There are many Turkish bathhouses (Hamams) in Istanbul. The famous ones being Çemberlitaş, Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam, Cağaloğlu etc where you fork out a fortune (more than 100 liras) to enjoy the finest bathing experience in a lavish and elegant environment. Being a frugal traveler (or cheapskate as sometimes the meaning of frugal connotes), those bathhouses with world-class facilities surely are places I would not be able to afford.
Instead, I found one on the Asia side; a quick online search showed glowing reviews. Most of the writeups raved about this place as being popular with locals, the exceptional service, the professional staff and the affordable prices – a mere 50 liras (USD 13). I noted to myself – ” Teh it is now or never. If it turns out to be a bad experience, I will only lose a small amount of money”!
Before the Hamam day, the owner’s daughter informed me via email of the gender separated section in the bathhouse and reminded me not to mistakenly enter the women’s section. However, easier said then done; when I eventually stood in front of the bathhouse, I became confused by the lack of English signage and wasn’t sure which gender entrance to use.
Knowing that standing outside the building and pondering over this gender puzzle would was a waste of time, I was like “whatever” and hastily pushed a door open and walked into the house. Damn! All hell suddenly broke loose! A lady at the door literally jumped out of her seat, shrieking out her lungs and stretching her arms wide open like a mother hen trying to shield my vision from the naked girls behind her. One of the girls let out a scream as if she were about to pass out at any second while the rest went helter-skelter! I was totally caught off guard by the sudden chaos and instantly backed away. On the way out, I hastily muttered apologies for catching them in full frontal and dashed to the other door.
Some old men were lounging in the living room with only towels wrapped around their waists. One of them, obviously the owner, herded me into a changing room and asked me to undress, put on flip-flops and wrap a towel around my waist. He then led me to a room with a heated marble stone. He ordered me to lie on top of the marble to sweat out the toxins in my body. There was a beautiful stained glass dome over the marble stone. While I was lying relaxing on my back on the stone, the sunlight streamed through the dome, casting a spectrum of glittering color and lulling me into a dreamy and hallucinogenic state of mind. I actually drifted into a sweet dream momentarily and saw myself being surrounded by a bunch of sexy Persian belly dancers… such magic!
I soon lost track of how long I was basking in a deep meditative state on the stone; by the time I woke up, I realized I was drenched in a pool of sweat. A bath attendant came in and gestured me to take a shower in a partitioned shower room. He was a large sumo wrestler-like man with a big saggy belly, someone very different from the Adonis-like looking people I saw in my dream. After a quick shower, I was escorted to a large common shower room where several local men were washing themselves out of buckets. My presence as the only the foreigner immediately spurred an exchange of whispers among them. Some of them let out a light chuckle as if they were taking delight in watching a nervous foreigner being washed from head to toe by a ‘sumo’ wrestler.
I was ordered to climb on top of a long marble table and laid there on my stomach. The sumo guy started lathering soap on me to the point I was entirely covered with bubble foam. He then put on a bath glove covered with bristles and began the exfoliation process. I could see layers and layers of body dirt being removed with every brisk rubdown. It was not as painful as what I would have thought but the realization of so much caked-on body dirt was certainly not something to be proud of. After that process was completed, I was left covered in a frothy white mass of bubbles for a good few minutes before asked to step down from the table. It was not easy to move around on the slippery stone filled with soapy water, a slight body movement could send me slipping and sliding like a fish out of water.
After struggling to stand, I finally became upright. With my vision still blurred from soap, I carefully tiptoed to the other end of the room where the sumo guy was ready to pour water down on me. I was ordered to remove the wet towel precariously clad around my waist and sit on the floor with my head lowered. One big pail of water after another, I was washed like a baby would have been washed. In between pouring water on me, he did a thorough and revitalizing massage on my entire body.
It was an overall uplifting experience except for a few awkward moments such as at one point during the massage, I was asked to bend over in a position where my head was literally beneath his towering belly so he could reach out to massage my back. Another time he gently patted on my thigh and made a gesture to ask me turn to the side while slightly lifting my butt off the floor. I did not see it coming until BAM! I was overcome with a whooshing sensation came under my buttocks when he ran his bare hand through the “canal” at a speed of a bullet train! When the washing came to an end, I dried myself up in the sauna before leaving the premises.
Overall I found the bath to be an exotic and eye-opening experience but definitely not a cup of tea for those who prioritize their privacy. Reflecting on all the reviews I read online, I can now resonate with one particular review: I have never felt so squeaky clean in all my life!