Port of Phuket, Thailand: tenders to the beach, an aggressive Thai massage and local food

Patong Beach with cruise ships anchored in the distance.

After a day at sea from Singapore, the first stop of our one-month cruise to Europe was Phuket, Thailand. During prime season, ships anchor just off the town of Patong and tenders drop passengers off at floating docks right on a beautiful beach. This is one of those rare cruise ports where tenders are not bad; ten minutes on the tender lands you at a spot you can actually spend the day. (The short distance and smooth water meant that there wasn’t much of a wait for the tenders either as they were able to shuttle back-and-forth pretty quickly.) That said, Patong is a touristy, party town full of restaurants, bars and shops, and isn’t exactly pristine Thailand.

Cruise ship tenders drop off at this floating pier, right on Patong Beach. Nice!

This post is not going to offer anything for cruisers interested in excursions or tours around Phuket. (However, there is some practical info for cruisers at the bottom of this article.) Since we’d spent a few weeks in Thailand less than a year and half earlier and had dove the Phi Phi Islands on the other side of the Phuket peninsula then, we had no desire to make a long, expensive day trip only to compete with hordes of cruise passengers snorkeling and taking boat trips around the Phi Phis or touring the plantations and elephant “sanctuary.” (The Queen Mary 2 was in port the same day we were, so her passengers were adding to the influx.)

Our ambitions for the day were modest: one of those dirt-cheap, vigorous Thai massage sessions, some good Thai food and a little beach time, maybe just strolling in the surf. I did some research pre-trip and settled on Sweet Lemongrass Phuket 2 for the massage. I read good reviews about them in a local publication and was able to make a booking by messaging them on their Facebook page where they post photos of their price list. I booked us two 1.5-hour Traditional Thai Massages for 350 baht each ($10.90 per person). I don’t know that a reservation was essential, but with limited time in port, it seemed like the best idea.

I really wanted David to experience a Thai massage, too. We’d done a side-by-side massage in Chiang Mai, but he’d opted for a more traditional, Swedish-type massage then. I’d gotten the full Thai bordering-on-assault treatment and words just really don’t do it justice. (Even though side-by-side, it’s pretty impossible to see the other person since you’re either face-down or with eyes closed or covered.) David needed to experience it for himself, and I wanted something to compare my first experience to.

An easy 10-minute walk from the floating tender pier found us opening the door to the air-conditioned refuge of Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2. We were greeted with icy water and cold washcloths in the nice front room before being led upstairs to our curtained massage room.

Reception area of Sweet Lemongrass Phuket 2

The last curtain on the right led to our massage “room.”

Our masseuses left us alone to change into the loose-fitting short set favored for these massages. The shorts are huge, but a tie wraps around the waist as much as needed to cinch it in.

Big shorts!

When the ladies returned, the “fun” began. Thai massage is like none other I’ve tried. I’ve been pretty aggressively massaged — and exfoliated to the edge of blood-letting — by hammam ladies in Paris, but Thai massage is a whole different game. There’s the usual kneading and pressing of knots, but it focuses much attention on stretching, and that can push right up against alarming. There’s also a certain amount of light hitting. (Sounds great so far, right?) My diminutive Thai masseuse soon climbed up on the table with me, bending me in half from the waist, as she knelt behind me, one knee tucked under my arm against my side while she put my neck and shoulders in a lock to twist with all her might. Lying on my stomach, she placed a foot behind one knee, then pushed on the raised foot in a move my brother and I deemed “unfair” when wrestling as children. It still hurts!

Back up on the massage table, my masseuse begins a hair-styling finale to my massage.

