Feet-cleaning fish in south-east Asia: Not worth the risk

You know that old saying about children being seen and not heard?

It’s often when they’re silent that you have to worry.

Grace and I are sitting in a beauty salon in a bustling back street of Kata in Phuket. I’ve wrecked my neck on the flight and one of the women is working out the knots.

Another is braiding Grace’s hair, despite our oft-stated opinion this is Things Bogans Do.

It costs the equivalent of $10. A bargain, right? Until you consider the slave wages being paid to these poor women.

I’m contemplating the exploitation of workers in the developing world, the lack of empathy from Western kids, and what we could do to change this, when a third woman leads Taj outside.

I assume it’s because he has sand on his feet, and she doesn’t want to dirty the floor.

Through the glass he assumes a faraway look, like he’s thinking about where to get the next piece of obsidian on Minecraft.

We leave a nice big tip, as thanks for the unknotted neck and bogan braids.

Outside, Taj stops in his tracks: “Mum, I didn’t want to say anything, but fish ate my feet.”

Holiday mummy morphs into a neurotic nutter: “What? They put your feet into one of those disgusting fish pools? You know, they don’t clean them properly! God knows what you’ve contracted.”

Fortunately, tweens tend to be sanguine.

“Yeah, it was pretty gross,” Taj shrugs. “But I’m sure it’s OK.”

I’m not so sure.

The previous night we’d stumbled through a notorious sex district, with signs screaming Ping Pong Show! and Simon Cabaret!

Bleary-eyed blokes sit at street-front bars, as small slug-like fish eat dead skin from their feet.

Think about it: parasites living off parasites.

I don’t know which is worse: the toothless fish, or the gap-toothed sex tourists.

This scene has so many shades of wrong it’s a masterpiece.

Both the fish and water could spread infection; the animals are often starved before a “pedicure”; and sometimes the wrong species is used, drawing blood.

The Dermatological Society of Thailand has issued a warning, saying spa operators are putting customers at “great risk”.

But this hasn’t stopped an estimated 4000 operators supplementing massage income with the garra rufa, or “doctor”, fish.

It’s hard to blame them: the average wage is about $240 a month.

So this turns into another parental lecture, without going into too much detail about the sex trade.

“Kids, a lot of awful Aussie tourists come to Thailand to exploit the locals. Many have no choice but to provide services which aren’t safe, either to the tourist or themselves. It’s just sad.”

Then, we donate 10 per cent of our travel budget to a community charity: travel tithing, if you will.

Now the kids are back at school, they’re sharing this life lesson with their classmates.

Sure, our son’s feet were eaten. But some struggle to feed their kids.

Their voices should be heard.

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