Today, I found myself in a locker room with lots of men wearing nothing but funny hats. There were also lots of young boys running around the place but they didn’t have funny hats – just stark naked! I was in a Russian-style sauna or banya.
After some long days of driving, I was in need of a massage. I asked the hotel receptionist if there was somewhere nearby where I could get a massage. Being familiar with Russian banyas, I explained to her that I didn’t want to be hit with oak branches and I didn’t want to be vigorously rubbed. I also clarified that I wanted a female masseuse. She made a phone call and assured me that this particular ‘sauna’ could cater to my requirements. She showed me where the place was located on a map and I set off to walk there.
When I got to the marked junction, I couldn’t immediately locate the ‘sauna’ but was pointed to a large domed building set back from the junction. Ominously, I saw a couple of old women selling oak branches outside the place!
When I got inside though, there was a huge promotional cut-out of a Thai woman in traditional dress, advertising the ‘Royal Thai Spa’. Excellent, I thought. I’m very familiar with Thai massages, so no need to worry about banyas.
At the reception desk, I explained my requirements to a guy who speaks English – Thai massage by a female and no oak branches, rubbing, etc. He tells me that I must first pay the 2,400 ‘basic fee’ (About $15 US) and that massages are charged additionally. When I asked what the basic fee was for, I was told that it included use of the baths, steam rooms, etc. I reiterated that I didn’t need the baths or the steam rooms. I simply wanted a massage. After getting nowhere, I paid the admission fee, got a wristband, a towel and a sheet and was taken into the locker room where all of the afore-mentioned male nakedness was observed.
I had been accompanied by the guy from reception to explain the procedure. He began to give me directions to the baths, the steam rooms, etc. Once again, I told him I only wanted a massage. No problem, he said. He’ll be back shortly with the house manager who will get me sorted out. I get undressed, put my things in the locker and am standing wrapped in my sheet when the guy returns with a younger man who he tells me is the masseur! Yet again, I emphasise that I want a female masseuse, I don’t want baths, I don’t want steam rooms, I just want a Thai massage! The message finally got through and I was told that the attendant would take me for a Thai massage once I’d had my shower.
So said, so done. I was led downstairs to the Thai section and into a room where some other guy was already getting a massage from a young Thai woman. Despite the room being fairly large, a second massage table was moved from its location across the room so that it was within arms length of the other guy’s massage table – pretty much side-by-side. Then I’m told to get onto the table for my massage. A cute Thai masseuse? No – not for me! I get the heavier Russian woman who, I am soon to discover, has not mastered the art of Thai massage. She tried her best but it wasn’t very effective.
So, after an hour on the massage table, I left the facility feeling no better than when I arrived and thinking the whole experience was rather weird.
I have since learned that the places I visited is the Almaty Arasan and is reported to be the best banya in Central Asia!