For an hour and a half, I passed from blissful massage to occasionally painful body locks, stretches, aggressive pressure point moves and jabs. Once or twice I yelped an “ouch!” that caused the masseuse to apologize and ease off. Beside me, I could hear the occasional grunt or “oof!” from David and wondered what he was thinking about this whole business. To top off my massage, my masseuse pulled the clip out of my hair and began a scalp massage that devolved to little snatching motions with her fingers followed by jerking on handfuls of hair. Hard! Ow! I struggled not to laugh at the thought I was paying her (albeit a pittance) to beat me up. Oh well, I was going to see it through to the end and gauge the therapeutic effects of the full package. David hadn’t called “uncle” yet either, so I assumed he was in the same mode. (He later informed me his experience had been similar to mine, but he’d been spared the hair-yanking I was treated to. He was glad he’d tried it, but isn’t going to be seeking out Thai massage back home.)

To wrap things up, my masseuse climbed back up on the table with me and began braiding portions of my hair. At first, I thought she was just pulling it out of my face since the scalp massage and hair-pulling had made a rat’s nest, but she kept going until I had a full French braid as, I don’t know … a peace offering , maybe?

I like my new hair-do!

For all that Thai massage can be excessively “vigorous,” the whole process left us feeling relaxed and “worked out.” I was a little sore later that evening, but by the next day aching neck and shoulder muscles that had been nagging at me for some time were improving.

We went straight from the massage to little Thai restaurant I’d read about as being popular with locals as well as the ubiquitous tourists of Patong. (A short walk of maybe 5 minutes) It was nothing fancy, but it was pleasant, and we had a solid Thai lunch for reasonable prices at S&G Family restaurant, a place that’s been in business since 1985. Like most little restaurants and shops in the area, it’s open to the outside with only ceiling fans for cooling. Service was friendly and prompt.

Our main goals were to get our curry fix. My only minor complaint was that my green curry chicken was lacking those tiny, round and bitter eggplants that are so unique to Thailand and that I’ve been unable to find in the States.

Curries at S&G Family Restaurant

After lunch, it was time for the beach. Feeling lazy and full, we opted to just walk along the lapping surf, people watching and enjoying the scenery. There were plenty of places offering lounge chairs, umbrellas and refreshments if we’d been so inclined. There were also small boats and jet skis pulling multi-person floats on offer. Patong Beach is bustling and lively, but even with two ships in port, it wasn’t unpleasantly crowded.

Patong Beach with two ships in port. Not bad!

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Practical info: 

The floating pier for our tenders dropped us off just in front of the Avantika Boutique Hotel which you can find on Google Maps. (There was another floating pier a block or so NE up the beach where tenders to and from the Queen Mary 2 used.) Tenders ran back and forth to the ships regularly throughout the day, so going back to the ship and returning again would have been an option.

Sweet Lemongrass Massage 2 is at 7.884975, 98.293699 on GPS; ถนน ราษฏร์อุทิศ, 200 Pee Rd, Pa Tong, Kathu District, Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 349 847

S&G Family Restaurant is at  104/2 Soi Post Office Thaweewong Rd, Tambon Patong, Amphoe Kathu, Chang Wat Phuket 83150, Thailand. Phone: +66 76 340 151

 

Ladies only: Visiting the Grand Mosque of Paris’ steamy, dreamy hammam

Massage and lounging area of the hammam of the Grand Mosque of Paris

I visited my first hammam years ago in the Marais during my second stint living in Paris. I’d been super intrigued and curious about the hammam experience, but with my then-fairly-limited French, cultural uncertainties, and doubts about dress and modesty and expectations and such, I hesitated to go. When a friend who’d been living in Paris many more years than I had and who swore by semiannual “gommage” (exfoliation) treatments at a favorite hammam invited me to go with her, I jumped on the chance. It was a fun–and kind of crazy–experience, lounging around with lots of other naked and semi-naked women in clouds of steam, then being roughly scrubbed by a burly Tunisian woman (who nearly smothered me with her ample bosom as she leaned over me to work) before sending me off to recover with hot mint tea. I felt like a prize heifer ready for the show. The hammam was a far cry from the gentle, pampering spas favored back home in the States, but boy, was I scrubbed pink and seriously exfoliated!

On our current stay in Paris, I’d put another round of gommage high on my to-do list. Older and more confident, less modest, with my one hammam experience under my belt, and with much-improved (if still sadly lacking) French, I was ready to give it another go. The old hammam in the Marais is now closed, but I’d always wanted to try the hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris so figured now was the perfect time.

