of fish munching on my feet though! I went to Batu Ferringhi for a couple of days years ago and I agree the beach isn’t up to much. I stayed in a little guesthouse tucked away from the main street though and I found that (very cheap backpacker) area had quite a bit of personality. Is it still there?
I didn’t see it myself Tom, but I understand the backpacker area is still
there. The folks I stayed with in Tanjong Tokong have a little place there
that they rent out as a whole apartment or individual rooms and everyone I
talked to who’d stayed there really liked the area.
I tried this a few years ago in Thailand. I found it kind of eerie for the first few minutes but the little fish seem to do a great job.
Hi Mark: Yes, the first couple of minutes seem to set off a reaction in the
nervous system that’s hard to explain, but after you get used to it, the
sensation is quite pleasant.
I’ve been enjoying your adventure.
Sarasota had a fish spa a couple of years back and I took advantage of it – felt like my feet were buzzing – but they didn’t have different sizes of fish. Florida later banned the practice.
Hi Jenn: Leave it to Florida! Glad you got to experience it while it lasted.
And so glad you’re enjoying my adventure.
So glad you tried this. The whole fish-foot-spa craze sparked an examination of other unusual spa treatments–light capsules, reiki on horseback and much more. My research turned into this piece I did for Travel & Leisure. Check it out:
Thanks Karen: I’ll check out your article when I have a decent Internet
connection outside of Nepal.
I’m so glad you tried this! It actually sounds kind of cool. How was the massage after the fish?
Hi ottsworld: The massage wasn’t bad either, but the real highlight were the
fish. You must try it sometime.
I saw the same fish foot massage establishments in Bangkok at a night bazaar. I wasn’t brave enough to try it. From the sounds of your experience, I should have.
Donna: You should have gone for it – it was totally cool!
That sounds so cool. I love to pamper my feet.
I’ve heard about this and now I’m dying to try it after your experience!!! We need before & after shots. 🙂
GlobalButterfly: I have the absolute worst feet – no way I was going to let
anyone see before shot!
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