Steamed Out in Turkey

My trip is now more than half way over and the first countries are a distant memory (I was in Australia?).

Turkey is an interesting county, to be sure. There are lots of history here - like Paris or Rome - with friendly locals eager to engage visitors and try out their English skills.

The most memorial experience had to be taking my first Turkish bath. And where else to do it but at a historical bath called Çemberlitas Bath.  Çemberlitas Bath was commissioned by the wife of Sultan Selim II and designed and built by the architect Mimar Sinan in the year 1584 (it seems pretty much everything big and historical in Istanbul was designed by Sinan!).

Here is the front entrance to the bath.  Rather unassuming and obscured by other shops in front.

View from the lobby towards the door and the pay window.  Towels and pestamals hang from the rails.

After paying 69 TL (about USD $38) for a traditional bath, I was given a kese (a small bathing mitt) and a small token labeled “traditional” and was directed upstairs to a small room.  It had a narrow bed and it was just large enough to turn around and change.  There, I disrobed (after the attendants yelled at me “change!”) and put on the provided peştamal (a wrap to wear around the waist) and flip-flops. I stored all of my stuff in the room, locked the door, and wore the key around my wrist.

I was then led downstairs, by yet another attendant into the main chamber.  At the center of the domed chamber was a large raised hot granite slab, surrounded by facets running into basins.  Humidity was positively at 100%.

Here is a photo (not my shot).

Attendants also wore only peştamals, but of a different color.  If you think you get some beautiful lady as your attendant, you’d be wrong.  In fact, you don’t even get some handsome man.  All you get are burly old Turkish dudes as bathing attendants.  Truck driver would be a good analogy. 

Attendant #9, who spoke very little English, laid me down on my back at the edge of the large slab, resting my head on an inverted metal bowl, and placed my kese next to me.  A bucket of warm water from the nearby basin was then thrown on me and I laid there for about 10 minutes.  This was to allow the skin to warm up.  I stared at the small circular skylights in a polkadot pattern feeling the hot (but not too hot) slab warming my back.  While laying there, I did occasionally get water and soap from other bathers splashed on me.

Then it was my turn.  Mr. #9 returned and wetted my kese and proceeded to scrub my body with it.  Even though it was made of cloth, it had the constancy of sandpaper, designed to remove layers of dead skin.  He directed me to turn on my back and scrubbed some more.  “Sit!”, he directed.  With his hand on my head, he scrubbed by shoulder and neck.

Here is a good representation (not my photo).

With some more gesturing, I was on my back and given a soapy bubble rub.  I paid for the “traditional”, so there was very little massaging.  If you paid extra for the massage, this is where you’d get it (either that or I got cheated).  I laid on my stomach.  I found myself facing the feet of the next person.  Must-hold-breath…  “Sit!”, #9 commanded again.  Buckets of water were thrown in between positions.  He asked me, “ok?...problem?”.  Yes and no.  The whole thing was over quick.

I was then led to the next room for hair washing.  It was a dark room set up like a communal bathing room.  I got sat down and water was poured over my head.  Soap on hair, following by scrubbing and more scrubbing. Soap was running into my eyes...arrgh.  This process actually took longer than I expected.  Again, buckets of water over my head and it was over.  Mr. #9 led me back to the main chamber and once again asked me, “problem?”.  “No”, I replied.  He said, “after stay here, go shower, go upstairs, go downstairs, and tip!”.  He emphasized “tip” followed by the universal sign of money with his hands. 

I went back to the hot granite slab, laid towards the center, away from the bathers at the edge.  Now, the granite felt quite hot.  I initially could not lay all the way down.  Maybe it was hotter near the center, or my body had cooled off and had to re-adjust.  I laid there, sweating profusely, staring at the polkadot skylights in the ceiling.  I turned on my stomach, looking at the other newbies getting their treatment (it would have been nice to see what happens before the whole thing!).  I also noticed every attendant reminded all of their bathers about tipping. 

The brochure put it oh so nicely that after bathing, you are free to stay as long as you wish on the hot slab.  I didn’t even know how long I lasted.  Maybe 15 minutes.  I would like to think longer (but probably not).  I was sweating buckets.  I had to retreat to the sidewall next to the basin and douse myself with the headrest bowl.  One of the attendants yelled at me something I could not understand.  I motioned by fanning my hand signaling that I was hot.   All he did was shake his head in disgust. 

I dumped the warm (now felt cool) water from the fountain over my head and body.  A few times.  OK, more than a few times.  In the mean time, my sandals got absconded.  So while I was cooling off, I eyed a pair from another bather and made off with them.  I found the showers in the next room.  A large bottle of shampoo/soap was in the stall and I proceeded to find the cold setting on the tap. Hard to imagine…but at this point, the cold shower felt very comfortable. 

I finished my shower to find a queue outside my stall (there were only three stalls).  I went out to the lobby and the attendants yelled at me “change!” and pointed back to where I came from.  I said “how can I change, I don’t have my clothes with me?”.  They yelled “change!” again and pushed me back. 

Aha!  The towel attendants at the door had missed me.  The “change” of course, referred to changing of the peştamal (who knew?).  The towel attendant was being playful and put the towel around my head and shoulder like a headscarf (you know, like how women wear it). 

I went back out (without getting yelled at this time), went upstairs to my room and changed into my clothes.  As I was leaving, the room attendant pointed at the small cup and said “tip, tip”.  I thought the tip jar was downstairs (as implied by Mr. #9) so that caught me a bit off guard.  I put a $10 greenback (you know, the kind with President Hamilton on it) into the cup right when one of the more senior attendants saw me.  He gave a happy yell, patted me on the back and shook my hand.  I don’t know if they do that to all the tippers (because of all the badgering from the attendants), or whether he was truly glad.  All I did was leaving what Rick Steves recommended in his guidebook. 

With that big tip (supposedly), I thought it would not rude to ask the attendant for a photo to be taken before leaving.  Here, I think you can tell I went down two shirt sizes – I also lost about a gallon of water.

Back downstairs in the lobby, I was offered a beverage at the bar.  “Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice for 5 lira?”  That is actually street price.  “OK!”, I said.   I spent the next 15 minutes of so drinking the juice and bottled water I had brought with me.  The guidebooks said the entire process takes 1.5 to 2 hours.  It took me 2 hours total, in and out.  I thought I had woosed out on the post-bath hot slab, but apparently not.

Bar was at the right.  The guy on the right all wrapped up had just finished bathing; I looked like that too.

As promised, my skin felt baby smooth afterwards!

From what I read, the rude and manhandling attendants are part of the bathing experience.  The constant reminders about tipping, however, was a turn-off, even after reading about it and expecting it.

Enough to make you want to take one?

Previous posts from this trip:
  1. Down Under for Some Tight-Assed Fish
  2. My Travels to Middle Earth
  3. My First "Super" Flight 
  4. Impressions of Phuket


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