A quick check online showed that reservations aren’t required and that the hammam at the Grand Mosque is open every day but Tuesday. I settled on Wednesday, reasonably early (around 11am), hoping for a less-busy time, and that’s what I found. So, for those intrigued by a visit to the Grand Mosque’s hammam but maybe feeling a little intimidated, here’s a step-by-step walk-through of my experience and what to expect:

Start by entering at the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton (across from the southernmost corner of the Jardin des Plantes). The door is literally set into the corner. [The entrance to the mosque itself is a block away, on the far side of the building from the Jardins des Plantes on rue Georges Desplas, although the mosque gives its official address as 2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 75005 Paris, which is a small square off rue Georges Desplas.]

Main entrance to cafe and hammam on the corner of rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire and rue Daubenton

You walk through a pretty little courtyard and enter as if you were going to the mosque’s café.

Courtyard between street entrance and the entrance to the café and hammam

There’s a counter with pastries on display; the cafe is to the right, the double doors to the hammam are tucked inconspicuously in the corner, just to the left of the pastry counter as you face it. No need to talk to anyone at this point, just push the door and go on in.

You’ll find yourself in a colorfully painted waiting room/seating area with another set of double doors on the far wall. Go through those doors to find the welcome counter/front desk of the hammam where you choose and pay for the services and any items you’d like to purchase or rent for the day (exfoliating glove, soap, towel, bathing suit, etc.)

Waiting room/seating area. Go on through the double doors to the hammam front desk.

Options ranged from a simple entry to visit the hammam and enjoy its sauna and bathing facilities (18 €) to various “forfaits” or package deals, the most expensive of which includes lunch. I chose the “Forfait 53 €” which included:
1 Entrée Simple (unlimited time to use the hammam’s facilities for the day)
1 Massage 20 (a 20 minute massage with orange blossom-scented oil)
1 Gommage (exfoliation)
1 Savon Noir (a packet of special black soap of a soft-wax consistency)
1 Thé à la menthe (a hot, sweetened mint tea to finish off my visit)

I also paid €6 for an exfoliating glove (“gant”). The hammam accepts cash or credit cards.

The lady at the counter gave me three plastic disks on stretchy wristbands to act as tickets. These were engraved with “GOMMAGE,” “MASSAGE 20M,” AND “THÉ.”

The hammam front desk where you pay in advance for the day’s visit and treatments. The massage area around a central fountain is in the middle background. The white door in the far background leads to the shower/gommage and toilet areas and then into the steam rooms beyond.

The lady indicated two boxes of plastic shower slippers behind me opposite the desk and told me to take off my shoes and choose a pair of slippers. I wore these for the rest of the day until ready to leave.

Adorned with my “bracelet” tickets and carrying my glove and packet of soap as well as the bag containing the towel, a hair clip, dry underwear and a few toiletries I’d brought, I headed across the massage area and through a door to the right that leads to the long, narrow locker and changing area. Only one other woman, a Frenchwoman of about my age, was in the changing area when I arrived. We exchanged a few words as we disrobed and tried to figure out the system; it was both of our first visit.

I chose a locker near the door. A popular choice, I found out later, when several of us were trying to use side-by-side lockers while a vast expanse of space was left wide open.

Unlike the previous hammam I’d visited, signs state that the hammam of the Grand Mosque requires a “bathing suit” in the interests of hygene; total nudity is not allowed. The term “bathing suit” is very loosely interpreted, though. Panties/underwear or bikini bottoms are fine. Tops are optional and quite a few women, myself included, opted for topless.

On a slow Wednesday, there were many unused lockers. The hair dryers on the wall require payment.

Be sure to bring a 1€ coin to operate the lockers. You can’t lock or remove the key (also on a stretchy wristband) without the coin. It will be returned to you when you return the key.

Insert a 1€ coin at the top of the lock, inside the locker, to allow you to lock the locker and remove the key. The coin will be returned (as in the photo) when you return the key and unlock the locker.

