Monday, May 21, 2007

So Spa, So Good

Tucked away in many of the city's shopping complexes and commercial estates you can find that familiar Asian motif, the spa. Some are rather misleadingly called family health centers - spas are exclusively for the dads in my experience - while others have been nominally expanded into spa and karaoke joints. It's the karaoke part of the title here that carries with it certain, perhaps not unjustified, connotations of sleaze in this country. The reality of the spa though, seems to fall somewhere between the professed temple of family health and a place of much redder recreational lighting.

Jakarta's spas are mainly full of East Asian men: Koreans, Japanese and Indonesian Chinese, all sitting around stoically in functional blue regulation trunks like some Maoist swimming team. The only women here are the ones providing the massages (sorry, I'm having trouble locating the plural of the word 'masseuse') however, this doesn't necessarily imply any funny business. The spa is a normal part of oriental culture in the same way that occidental males may join a gentlemen's club: they both provide the opportunity to relax and to make new acquaintances and business contacts.

As a Brit, I've taken to the whole experience like a duck to very hot water, even though the spa hasn't really been a part of our culture since the Romans left, over a millennia ago. The occasional pale faces like myself, who visit the city's spas from time to time, find the experience novel and relaxing in equal measure.

Last weekend, an Indonesian friend took me and another lily livered Westerner to a spa in the Kota area that I had never been to before. After a couple of hours, I was able to restore myself to rude health again after a particularly heavy Saturday night spent toasting the new branch of Bugil's that has just opened in Pondok Indah. I must have sweated out several liters of free-flow beer by the end of the session.

The use of a spa's facilities usually costs between Rp.50,000 and Rp.100,000 for the whole day and this includes everything except a massage which inevitably costs extra. I like to start in the fitness room and spend some time on the various fancy, high-tech exercise machines. There are usually weights, a treadmill, a cycling machine and that strange kind of walking up the stairs device. Last Sunday, after about half an hour's worth of building up a sweat and aimlessly pushing the space shuttle flight deck array of buttons on the machines in a vain attempt to make sense of the various calorie burn statistics and energy output readouts, it was time to get wet.

The main spa room is where the serious relaxation begins. Often tastefully decorated in mock Greco Roman frescos and blue skies and clouds painted idyllically on the ceiling, you can indulge yourself in hot and cold plunge pools as well as the usual sauna and steam rooms until your head starts to swim and your muscles start to glow. Alternating between the hot and cold pools is a favorite of mine. The body seems to reach a state of tingling temperature equilibrium after a few switches and after an hour or so you are in a Zen state of blissful relaxation.

The sauna and steam room help you to sweat out those local beer formaldehyde toxins. Personally though, I don't seem to have much of a tolerance for the high temperatures. My record in a sauna is about 3 1/2 minutes with several damp flannels draped over my face. Some of these Korean gentlemen seem to be made of asbestos however and spend simply ages sitting there, ladling water onto the hot coals with inscrutable expressions on their faces.
All towels, trunks, sandals, flannels, toiletries, drinking water and dinky little kimono dressing gowns are supplied at your average spa so there's no need to bring anything with you.

After the fitness and spa sessions, you can head up to the usually darkened ambience of the lounge room and watch what will be a huge TV screen whilst ordering a meal or a drink. Then you can decide whether to opt for the massage or not. The basic massage may cost Rp.50,000 and upwards and will be in a semipublic, partitioned cubicle (so little chance of anything fruity occurring). The massage may involve the use of mystic oils, magic balms and/or the masseuse hanging off bars attached to the ceiling and trampling all over your back. For my part, I'm not that convinced of the therapeutic benefits of such oriental spinal stampings but they seem to enable the Japanese to live to a ripe old age. No pain, no gain I guess.

Other, higher standards of massages (and karaoke of course) take place behind closed doors and it may be here that the ancient art of massage dovetails with an even older profession. In all honesty, I have never gone for the "full" treatment myself, preferring to seek out my jollies in more conventional social situations. However, various acquaintances of mine have referred rather horribly to their experiences of enjoying, "A rub and a tug," behind closed doors. Please don't ask me what on earth this delightful phrase means; the spa has already parboiled my pink skin once this week and I've no wish to land myself in even hotter water.