There’s something strangely liberating about standing in a grungy, semi-private, open-air spa treatment room in the center of a traditional Balinese compound as a wiry Indonesian man, his grease-black hair slicked back like the Fonz, fingernails like scythes, still loudly sucking on what I can only assume was an Everlasting Gobstopper, pats your stark-naked body dry from head to toe with a hand towel he’s dampening in a dirty stone bath tub.
I’d long since tuned out the absurdity of the situation by the time he asked me to get up from the massage table. What was coming next — rectal exam? Happy ending? Nothing would have surprised me. When you’ve just been rubbed down for 90 minutes with a rank oil that smelled somewhere between mothballed cat litter and old lady fart, by a guy who looks like a mix between an ’80s bowling alley pinsetter mechanic and a seedy Bangkok taxi driver, after stripping naked in front of him like Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler pulling out his junk for Burt Reynold’s Jack Horner in Boogie Nights, you just assume your luxurious “aromatherapy massage” will be coming to some kind of appropriately humiliating conclusion. In the end it was “only” a three-minute full-body towel-drying session, me standing there, water splashing down into the cob-webbed tub, a caged bird from somewhere nearby in the compound making the “woot woo!” whistling noise. (Seriously.) I looked around for a hidden video camera and wondered if perhaps I was being “punk’d” in Ubud, but alas, the only joke here was that I still had to pay 330,000 rupiah for the taxi-driver rubdown.
Oh, I had my chances to put an end to this farcical escapade before it snowballed further down the rabbit hole of skin-curdling disgustedness. Those oft-misguided social etiquettes we so often cling to, however, particularly in foreign countries, especially in foreign countries where “saving face” in situations of potential conflict is so important, unfortunately tripped me up and spurred me to stay the course.
The sleepy therapists lounging just inside the entrance, an unshakeable expression of boredom painted across their half-dozing faces, was one sign that Nur Salon perhaps wasn’t the best choice amongst many other options in central Ubud. The big “cash only + 10% government tax” sign posted above the “reception area” was another one; the fact that the manager had us store all of our belongings in a locker behind her desk suggested a lack of very basic spa amenities in the treatment room. (She told us to store everything there, that is, except for our clothes; she didn’t tell us we’d be storing those on a small wooden rack with pegs after being asked to strip naked in front of a greasy therapist.)
After each of us settled on the aromatherapy massage we were led to a shady waiting area of sorts within the compound’s winding walkways. Surrounded by Hindu and Buddhist statues and all sorts of other randomly chosen decorations, my wife asked me why all the turtles were dead in the fountain; upon closer inspection we saw that they weren’t actually dead, just a little lifeless and I think a little sad in their small space with no sunshine. We were finally approached by a man and a woman, neither of whom looked like massage therapists but soon introduced themselves as such. My wife went along to her treatment room with the woman; my greasy taxi driver eloquently invited me to use one of the two nearby public toilets. I wondered if this meant that for some reason the treatment room wouldn’t be equipped with its own toilet. It certainly was not.
Not my actual treatment room — no towels for me — but a typical one at Nur Salon
I prefer female therapists; I just do. There was no option given at Nur Salon, which I of course could have lived with. I also prefer to wear something during the massage, even if just a pair of skimpy disposable underwear. Imagine my surprise, then, when the taxi driver in one breath asks me where I come from and in the next says take off your clothes. I think I mumbled something that came out as “Is there a cover?”, to which he simply answered “no”, then stood leering at me like a wild cat at a wounded chipmunk. (My wife, in the treatment room next door and already enduring her own version of 90-minute massage hell, was similarly asked to pull a Nomi Malone.)
Sometimes, you just say fuck it.
Do it and then you’ll be done… but, you know, not the mindset one commonly expects to take going into an aromatherapy massage. For a split second I considered saying “thanks, but no thanks,” putting the rest of my clothes back on, and waiting outside for my wife to finish (she’d later tell me she considered doing the same), but though I wasn’t particularly psyched about the situation I didn’t want the taxi driver to look bad, so… fuck it.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about being a prude. It’s one thing to be fully naked for a massage; it’s another to get fully naked while somebody watches you and to never at any point be offered any kind of cursory cover. I’m sure some wouldn’t have any problem with stripping in front of a greasy taxi driver, one with a bad habit of sucking his teeth and gums in between smoker coughs while he rubs your butt cheeks down with oil that smells like an old lady. Good for you; I’m sure swinger parties are a real hoot, too.
No, this was more about the sum of parts. I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of spas in various parts of Southeast Asia, most of the mid-range variety but some of the upscale, starred type. I’ve gotten good massages and I’ve gotten ones that I wanted to end minutes after they began — this experience at Nur Salon safely rests on its own lofty level of awfulness, though I suppose at the same time it was also an experience I’ll never forget, so at least Nur has something going for itself.
Taxi Driver finished patting away some of the excess oil he’d rubbed into my skin — I can’t leave out the lovely little detail that my feet weren’t washed before the rubdown, so all the Ubud grime previously confined to my feet was graciously spread even across my entire body, including my head — then said “Okay, finished.” At this point in the massage I’m usually effusing to the therapist about how good the massage felt, be that actually true or not, and thanking her (or him) profusely, but here I was just able to volunteer a “thank you” behind a weak smile as I slipped my clothes on, dirty, still wondering if perhaps this was being videotaped.
He silently escorted me back to the front desk, where the manager uttered something to him in Balinese and handed him a roll of toilet paper — hot. We paid with haste, the manager calling at us in a voice dripping with equal hints of boredom and disinterest, “have a good day, eh.”
We discovered Nur Salon in our Lonely Planet guidebook.
If you’ve long nurtured a fantasy of paying to strip for and be rubbed down by a greasy taxi driver, Nur Salon is located at Jl. Hanoman, No. 28, Padangtegal, Ubud, Bali.
More of the writer’s features for the Perceptive Travel Blog can be found here.