Leaving the dressing area, the showers and toilet areas are through a door to your right (directly across the vaulted massage area from the front desk). Toilets and sinks are to the right through that door. Showers and hard plastic gommage tables are to the left. Showers are mandatory before using the hammam, but I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work, so I originally brought my towel with me to the showers. Mistake. Leave your towel in the locker until the end of the day, or at least until just before your massage. There’s nowhere to set down a towel that isn’t wet and you’ll be soaking wet (and plenty warm) from the steam anyway.

[Photos aren’t allowed in the hammam and I was able to take these after I’d re-dressed only because it was a slow day and no women were in the rooms at the time. From here on out, I can’t offer any more photos from inside the hammam.]

Communal, two-headed showers are on either side of the gommage space with a stone ledge along one wall between the showers. When I arrived, a gommage was in progress and two ladies were lounging on the ledge. One, an older, solid-built woman was topless and had her underwear pulled aside while she did a bit of exfoliating on her own with one of the rough green gloves sold at the hammam and a bucket of water. So much for American modesty! The other, smaller woman appeared to be in a bra and panties. Above them on a high ledge, stacks of plastic buckets were available for visitors. On a central table, a hammam employee scrubbed away at a guest on one of the hard plastic gommage tables. (There is a small private room with tables just outside the shower and toilet area that I gather can be booked for those uncomfortable with the communal atmosphere of the hammam.)

The showers were so hot as to be nearly scalding. Attempting to moderate the heat simply turned off the flow. Hmm. I made quick work of the shower, using a bit of the oily black soap from the packet I’d bought with my package.

Finding the shower/gommage area to be small and not particularly attractive, I moved on to the next room which was mildly heated with a ledge and garden hose with sprayer on the far wall. A couple of women were sitting there, but I moved on to the next room, the main steam room, a lovely and large, multi-vaulted space.

Two long marble ledges run down the long sides of the room, divided into six separate seating/lounging areas (three on each side), each with an alcove on the back wall with hot and cold water faucets and a little basin. These long ledges flank a large round central platform (10′ or so across), also of marble and sporting a large 8-sided star motif in red, yellow and black. A central dome rose above, collecting a cloud of steam. A couple of women sat on one of the side ledges, splashing water from a plastic bucket onto themselves as they leisurely washed and visited. I chose the central space on the opposite side and stretched out on the warm, wet marble. I closed my eyes or gazed up at the mottled blue of the painted vault above me, occasional drops raining down. This room has the look of a classic old hammam: off-white marble covers the floor and ledges; red granite lower walls give way to blue mosaic tiles on columns which in turn support the mottled blue upper columns and vaults. Small colored windows high on the walls let in a soft light and a little occasional sound from the street, but offer complete privacy.

When I felt ready for a little more heat, I moved into the farthest room of the hammam. This smaller space offers a low marble ledge to the left, a faucet straight ahead with delightfully cool water, and a raised, red granite hot-tub-sized dipping pool to the right, all under a high vaulted ceiling. Today, the pool was unfortunately empty–but pristine–for some sort of maintenance. The heat is such in the room that there is a huge difference depending on where you sit. On the lower ledge to the left, it wasn’t so bad. If I moved to sit by the little pool, up higher, the moist heat was so intense it burned my lips. I could only take short stays in this room, but enjoyed moving back and forth between this space and the large vaulted steam room. I soon claimed a plastic bucket and would fill it up with the relatively cooler water to splash on myself from time to time as I lounged in the large vaulted room and daydreamed. It was a pattern the other women followed as well.

I exchanged a few words with the other visitors, but mostly people kept to themselves or visited with the friends they’d come with. The older lady from the gommage/shower area asked me to hand her down a stool from a high ledge. People commented on the heat or shared info about the hammam, but mostly we just lounged about. At most, there were maybe only a dozen women, of various ages and body types. I felt like I’d entered a scene from some long-ago-far-away place, relaxed and dreamy in the clouds of steam, unselfconscious in the all-female atmosphere.

