Dave and I love going to the spa. It all started during our first trip to Thailand in 2000, when we found out that we could get a massage in a cabana by the beach for less than US$5.00! So we booked a massage at least two times a week. We had a small daily budget for travel then, but we made sure to “splurge” regularly.

Since that first trip, we’ve had some wild spa and massage treatments around the world. Some are fun and relaxing, some are painful and confusing, and some are just downright bizarre. If you find yourself overseas contemplating whether or not to give a massage a try, here’s a fun roundup of the quirkiest massages that we’ve tried so far.

Hot cupping in China

Hot cupping was all the rage in Hollywood in the 1990s, but I don’t think celebrities had quite the same experience we had in Yangzhou, China. It was at a small office on a cobblestone street, where a petite woman came into the room with 40 bamboo cups, lit a match, and swiftly stuck the cups to our backs and shoulders.

Without a word, she exited the room and left us alone for 20 minutes to feel the squeeze of the cups sucking out all the toxins in our backs. It left us black and blue for a week, but all the tension from carrying our backpacks quickly melted away.

Ayurvedic massage in India

If you want a massage that slathers you up in copious amounts of oil, this is the massage for you. Ayurvedic massage is popular for people traveling through the backwater town of Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha), and that is where we had our treatment.

This is a time to put all modesty aside. Your therapist will stand in the room with you as you strip naked and proceed to cover you in oil while massaging with long and deep strokes from back to front. You are covered with herb-infused oils from head to toe. Afterward, you have a bath with a bucket and scoop, and leave feeling rather relaxed—if a bit gooey.

Fish spa in Greece

The fish spa became popular in Southeast Asia, but I could never bring myself to put my feet in a tub of water where so many other backpackers had their feet. However, it seemed like the civilized thing to do in Santorini when they assured us that they cleaned the water regularly.

A fish spa is a massage done to your feet by fish! Once you put your feet in the water, the garra rufa—aka “doctor fish”—flock to your heels and toes, eating away your dead skin. It tickles and feels a little peculiar, but once they finish up their meal, your feet feel silky smooth.

Hammam in Morocco

When visiting Marrakech in Morocco, we were told that we must visit a hammam. A hammam isn’t just a massage, it’s an experience. The treatment begins by stripping down to nothing but your birthday suit before you are led to a room filled with marble benches and steam. After sitting bewildered for several minutes, someone leads you by the hand to a slippery marble slab where you are washed and scrubbed with vigor before finishing up with your body-contorting massage. You are steamed, cleaned, and tenderized to perfection, and by the time you leave, you feel like a big pile of Jell-O.

Viewfinder Tip: If you are ever uncomfortable before a spa treatment, make sure to ask questions. 

Reflexology in Malaysia 

We had been backpacking around Asia for months, and my feet were killing me. A nice foot massage seemed like a good idea at the time. So while staying in Penang, Malaysia, we heard that there was a famous center that was known for reflexology. We walked to the address in our guidebook and proceeded to book an appointment.

Within minutes, I was sitting in a chair in front of a very old man who grabbed my foot, pressed on a point, and made me howl with pain! I never knew my feet could hurt so much, but he was digging into every pressure point on the heel and sole of my foot. He kept telling me, “You not healthy. You need to relax.” Dave had his treatment after me and barely made a peep. While the doctor was massaging Dave’s foot, he looked at me and said, “You need to be more like him. He’s relaxed. You’re too tense and it’s making you sick.” Man, I could do with that doctor right now. It may have been painful, but it was one of the most satisfying massages I’ve ever had.

Have you had a quirky massage during your travels?