A Turkish Bath Experience In Istanbul
Everything we’ve done in Istanbul has been interesting, but getting scrubbed down and massaged with soap by a couple of good looking male “tellaks” tonight definitely tops our list of unique experiences! My husband generally refuses to go for any kind of spa treatment (he doesn’t like other people touching him), but our Aussie roommates in Vienna told us this was an amazing must do thing in Turkey so he agreed to give it a try. It wasn’t as amazing as we expected, but it was interesting…
If you’ve never heard of a Turkish bath before, the first thing I should point out is that it isn’t the kind of bath where you soak in a tub of water. A Turkish bath is more like a sauna (not as hot) where you sit on a huge slab of warm marble with other people until you get scrubbed and massaged by a professional tellak (traditionally a male, but some baths now use females). Most Turkish baths have separate sections for men and women, but Paul didn’t want to be in a room full of other almost-naked guys so we opted for Süleymaniye, the only mixed gender Hamam we could find. I thought this meant just the two of us take the bath together, but they group you with other people. It’s not what you’re thinking, though, women are given a bikini top and shorts to wear while men cover up with a decent sized towel. If we had to get naked with all these strangers, I wouldn’t have gone in!
To be informative, I’ll take you through the experience step by step.
- We showed up at Süleymaniye without an appointment and asked if they could do a bath with both of us. They said sure, 75 lira each (cash only), includes unlimited time in the bath, a scrub and soap massage. Then they asked us to have a seat and wait and served us some strawberry flavored tea.
- A large group of people showed up and I realized we would all be doing this together. We all sat for a while and then they sent us upstairs to change (each couple had a private change room). When we went back down dressed in our bathing gear, we were given some really uncomfortable large wooden clogs to wear (I couldn’t walk in mine so I shuffled along).
- We sat in the warming area (a dimly lit room with the huge slab of hot marble you sit on) for about 20 minutes to adjust our body temperatures. The tellaks appear to get a break during this time in between groups of people. I tried to lie down, but the person next to me smelled badly of BO so I had to sit up. With 10 of us in the group, there was no space on the marble slab to move elsewhere.
- The tellaks came back and took two couples at a time to do the scrub/massage. Since we were the first to arrive, we were the first to be taken to the bathing area, which is a walled off section in the corner of the warming area. Being with a bunch of strangers of both genders, it’s nice that you go into a slightly secluded area with just your partner for the scrub/massage part (at regular baths the tellak comes to scrub you on the large marble slab you sit on with everyone else). I felt like our bath might have been a bit rushed because we were the first.
- My tellak told me to sit down on the floor and then began to rapidly pour bowl after bowl of cold water on me (kind of like the way I bathe my dog). He then put on a mitt called a Kese and proceeded to scrub me. It wasn’t nearly as amazing as other people have described – just a few basic strokes on my arms, legs, and back. I didn’t see any dead skin roll off me like I’ve read in other peoples’ descriptions.
- More cold water got dumped on me and then I was asked to lie face down on a marble table. Then came my favorite part – the soap bubbles! They were warm (yay!) and felt amazingly soft and smooth. Using the soap, the tellak briskly massaged my body. When he finished rubbing my back, he gave a few quick presses to crack my back, which felt really nice. He then asked me to turn over and massaged my front, including my abs which felt weird. The massage ended with a few stretches and slaps and I was unexpectedly doused with cold water again!
- I was asked to sit on the floor again and the tellak rinsed me off with more cold water. He then asked if I’d like to be shampooed. I’m glad I said yes because he did a nice little head rub with the shampoo, but this also meant lots more cold water got dumped on my head. I don’t think they realize how uncomfortable this is because they continuously drench themselves in the cold water to keep their body temperature normal. I felt like I was drowning.
- The tellak gave me a final slap on the back, said I’m done and told me to go relax on the marble slab again. The smelly person had gone to get bathed so I took the opportunity to lie on the slab for a while, which felt nice. In total, the scrub and massage lasted 15 minutes or less. For 75 Turkish lira ($50 CAD), I could have gotten a very good one hour massage back home so I feel a bit ripped off.
- When we were done sitting on the slab, we went back to the entrance of the bath and were told to go into a room to remove our wet clothes and wrap ourselves with a large towel. We thought we were done once we changed, but we had to wait for another member of staff to wrap our hair and our shoulders up with some smaller towels. This is the part where I really wish I could have taken a camera inside because we looked ridiculous wrapped up like that.
- We were taken to a cooling room where we sat with everyone else. They offered us drinks (for an extra charge) but most people declined. Paul had had enough at this point and went to change right away. I sat in the room for a while and then went to change as well. Eventually people began to wonder how long they were supposed to sit there and figured out that you can just leave when you’re ready.
We left the bath feeling a little ripped off, but we’re glad we experienced it. I would love to try another bath to compare, but it’ll have to wait until we come back to Turkey again. Now I’m looking forward to Korea next June, where I’ll be sure to try a Korean bath which is supposed to be similar…