Periodically, one of the gommage or massage ladies would walk through the steam rooms, eye the tickets on our wrists and beckon to one of the guests. Eventually, it was my turn to follow one of these women back to the gommage area. I laid down on the hard white plastic table and handed her the gommage glove I had purchased. She put it on and went to work. Wow. At one point, I wondered if she might scrape me down to raw meat. (I think I should have re-slicked myself with the weird black soap beforehand, although when I asked her about that, she told me it wasn’t necessary. She may have been more worried about her schedule than my skin, though.) She scrubbed me pink, lifting my arms, pulling aside my bikini bottoms to get at my haunches, the dead skin sloughing off onto the table. (Sorry! But, that’s how gommage works.) When she was done, she hosed off the table and floor while I hit the showers again before heading back to the steam rooms.

I visited with two English-speaking ladies in traditional bathing suits in the smaller, least-heated room until I was called for my 20-minute massage in the beautiful main massage area by the front desk (see top photo above). I went to my locker to deposit my glove and soap packet and dry off beforehand.

The massage began face-up on a padded, towel-covered table. The masseuse used copious amounts of orange blossom-scented oil, covering me from head to toe, even oiling my chin and the sides of my nose, massaging my temples and scalp. If your complexion can’t handle oil, just let them know not to do your face. It was delightfully relaxing, though, albeit leaving my hair a total oil slick. Oh well, I’d known a shampooing was in my future after the hammam anyway.

Once again, modesty is at a different level than in the States or many anglophone countries: Another masseuse worked on another guest at a table maybe six feet away. Oh well, I closed my eyes and totally forgot about them. “My” masseuse rubbed chest and belly as well as back, neck legs and arms. The hammam massage is more a firm rubbing and kneading than some sports massages I’ve had where elbows and knuckles are used to break the grip of painful knots. It’s relaxing and luxurious and a delightful way to end the day (and recover from the more business-like work of the gommage).

With the massage done, I tried rinsing some of the thick oil off in the shower, but found it pointless. So, I just wiped off as much as I could with my towel and got dressed save for my shoes and coat. (The plastic grocery bag I’d brought for wet things was put to good use.) My hair was so oily that I just slicked it back and re-clipped it for the ride home on the Métro. Not exactly glamorous. Again, oh well.

I exchanged my one remaining plastic ticket at the front desk for a small tray with paper napkin and a steaming glass of sweetened mint tea. I carried these to one of the padded ledges around the massage area where I kicked off my slippers and stretched out my legs to enjoy my drink. I’m generally not a fan of sweetened tea, but this was delicious! As I sipped, the older full-figured lady I’d first seen topless in the shower/gommage area added her last layer of black, traditional Muslim clothing before heading out. I bid her “au revoir” and a “bonne journée” which she returned. It’s good to be reminded how we’re all just people under our clothes.

In the gardens of the Grand Mosque of Paris

Practical info: I spent about 2 hours total at the hammam, feeling that I’d done things at a comfortable, leisurely pace. With company, it wouldn’t have been hard to stay longer. The hammam at the Grand Mosque of Paris is open every day but Tuesday from 10am to 7pm. Details about the hammam are online here. Note: the hammam is cleaned with chlorine for anyone having a sensitivity.

The nearest Métro stops are Jussieu (lines 7 and 10), Place Monge (line 7) and Censier-Daubenton (line 7).

Things to bring: a towel, a euro coin for the lockers, a credit card or money, a clip or tie to get hair off your neck, dry undergarments, basic toiletries (shampoo, if you want it; cosmetics, etc.), a brush or comb, a plastic bag for your wet towel and bathing suit.

Don’t wear much or any make-up to the hammam, especially mascara; it will be steamed off you or smeared down your face in no time. Don’t expect to get out of the hammam with presentable hair.

David and I visited the adjacent mosque before I sent him away to enjoy my time at the hammam. Entrance to the mosque and its gardens is €3 per person. Head coverings are not required for women, although I did wear a scarf out of respect. Prayer rooms are off-limits to tourists. Open 7 days/week, find more about the Mosque here.