Skin-Eating Fish Gain A Foothold in Cambodia

Flesh Eating Fish

In the central market in Siem Reap, Cambodia an unusual and weird spa treatment has gained a foothold (pun intended).

As the gateway city to Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is chock-full of tourists on the prowl for new experiences, and the shops along the main street are serving novelty up on a platter (I couldn’t help myself.) – tanks of skin-eating fish.

Dr Fish Massage

Huge fish tanks, topped by wooden seats, line the main street with signs promising “Dr. Fish Massage.” Take a seat, remove your shoes, swivel, dip your legs into the water, and the fish go to work munching the dead skin off your feet and legs. Lunch has arrived and the fish aren’t bashful.

Fish Tank

Competition is stiff, and business is brisk. For $3.00 you get an Angkor Beer or Coke, and 20 minutes of fish nibbling the dead skin off your legs. I’m not sure about other body parts that go in the tank, but let’s not go there. As a side benefit, the process will make you “funny and happy.”

No Pirahna

Apparently, some clients are a bit concerned about fish helping themselves to skin that isn’t necessarily dead, so a few owners advertise the fact that they do NOT use piranha! Whew … that’s a relief. This may be why they give you a free beer (one wouldn’t be NEARLY enough for me).

Sitting in the fish tank

I talked to this happy customer, and he invited me to join in. A cold beer was tempting, but the fish clustered around his leg seemed happy with his brand of dead flesh, so I graciously declined. Weird and another kettle of fish entirely.

Happy Trails,


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

78 thoughts

  1. Hi James! Oh yes, I know about these “fish spas”.. they’re all the rage here in Bali. The tourists can’t get enough of this truly trendy treatment. My sources tell me that the fish APPARENTLY eat dead skin, but more likely, it’s a full-on marketing ploy 😉 Who knows?!

    1. I don’ think that I’ll ever know for sure Amit. We were in Ubud a couple of years ago and the didn’t see any “spas.” But it doesn’t take long for locals to figure out ways to get at those tourist $$. ~James

  2. There’s one of these spas in a shop on the main street in Venice, between the train station and Rialto Bridge. They don’t offer any free drinks, though.

    1. And here I was thinking that these were a rare occurrence Yvonne. SE Asia I can believe, but Venice! What a surprise. And from my last trip to Venice, I don’t remember anything being free. ~James

  3. We came across skin eating fish in Greece. Sitting with feet in the sea we became aware of little fishes nibbling our ankles. Last year in Turkey it was impossible to stand for long in the sea without attracting their attention. To begin with we found it amusing but some of the big fish give quite a nip! They are not the same fish as those in the tanks but they do the same job.
    I read that in some parts of the US and Canada the authorities won’t allow permits because of health fears?

    1. Interesting that you had an experience in the sea Andrew. I haven’t seen or heard of them in the US, and yes I can imagine that health authorities would want to get involved in the oversight. Maybe it is just a pool of water, but I can imagine all kinds of questions that I’d personally have about the hygiene. ~James

    1. Thanks very much. I thought the No Piranha sign was pretty funny as well. I’m not sure that the best marketing approach is to plant the idea of fish that actually eat flesh as well as skin. But no one seemed too concerned. ~James

  4. I’ve experienced this three times. First time was naturally at Semuc Champey, Guatemala. Second time in a tank in Thailand and then third time in Europe. Each time quite different, but my favorite was in Thailand. My feet came out soft and smooth like a first class pedicure. It definitely tickles, but what fun I had.

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Tim and Joanne. It looks like you’ve sampled lots of different locations and had different experiences. When you waded into the water in Guatemala did you know that the fish were there, or was it a surprise? ~James

      1. I had noticed the fish when we entered the water, but it was definitely a surprise when they started nibbling on my toes. That was my first introduction to a fish pedicure. ~ Joanne

      1. It’s interesting that so many people have had this happen in the wild. As I asked someone else, what else do these fish eat? Surely, they haven’t evolved to exist solely on the dead skin of swimming humans. ~James

  5. They were a fad in the UK a few years ago. Turned up in malls up and down the country. Went twice & loved it but when the novelty passed, the shops disappeared one by one.

    1. It’s interesting that the businesses couldn’t sustain themselves. I’m sure that there’s lots of behind the scenes expenses needed to maintain, what is effectively a huge aquarium full of hungry fish. When the supply of feet and legs dries up, then they must be fed. ~James

  6. Steve and I were just talking about these fish the other day! We recently purchased a spa tub and I said to him, “We should get some of those fish that eat dead skin.” He just looked at me like I was nuts. Even if the 104 degree water wouldn’t be too warm for them, I don’t think he’d go for it!

    1. Laura, I think that I’m with Steve on this one. I can think of all sorts of interesting scenarios when the fish are nibbling more than feet and legs. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. 😉 ~James

      1. Sort of… but we’re Turkish, so it’s pedi’s all year round, but you know how it is, so easy to forget what’s on the doorstep 🙂

  7. I have has this a few times here in Thailand. It only tickles for the first couple of minutes, but my feet were really clean and callous free when I was done. And that is saying a lot, since I wear flip flops every day.
    Unfortunately they are usually in the more touristy areas, so I don’t get it done often. Happy new year!

    1. The guy that I talked with in Siem Reap said the same thing. In places like the UK, I wonder about the cost comparison between the fish and a standard pedicure. I’m sure it has to be cheaper. ~James

      1. What I was told is that they have to import the fish from Turkey (I have no idea if that is true), so I wonder if that affects the price… maybe it is cheaper in Europe? I doubt that it would be since it costs about $3 here as well. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. A number of commenters have mentioned fish in the wild nibbling away. It’s interesting that the fish are this widely distributed. I wonder what else they normally eat? Surely they can’t depend on humans alone for food.

