The Piranha Pedicure

Penang, Malaysia

When Eric, the manager of the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion guesthouse in Penang, invited me to go with him to the Penang fish salon, I didn’t hesitate a beat. We drove there–the salon is located, of course, in a shopping mall–parked in the lot, and headed to the salon. It looked a lot like a sushi bar inside, with raised wooden decks and smooth pebble paths.

I’d heard about these pedicures by “doctor fish”, (their biological name is garrarufa) that feast on dead human skin, leaving your toes and soles clean and soft. (The technique has allegedly has been used for centuries as a cure for psoriasis and ezcema.) Eric swears by it, and says that fish salons are huge in Korea, Malaysia and Thailand.  Lately they’ve also been popping up on the U.S. spa circuit. But they’re controversial–fish salons have been banned by health departments in Texas and Washington.

The fish girl attendants giggle as they take my sandals away and hand me a small towel. “You feel soo good when you finish,” they tell me, as I walk, barefoot, into the back room to wash my feet first.

Then I take a seat on one of the wooden platforms, next to Eric. He already has both feet in the cool water, and a cluster of fat black fish, about the size of hot dogs, is munching away on his toes. He smiles serenely, as they do their thing. Or have dim sum. Or whatever it is that garrarufa fish do.

I watch for a few seconds, then slip my toes tentatively into the cool water. At once, the fish abandon Eric and swarm my way in a frenzy, until my feet look like two shivering black porcupines. I can feel the itch of a hundred mouths chomping on me. Worse, I can hear the relentless crunch, crunch, crunch of their tiny teeth against my soles.


Three seconds later, I’ve pulled my feet out of the water. Eric, across the pool, is laughing like crazy.

After a few tries, I finally manage to keep my feet still under the water without dissolving into a ticklish convulsion. Just when I have started to get used to my new role as a parasite host, the attendants decide it’s time to move me to a different pool that has smaller, slippery fish, the size of my finger. They are fickle and easily scared–if I don’t keep my feet entirely still, they run away. But if I let them come, their slithering feels like a million feathers. I bite my lip, hold my breath, and try not to look down.

Gradually, the fish become sated, lose their taste for my toes, and swim away. Soon, the attendants proclaim me “done”, and hand me a little earthenware cup of strong Chinese tea on a platter.

I’m not sure what “done” is supposed to be–picked clean? My feet, however, do feel somewhat smoother, and they’re tingling. I slip on my sandals and leave the salon feeling strangely hungry.

No problem there–in Penang, Malaysia, you are never more than a stone’s throw from a hawker stall (for more on this terrific city, where the architecture is almost as fabulous as the food, stay tuned for my article about Penang in next month’s National Geographic Traveler).

Five minutes later, I’m sitting at a folding table with Eric before a bowl of Curry Fish Head soup. Chopsticks poised, I’m ready to re-assert my superior position in the food chain.