Garra rufa fish spas on Ko Samui

What we say: 3.5 stars

Garra rufa fish spas have been used in the Middle East for centuries but Southeast Asia has fairly recently jumped on the bandwagon and you’ll find them right across the region, including in Thailand. These little freshwater fish originate from the river basins of several Middle Eastern countries; they also go by the name of Dr Fish, nibble fish and kangal fish. They earned the name Dr Fish because of the health benefits they provide to people with skin conditions such as psoriasis, as they nibble away at the problem skin.

Fish for lunch, or lunch for fish?

So how does it work? Basically the theory is that the fish nibble the skin to stimulate, rejuvenate and generally improve the health of the skin by natural exfoliation. The fish have no teeth and secrete a therapeutic enzyme called dithranol which is often a component of dermatological creams. One of its benefits is a reduction of the development of skin cells, which can ease the symptoms of conditions such as eczema. Pores are also cleared and cleaned in the process, and blood circulation is improved.

The ‘patient’ has their feet well washed, before immersing them into the tank of hungry fish. Those with ticklish feet be warned – it can be excruciating and impossible to keep your feet still. There are a few spas that offer a full body experience, but most spas concentrate on feet.

What does it cost? On average, 10 minutes will set you back 150 baht, or try the spa at Big Buddha that charges 300 baht and lets you sit as long as you can hold out.

Just 300 baht to have your feet tickled for as long as you like. Treasure or torture?

Some controversy surrounds these little fish, with reports that diseases can be transmitted from one patient to another via the water. Those who swear by the therapy have spurned the accusations, but it would be sensible, as with any treatment, to choose your venue and practitioner wisely. A good spa will have UV lights to sterilise the water, and a filtration system that changes the water at least every 30 minutes. They would also insist that customers wash feet well in clean water, as chemicals from sun creams and other body products can harm the fish. The practitioner should also check the patient for any open wounds or infectious conditions as an added precaution.

Ko Samui is home to several good fish spas, including Dr Fish on Chaweng Beach Road, opposite Al’s Resort, which is open daily 11:00 to 23:00.

“Actually I think I’d rather be surfing!”

Should you try a fish spa? We have tried it several times with friends as part of our ‘initiation to Thailand’ fun day, and all have enjoyed it with no ill effects other than a sore stomach from laughing too much. Read the hype as well as well as the literature defending the practice, and make an educated decision for yourself.

Last updated: 9th March, 2015

About the author:
Rosanne Turner relocated to Thailand in 2010 from South Africa. She enjoys sharing her discoveries of Samui after walking every beach, hill, coconut grove and forgotten path in search of that memory-making beach bar. You can follow her blog at Travelling Pen.
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