Here at InBali, we love to tell you about some of the amazing, high-end spas and retreats that cater to all of your wellbeing needs. Check out some of these great spots if you love a good pamper, damn the cost. This article, however, is aimed at a very different kind of person; the kind that likes their pampering cheap and grotty.
The cheap and cheerful massage isn’t anything new. Visit almost any part of Thailand and Cambodia and you will find cheap massage parlours offering a quick foot rub right there on the roadside. I love being able to sip a beer and watch the world go by while someone tends to my tendons for next to nothing, and seemingly so does everyone else if the sheer number of these establishments is anything to go by.
Bali’s appeal in this market falls to the very cheap massages that are available up and down the busy streets of the big towns like Kuta. The difference here is that there are none of those outdoor seats that guarantee there won’t be any ‘funny business’, and most of the parlour windows are even tinted. With a bit of haggling, the prices for a Balinese massage in these joints can drop as low as 30,000 IDR (around $2.60) for a sixty minute session. I have had some very professional massages for this price, though I have had a couple of terrible experiences to boot.
I recently wrote an article about an Ayurvedic massage that went awry in India. Part of the surprise was the ease in which a good massage can quickly turn into an awful, awkward experience due to one major factor: the proposed happy ending.
For me, once the happy ending has been brought up, there can only be one of two possible outcomes; you take the happy ending or you refuse it, and cringe through the next several awkward minutes while you dress and pretend nothing out of the ordinary has happened. I’ll always take the latter, but I would prefer neither.
I don’t have anything against prostitution per se. If policed well, and both parties are equally up for it, then it seems a win-win situation. The old saying that prostitution is the longest standing profession exists for good reason. The problem arises when the sex trade is forced underground and it becomes an open, black market. That is when choice gets taken away and the system becomes a platform for opportunists to exploit the weak.
Prostitution becomes trafficking, with many women forced into the trade and others seeing it as one of the only viable options in countries, like Indonesia, where there is a poor employment rate. Of course, it’s easy for me to wax indignant and I am aware I won’t be personally solving such a longstanding problem by doing so, but I do believe that the scale of the sex trade in Southeast Asia has diluted its status as taboo. Too many people now see it as the norm.
The main culprit in perpetuating this trend is the Southeast Asia sexpat, or sex tourist for those that are on a flying visit. If you have any experience in this part of the world, you probably know the type. A lot of them fit a stereotype: wiry white hair, if any; and leathery skin, creased at the corners but stretched tight over a gut that seems fit to burst, spewing beer and rot everywhere.
They flock to the same seedy haunts night after night, silently hating each other for reminding themselves of themselves. The most heinous may strike up a friendship based on comparing notes and prices, whilst throwing in the odd slur or crass joke. Some discuss whether two twenty year olds or one fifteen year old is better value for money and treat the value of a human on par with the value of a consumable.
They come from all over the world but each remains ignorant of the country they are in and staunchly proud of the country they are from, despite the fact that said country wouldn’t accept their behaviour and is certainly not proud of them. They run their greasy fingers down the young spines of those that have been purchased for an evening’s entertainment.
Which brings me around to Bali, or more specifically for this article: Kuta. When considering the whole of this beautiful island, only in Kuta can I be casually stopped with a hand on my chest at 8.30am and asked: “Cocaine?”. To which I politely reply “Nur fank you” through a mouthful of coffee soaked pastry crumbs that I am busy devouring. Why do I always thank people like this?
Only in Kuta can the salacious sexpat be celebrated so openly; plied to with open calls of ‘special’ massages and cheap girls. There’s a notable difference between the kind of offers I receive while walking down Poppies Lane with my lady and the kind I receive when I walk on my own.
The sex trade is so commonplace in the shady lanes of Kuta that people barely bat an eyelid when perverts walk hand in hand with young girls, and open discussion of pricing aren’t even frowned upon. That ‘the awkward conversation’ is even a consideration makes me a little bit sad.
Then there are the clubs where girls parade onstage and the late evening punters arrogantly wave their money in the air. At the end of the night each girl accompanies her highest bidder, leaving with them as they smirk and leer and show off their trophies.
This is not a side of Bali worth celebrating.
One massage parlour I visited seemed completely legitimate until, toward the end of the hour, I heard an older fellow a few tables down soliciting a “happier massage” for the weekend. The girls giggled agreement and offered him a choice, to which he replied:
“Her. What’s her name?”
“Her?” His masseuse obviously pointed at one of the girls.
“No no, not her. That one. The young one… What’s the young one called? I like her.”
I left, disgusted, and slipped my sandals on to walk past several burly blokes who seemed to be running the establishment.
“How was that mate? Good girls, yeah?”
“Mmhmm” I said, tight-lipped.
“Hahaha, you’re a good man!”
“And you’re a dickhead” I said menacingly, smashing my warm Bintang over the head of the closest bloke to me and brandishing the broken bottleneck as a shank. Thus started my one man crusade against the Indonesian sex trade.
Not really. I laughed along, thanked them politely and scuttled off to my room to write a ranting article.
