You can truly enjoy your experience at a hamam only the second time around. As for the first time you’re too busy feeling awkward, trying to figure out the etiquette at such a place, wondering what, how much, and how much not to wear while trying hard not to stare at or do anything that might be perceived as offensive or odd in culture different from yours.
Once the initial experience of awkwardness has passed and you know exactly what to expect, you can sign up for the next session like a pro quite – unlike the shy awkward and nervous tourist I was, you were the last time.
Tip 1: Leave your inhibitions at home. And this is the only tip you’ll need.
I had previously visited a hamam during my trip to Jordan back in 2009. And though it was initially a pleasant experience, the scrubbing took a little too much skin off my shoulders and upper back causing red scab to form in the next days. Ouch! Though I was determined to give it another shot when we arrived in Turkey where, I presume, the tradition of hamams began.
Although the guide book recommended a few places good for tourists, it’s clear that the prices there would be marked for tourists as well. Taking the advice of our hostel owner who recommended a local hamam he himself visits, we decided that’s the place we wanna go! After getting there I was quickly ushered off to the next building where the women’s hamam was. A nice matronly looking older woman welcomed me in with a smile and wave. She seemed quite friendly even though didn’t speak any English, except for a few important and oft used words – good, change and everything. Taking me to a small changing room with a closet to keep my stuff, she handed me a towel and used the last 2 words of the 3 she knew, indicating what I was supposed to do – change, everything.
Now one of the most common concerns or queries women have regarding a traditional hamam is about clothing. Don’t worry too much about it and just go with what you’re most comfortable with. Trust me, these women at the hamam have seen it all. Some of us chose to stick with our bathing suits or a part of it and some with just their birthday suit – either way, no one bats an eyelid. And in the hamam I went to, before the bath started the masseuses who’re quite, let’s say well built, changed into red thongs, nothing more.
Of course in most traditional hamams, women and men have separate sections or at least different timings. There are some newer, more modern hamams catered towards foreign tourists, which are mixed, but if you opt to go there you’ll have to be comfortable with a man giving you the massage and bath.
Photo credit: Travelshop Turkey
After changing, I was then taken to large room covered in marble. The masseuse sat me down next to one of the many stone basins lining the wall about a foot off the ground, asked me to relax and started pouring warm water over me. The room felt rather damp and quite hot, this is to help soften your skin for the scrubbing that comes up soon. If the heat gets to you, just pour some cold water to cool off.
Usually there’s a large marble slab in the centre of the room which looks like a small stage. It is on this that you’re made to lie down for your massage and bath. After a while, you’re soon beckoned there for the first session of dry scrubbing, where you’ll see a surprising amount of dead skin you thought you never had, come off. This can get a bit rough as it’s done without any soap and water, so be prepared. But if done well, it can leave your skin feeling squeaky clean!
What follows next is the main and most fun part – the soapy foamy massage and bath, if you can manage to keep yourself from slipping off that is. The masseuse definitely knew what she was doing, as she pulled, pushed and twisted every muscle removing the knots and tension accumulated with carrying 20 kilos of luggage on my back for the last month, with plenty of ease and soapy water.
As the woman bent dangerously close while massaging my shoulders I closed my eyes and tried to relax, she must’ve noticed me looking rather uncomfortable and asked me “India?”. On hearing a confirmation she beamed happily and broke into old Hindi songs from the 1950s.
Bollywood brings the world together it seems.
But I had to smile, here was a woman well into her sixties, wearing next to nothing while massaging and bathing me, singing old Hindi film songs of which she didn’t understand a word while I lay there covered in foam. Such moments are what I will always remember when the trip is long done and the memories are faded.
Cost: 45 TL (25$)
Time: About an hour or so from start to finish. After it’s done you can use the sauna for as long as you want or opt for an additional oil massage.