I’m not into facials or manicures and I’ve been known to cut my own hair (and regret it). I like to think I’m pretty low maintenance overall. But I am a curious creature, too curious to ignore the lure of a fish pedicure while in Cambodia.

When our Tuk Tuk pulls up at Central Market in Siem Reap, my partner negotiates a price for the driver to wait one hour. Money is our guilty pleasure when we travel in Asia. We try to tip and give to those most in need, when we think we’re being scammed we try to keep perspective, remember where we are, the privileged life we’re returning to. We try to learn something. We try to relax.

Central Market is perhaps the least likely place you’d expect to find R&R. The sapping heat, pungent scents and crowds can be oppressive; long tables piled high with raw meat, vegetables and spices, every kind of souvenir from T-shirts and fake name brand watches to hand-woven silk blankets and ‘krama’ (the traditional checkered cotton scarf of Cambodia). The shuffling, sweating, tourists’ bodies. The necessary obscenity of money belts. The haggling.

But there’s an unlikely little oasis to be found at one corner of market life. Fronting a shop crammed with portable electric fans and tennis racquets, two four-feet long fish tanks advertise a very different kind of pedicure and massage service.

The first sign that catches my eye is :

‘If our fish can’t make you happy we won’t charge you’ (the charge being one American dollar – the average daily wage in Cambodia).

The second, not quite as inviting: ‘Please feed our hungry fish your dead skin’

One tank is in use – a woman drinking beer, feet soaking, debating good humoredly with the vendor about whether her thirty minutes are up.

The other tank is empty. Waiting.

Amused and curious but also more than a little repulsed at the idea, I quicken my pace to walk on when the woman’s voice (distinctly Australian) floats across the air urging me to try it, promising me that I won’t regret it … ‘Go on’ she calls out (the dare implicit).

I flash a questioning I might if you do look at my partner but the raised eyebrows let me know he’s happy to look but not to touch. We keep walking, scouring stalls selling the same trinkets over and over, searching for a deal we won’t lose sleep over. We buy ginger and black sesame seed ice cream.

I’m relishing the ice cream but I’m thinking about the fish. About their ability to soften my neglected, calloused feet. About the other Australian woman and what else we might have in common.

The truth is I’m not what you’d call a feet friendly kind of person. I wouldn’t say I’m an exact fit for the urban dictionary’s definition of podophobia but I’m a world away from calling myself a foot fetishist. Childhood memories attest: Torturous tickling and risky squirming as my mother tried to cut my toenails. The combined strength of three nurses bracing me during the removal of a papilloma.

About tickling in general I’d like to say this – just because I’m laughing doesn’t mean I’m having fun.

P1020135So when someone suggests I plunge my feet into a tank full of dead skin eating fish for thirty minutes my first reaction isn’t to jump in the deep end.

But there’s something about the being elsewhere, in transit, that encourages a shifting of the self imposed boundaries around insecurities, prejudices and surefootedness (pun intended). Even an inch out of your comfort zone can be invigorating and empowering. All this persuades me. Also once dared, I’m halfway there.

So we backtrack to the oasis to find the woman still there, still debating. She is cheekily reminding the vendor what a good customer she is, how much beer she’s bought after the first free one. All pleas to buy her a few more minutes in fish feet heaven.

When she sees me she gives me a beer-can salute and inclines her head toward the neighboring, still empty fish tank. The one clearly now

with my name on it.DSC_6014

As my partner finds a good spot to photograph my folly, I remove my shoes, roll up my pants, climb up onto the sky-blue bench seat and lower a big toe into the fishy waters below. Go on says my compatriot. I have to remind myself the fish are absolutely not piranhas.Soon I’m holding a complimentary can of beer in one hand and an ice cream in the other. Risky business indeed.

The initial tickling sensation is almost unbearable but each time I move to take my feet out of the water the voice from the next tank coaxes me to keep them submerged. Just wait. Give it time. And she is right. My hyper-sensitivity wears off surprisingly quickly. I feel the grimace on my face morphing into something close to a smile and feelings of dread gradually become feelings of delight and wonder. I am thinking of putting my own spin on the word symbiosis. In short – I am happy.

For the next thirty minutes the fish do their thing while we two women discover similar core beliefs. We talk about kids in detention camps, about the future of refugees in Australia, the incremental connections and changes that are being made at a grass roots level.

Our hour at the market is well over and we hurry as much as you can in this climate, to distinguish our Tuk Tuk from all the other hopefuls. When we do, we recognize our driver by, among other things, a shared expression of relief and restored faith in the ‘handshake’ contract.

As we prepare to leave a woman appears at my side, grounding me once more with an arresting, commonplace image. The small child hooked to the hip. The matching expressionless faces, skin and bone bodies. The hand extended in a simple age-old gesture of need. My American dollar falls soundlessly into the dented metal bowl. My too-soft-feet reminding me to tread always with care.

 Photos by Ralph Wessman and Jane Williams