It isn’t all that bad…
Although you may not believe it at this point, the aim of this article isn’t all doom and gloom. As much as I am imploring you to avoid this lifestyle, I genuinely believe that the dodgy establishments are still the minority. Plenty of the budget massage parlours are just that, and do not double up as makeshift brothels.
Likewise, the majority of night clubs are there for good clean fun. The tricky part is finding out which ones are legitimate without learning the hard way.
At prices like this, the only real gamble is with your time and dignity, and if you are holidaying in this part of Kuta you have probably already accepted that you have plenty of one and not much to lose of the other. Cheap options come with the risk of ambiguity and if, like me, you have no desire to fall into the awkward conversation then you really need to weigh up the risk versus the amount of money you can save. Oh, and please don’t think that these services cater solely to men. I’ve heard some very interesting accounts from the ladies too.
The problem comes with the fact that many of the legitimate parlours know their audience in Kuta, and will often tend toward ambiguity for the sake of a sale. This means flirting and faux fawning are all part of the pitch, even if the parlour is above board.
In my experience, the gamble has paid off more often than not, but some of the of the bad experiences have been interesting. One parlour replaced soothing music with a screaming toddler that kept at it for around forty minutes. Another seemingly legitimate parlour tried to scam me at every turn, by adding extras to the bill without permission.
Lighting a scented candle and trying to force a pedicure on me was apparently enough to double my bill.
Another masseuse did grab for the goodies at one point, forcing me for the first time into the awkward conversation. In that moment, I probably would have paid premium rates to get myself out of the room thirty seconds quicker. Since then I have always followed the guide below to avoid the same thing happening again.
If none of the above has managed to put you off, then here is my guide to finding a cheap, legitimate massage in Kuta:
- You walk the busy high streets casually pretending you aren’t looking for a massage, avoiding the hassle, while subtly checking the price boards and the cleanliness of the establishment out of the corner of your eye.
- Every single parlour you pass will have several girls sitting outside. Beware of these sirens, they will try anything to hook you.
- Avoid eye-contact. If you don’t, you are entering into an unspoken contract that allows the girls to jump in front of you, grab at you and screech sweet nothings in your face. Any dawdling in the general area will almost always be met by a high-pitched chorus of “Massage?” and a leaflet thrust into your hands with the list of prices.
- Have your story ready; this is the moment on which everything hinges. Halve the price they quote and tell them that you were offered said price further down the lane so you are going to take your business there.
- Revel in your own glory as the highball price initially quoted suddenly shrinks.
- If they have won you over, and the parlour looks open enough and brightly lit, tell them exactly what you want. Specify your back and shoulders or your feet rather than a full body and you will be much less likely to suffer ‘the awkward conversation’ down the line.
- Good-luck resisting their charming compliments as several of the girls gather around you, barrelling you into the room and starting the hustle.
- “Hey big boy, wow you are handsome boy, most handsome all day,” they will say as you begin to realise that instead of one masseuse, you suddenly have three.
- “Thanks”, you’ll think, “I am a big handsome boy”.
- Put that thought aside! You need to tell them exactly what you want again: “Just one masseuse, no extras, just a back massage.”
- Everyone gets the same treatment, I learnt this the hard way. You really have to be firm about what you want and repeat it several times.
- Relax, enjoy the massage and periodically refuse the extra costs that the masseuse will try to pile on.
- Voice any preferences early, such as how much pressure you prefer or if you need them to avoid that painful scooter burn (aka: a “Bali tattoo“) you may have picked up.
- Each of the endless lines of massage parlours in Kuta will ply you with the same schtick, with varying prices and levels of aggression. Avoid the ones that are way too pushy as they are desperate for a reason. The higher quality parlours will probably have a steady trickle of returning clients, so they won’t feel the need to sweep the streets for customers quite as much.
- Rely on your instincts and you may be rewarded, but do expect a little trial and error.
- Tip well if the masseuse deserves it, then keep coming back. Remember to tell everyone where they can reap the rewards of your findings, that’s what the comments box at the bottom of this page is for.
That was easy…
Well, not so fast. Even with this handy guide, you may find yourself on the wrong side of a slippery hand. When it comes to the moment of truth, where the massage could quickly take a sinister turn, I find the best way to combat it is to muster your best foreigner voice and firmly state ’No, not today thankyou’, then don’t make eye contact for the entire few minutes it takes you to put your clothes back on, pick up your warm beer and pay your $2.50 without tip.
Boy, does it get more awkward when you have to pay with a big note and tease your change out of the hands of what you now know is an angry, rejected prostitute.
Wait a minute… I think the moral of the story here might be that it isn’t worth the hassle and you do get what you pay for, after all. Go for a proper spa, guys.
And if you happen to be the type who is reading this and thinking “Yeah, but I DO want the ending to be as happy as possible”… well, read the first few paragraphs again.
Still hankering for a spankering? I have hidden a little secret password in this article that is guaranteed to get you what you want if you whisper it in the ear of the masseause, whichever establishment you choose. Just read the first letter of each of the bullet points.
Shhh… don’t tell anyone.