Confessions of the Goldfish Bowl

James Austin Farrell dives into the largely hidden world of Chiang Mai bathhouses and goldfish bowls. We're still looking for him.

By | Thu 28 Oct 2010

Chiang Mai goldfish bowl massage Sex addiction, nymphomania, satyriasis (imagine naughty bearded men with tails and horns prancing about in the scandalous soi of South Pattaya) have now become household manias thanks to the media satyrising Michael Douglas for his supposed clinical humping, and lately showcasing Russell Brand’s coming out of the closet, reporting Brand admitting, “I went to rehab to treat my sex addiction.” But that’s all passè, another mental ‘disease’ has crawled out of our genetic mulch into the mainstream creating new departments in universities, innovative drugs and expensive clinics . . . though I should say that SA (Sexaholics Anonymous) and its verily addictive 12 steps is free. Chiang Mai, and probably the rest of Thailand, has not yet found a market for sexual ‘abstinence’, it might get you ejected from Chiang Mai Ram if you tell the receptionist you ‘like sex too much’, but as for the market of sexual ‘consumption’, we are undoubtedly global leaders.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, and possibly Japan – where it may have started – there is a same same, but different kind of compulsion yet to reach the shores of the West: addiction to the soapy massage, or hot bath massage. ‘Arb ob nuad’ which translates literally as ‘bath, bake/steam, massage’. Other nom de plumes for this highly personal rubdown and tub soak are the Goldfish Bowl (due to the fact that the person who ‘washes’ the man will be picked out from a group of numbered women, all sitting on carpeted steps behind a large glass window); it’s also referred to as dodgy massage, special massage and the in-your-face…and, well, just use your imagination. Men of all shapes and sizes: bullish tourists, quiet doctors, mad tuk-tuk drivers, intrepid students and hordes of avaricious businessmen have apparently become quite addicted to this kind of sexual gratification, sometimes spending large amounts of money on the service. The soapy massage has almost become a way of life for some, a no strings attached form of short-time polygamy that suits those looking for a bit more from their prostitution. But for some men, there’s not always a happy ending . . .

Roonaldo, Thai, 29, is a business owner and regular at all the bath houses around Chiang Mai. He even writes about his experiences on his website which apparently receives thousands of hits monthly. Roonaldo has become quite a Chiang Mai celebrity due to his candid musings on his nights in bathhouses. He told Citylife he has been going to the bathhouses for approximately four years and has so far been 122 times, mostly in Chiang Mai. Each time he says he spends exactly 1,500 baht.

“I go for the art of the bath,” he says, “it’s not just about sex.” He says he knows a lot of the girls who work in the places, is friendly with them, and in fact doesn’t always ask for sex. “It’s optional,” he says.
Peter, Dutch, 41, has been visiting goldfish bowls now for more than a decade. Even though he has had partners throughout the decade, he doesn’t really see it as cheating, and like Roonaldo, says it’s not all about the sex. “For me, it’s all about anticipation. I love going for a normal oil massage and just lying there, naked, not knowing what the masseuse will do and being completely at her mercy. Maybe nothing happens at all…but I like it all the same,” says Peter, who has no plans on quitting the habit.

Manspringer, Thai, 37, is a government officer. He says after he broke up with his girlfriend he went to the goldfish bowl sometimes every day in the week, spending around 1,500 baht each time. But he has managed to curtail his expensive habit and now only goes about three times a week. “I was lonely after I broke up,” he says, adding, “and when I go there I can find someone I feel comfortable with.”

Billy, 25, Canada, says he goes there as many times as his wage will permit him to go, which is about twice a week on average. “I love the process of choosing the number just knowing that in a few minutes I’ll be naked with a girl who is sitting behind that window. The window is such a good idea. I know it might look a bit seedy to some, but come on, money and sex aren’t exactly alien to each other in other walks of life.” He tells us he’s always friendly and respectful with the girls, “and if you are good to the girls they are usually nice in return. I’ve been out with a few of them after getting their phone numbers in the place and we’ve had fun. It’s not like they love their job, but they know that they earn well and get some kind of independence from it. It’s one of the reasons I return, I don’t feel it’s unethical, and to be honest I’d rather have this than a ‘meaningful’ relationship right now.”

All names have been changed in this article.