  8. We observed tourists giggling as they dangled their feet into fish tanks in Singapore. Couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Of course, I’m too squeamish to participate, but what a sight to watch! Your pictures are quite good.

    1. Thanks Rusha. The guy in the tank was quite agreeable to talk and encouraged my photographs, and he couldn’t say enough about how wonderful his feet and legs felt. Of course, I think he’d gone beyond the one free beer rule. ~James

  9. I was in Belize a few years back and went tubing down a river. My behind was in the water (in a swimsuit). I randomly started screaming because I felt something biting my behind. Our guide laughed at me and told me about these fish. That was the first I’d ever heard of it – and I definitely wouldn’t pay for it!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. You’ve just confirmed what I suspected to be true; these fish do not discriminate and will nibble skin anywhere on your body. Yikes! I’m sure that must have been frightening, particularly in Belize where anything could be in the river. ~James

      1. Yes they will! It was scary, but thankfully it was near the end of the river journey – I held myself up the rest of the way which was a great workout 🙂

  10. I am a no go on the fish eating my skin, dead or alive! There are some things the nurse in me just can not wrap my head around. The free beer is tempting and of course one can never be too funny or happy. 🙂

    1. I’m not overly squeamish, but I’m with you on this Sue. No criticism for anyone who’s tried it, but it just seems unhygienic for a number of reasons; especially in countries where health regulations might be a bit less … shall we say… rigorous. But, different strokes and all that. BTW, I see that you lot are sharing some of your frigid weather with us southerners. It has all the weather folks here on high alert. Yep, we’re wimps. ~James

      1. I could send you one of my many sleeping bag coats James. Yes the whole continent is really getting hammered. You can imagine what the temperatures are here but then we are used to it and we have the right clothes for it. I just shoveled the neighborhood sidewalks. Who needs a gym. 🙂

    1. Ingrid, in west central Florida there are a number of springs that produce absolutely clear, cool water year round. In fact, you can stand in chest deep water and see your feet clearly. A few years ago Terri and I were swimming there, and the fish (some up to 6 in. long) were nipping at Terri’s red-painted toenails. It was fun to watch – for me at least. ~James

    1. I don’t think you’re alone in this case Tess. In my case, I wasn’t too concerned about the fish nibbling on my legs so much as the creep factor. So I guess that puts me in the wuss category as well. ~James

  11. Since you mentioned a ‘wuss factor’ in context with this bizarre skin treatment, you can add my name to that group. I have a nice scrubby cloth for bathing, so I cannot imagine opting to pay for any further fishy defoliation. I would drink the beer, though.

    Fun story! Thanks for sharing. I love the comments, too. – Mike

    1. From reading all the comments MIke, as in many things, it comes down to the “yays and nays” or the “No ways and ways.” It takes all kinds, but they’ll just have to leave me out as well. ~James

    1. Good for you Tanny. I believe that spas are a big part of the culture up your way, so why wouldn’t there be fish spas. Do you get over being jumpy or is it just part of the process? ~James

    1. It appears that the comments are falling into two camps LuAnn. The “I’ve done it and it’s great!” and the “No way José!” I must admit that a couple of beers might convert me – especially on a hot, Cambodian afternoon. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Kelly and for dropping by the blog. I’ve always found the maggot treatment to be counter-intuitive, but as you say, it’s a proven medical fact. I find it interesting that these fish have evolved (or adapted) to eating dead human skin. Very weird. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. From the commenters who’ve tried it, they seem to describe it more as tickling than nibbling. But Andrew mentioned it happening in the sea and bigger fish taking a good bite. So I guess the thing to look for are small fish. Let me know how it goes. ~James

  12. No thanks, James. I got to play around with Pirahnas in the Amazon. That was enough. 🙂 And this summer, I had my arm hair trimmed by a starfish. That was weird. –Curt

    1. Very interesting Curt, but you can’t just drop a piranha bomb and not give us a few details. And what’s the story on the starfish? Did it think the hair on your arm was food or was it just a function of it moving around on your arm? ~James

      1. We went fishing with a hook and line catching, and then eating piranhas. They snap a lot when you land them. Tasty, though. Peggy went swimming.

        If you turn a starfish over and press it against your arm, it will clip off your hair. The guide told us about it on our kayak trip in BC this summer and I volunteered my arm. There is a very mild pinching feeling. 🙂

  13. This is awesome! I had heard about this, but this is the first time I’ve seen the actual set up and advertising. I love the ‘No Piranhas” sign — hilarious. Great, fun post Terri and James. 🙂

    1. Steph, I thought this sign was a hoot as well, and this whole process seemed pretty creepy to me. But, as it turns out, from other comments it appears that it’s more common than I thought. It’s not for me though. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Judy. As you may have seen in the comments, most people seem to fall into two camps: Your camp, or the Eeewwww! No way camp. As for me, it was more interesting to observe than participate, but I did have cold beer while I watched. ~James

  14. There were flesh eating little fish in the cenotes of Mexico. If I stayed still, I’d end up with dozens of fish nibbling on me. It didn’t bother me that fish were eating me, but it tickled.

    Now getting a beer to go along with the fish nibbles is tempting…

    1. It was pretty funny Jeff, the guys we talked to that were getting their legs groomed, looked like bikers – definitely not the type that I expected. But I think the cold beer may have had an impact on their attitude. ~James

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