Turkish Baths: What You Need To Know For Navigatıng Your First Hammam Experience
Entering the chamber your eyes gradually acclimate to steamy haze to you see you are not alone. By the shafts of light floating down from a domed ceiling high above, the naked bodies occupying every marbled surface slowly become visible; the air thick and sweet with the smell of perfumed bubbles and the sound of exposed skin being lathered slaps and slips.
Tiptoeing shyly further into the space, you clutch the traditional cotton cloth peştamal to your chest like a startled vole when, emerging from the fog, a bare-breasted masseur looms into view. She unceremoniously plucks your towel — that last vestige of modesty — from your now uncovered frame.
You are one with the sea of flesh.
Leading you to a huge hot stone in the center of the chamber — where many other of the nakies are already luxuriating — she gestures for you to lie down. Being rather unsure of exactly what is coming next, it is difficult to relax. “Okay,” you tell yourself, “shut your eyes. Breathe. Enjoy the calming environment of . . .” Hot water hits you in the face as you are doused with a bucket wielded by the silent but stately purveyor of the suds.
Do not fight it. For the foreseeable future, you belong to them. Relinquish yourself to large nude people and let the cleansing commence.
It is not hard to understand why the words “Turkish bath” can have an alarming effect on people, as without knowing what to expect, the prospect of being hosed down by a stranger can be disconcerting. But, dear first-time Hamam-goers, when in Turkey, do as the Turks do and, with a little help from the answers to some FAQ’s, we shall prepare you for your great bathing debut.
Will I be completely naked?
Unlikely. If you are female, in most cases you will be provided with a pair of underwear to cover your nether-regions. If you are male, you will wear your peştamal around your waist throughout.
Is it embarrassing walking around naked?
This depends on you, but there is really no need to be. You know you are going to have to take your clothes off so embrace it. Every shape and size is accounted for inside a Turkish bath. And I do mean every. Big or small, pointy or curvy or concave, just let it everything be free and strut it out.
What should I bring with me?
To be on the safe side, bring everything you would as if you were going to a swimming pool, but in most cases, and certainly in the commercial baths, you actually won’t need anything at all as they will provide everything from towels to soap to hairdryers to tea.
How do I know what treatment to have?
Most Hamams will offer you the choice between “self service,” where you wash yourself, and a traditional cleanse. Go for the latter.
As to the bathing itself, you can then pay a bit more for certain “Extras” — and this isn’t code for a quickie in the Jacuzzi, we simply aren’t that sort of a website I’m afraid. [Editor’s Note: We Aren’t?] Possibilities for additional services usually comprise facials, special oil massages and pedicures, for which you will pay an additional fee settled beforehand.
Will the masseur also be naked?
Yes, they will be as naked as you are. The probability for unintentional skin-on-skin action is therefore extremely high. Depending on your constitution, having somebody else’s mammary/reproductive glands flapping about on your back as they wash you can induce feelings of panic, but don’t think about it too much.
Will the masseur be male or female?
You will rarely encounter mixed sex Turkish baths. In the majority of cases the areas for men and women are kept separate or the days for men and women are alternated.
How do I know which Hamam to visit?
Turkish baths can have the reputation for being unhygienic and seedy, or less sensitive towards foreigners. Those located inside hotels will almost certainly be clean and geared towards the less experienced bather, but the drawback is the experience will probably not be quite as “authentic” as a back-alley equivalent, and it will definitely cost you a pretty penny.
Çembarlitaş Hamamı close to Sultahanamet is an excellent compromise. It’s one of the oldest hammams in Istanbul and is consistently rated for being one of the most pristine and user-friendly. Expect to pay about 69 Turkish lira (USD$39) for a traditional wash.
If you have any Turkish-speaking friends who use the local version of Groupon, ask them to check online for the latest deals. Unfortunately it is not available in English.
Should I tip my masseur?
If you feel like they did a good job, then absolutely, but it is not compulsory and many people don’t. Find them in the communal area afterwards as you will be devoid of a purse or pockets during the bath itself.
Does it hurt?
The terms “pummel” and “scrub” are very useful in surmising what to expect from a Turkish bath. But while it probably won’t be quite as sedate as having a cup of tea with your granny, it should not be a painful experience. Bracing certainly, but not un-enjoyably so.
About the Author
A restless Brit with big dreams and limited cash flow, Hannah is an English graduate and former Publicist who has spent the past 18 months living and working in Central America. You can follow her wanderings at TheTangerineRidiculousness.com.