Getting Squeaky Clean at a Turkish Hamam

Going to a Turkish hamam (more widely known as a Turkish bath) was one of the highlights of my time in Turkey. In the past year I have visited a Japanese onsen, had a few tough Cambodian massages and frolicked around the thermal baths in Budapest. Nothing, however, compared to my experience in a Turkish bath.

There is a lot written about experiences in Turkish baths, noting the confusion that surrounds an unfamiliar place, process and language barriers. I found navigating the baths relatively easy by watching hand gestures and the others around me. The entire experience was far more relaxing than I ever imagined it would be.

After changing into just the pair of underwear I was given at the entrance of the Cemberlitas Hamam in Istanbul, I wrapped the Turkish towel around my body and headed downstairs to the bath. When I walked in, groups of women around my age were laying on their towels soaking in the heat emitting from the marble slab below them. You could have transported the whole scene to a topless beach on the French Riviera and it would have looked about the same (sorry guys, no pictures of this scene).

I laid down on my towel on the marble slab and finally looked up. The bath was in a circle-shaped room with a large dome at the top. Cuttings of stars and circles allowed natural light to seep in through the dome. I can fall asleep pretty much anywhere, but I seemed destined to take a snooze here. It was surprising how laying on hard marble could be so comfortable.

After 20 minutes of heated bliss, I got the wave from Usula to come join her at her station. Usula was one of the attendants in the women’s bath that day. The attendants endure the hot sauna of a room along with the constant scrubbing of arms and legs. Usula spoke a little English and was excited that I was from the United States. She asked if I was from New York and when I said California, she was thrilled (that seems to be a common reaction around the world when we tell people we lived in California)

Warm water was poured over me and then Usula took the cloth I was given and started scrubbing. The cloth is more washcloth than loofah, but its effects far surpass that little spongy ball seen in many showers. I sat up for some more arm scrubbing and watched as Usula peeled away layers upon layers of dead skin. I knew the little tan I had left from Portugal was slowly being scrubbed away. I still can’t believe all the skin, dirt and grime that was rolling off my body. I guess you could say a year’s worth of sweat and dirt from traveling around the world got wiped away that day.

After a few more buckets sloshed over me, I laid down to be wrapped in bubbles. Usula took a long towel, filled it with bubbles and proceeded to wash them all over me. By far the greatest bubble bath of all time. I wish I could have been outside my body to see what it looked like from above. Laying there though, experiencing it, was fun enough.

Usula waved me over to the marble basin across the aisle and I sat down near her. Bucket after bucket of warm water was poured over my head like a baby getting a bath in the kitchen sink. I tried to open my eyes, but did so the moment another bucket came washing over me and cursed my contacts. Usula noticed the small bottle of shampoo in my bag and asked if she can wash my hair. Yes, please.

A hair lathering and a few more buckets later, I was ushered to the jacuzzi to relax and soak in the experience of my first Turkish hamam.

I left the baths knowing what “squeaky clean” feels like. I couldn’t stop feeling my arms and legs to revel in their softness. I pocketed the washcloth in my purse so I could attempt it all again at home. If only I could take Usula with me.