Among Thailand’s memorable, and definitely not to be missed, experiences is the traditional Thai massage. Tourists flock to massages all over the country, swearing by it as an antidote to fatigue as well as the other excesses of Thai travel. Millions of Thais incorporate it into their regular health and fitness routine. Some monasteries, like Wat Pho, run training schools and centres where the massage is part of therapeutic cleansing and healing. Massage establishments range from five star to very basic.
I took my Thai massage on Sukhumvit Soi 4, in Klong Toey, a narrow, traffic-clogged lane crowded with bars, tailors and restaurants, where every second business is a massage shop. Outside, bevies of tiny, smiling masseuses lounge in plastic chairs or stand on the pavements cooing “Welcome! Welcome!” to all who pass.
Encouraged by the enthusiastic reports of other travelers, the row of chairs occupied by clients enjoying foot and neck massages, as well as the hard sell and the incredibly “interesting” price offered by a bevy of cooing masseuses in mauve, I decided to try the “daily special” at the Lilac Lounge .
My masseuse was not one of the petite spruikers from the street, but a Godzilla of a woman, with muscular arms and the challenging demeanour of a street fighter. She fitted with the stories I’d heard that many masseuses receive their training as part of Prison Rehabilitation Programmes. She ushered me firmly, if not forcefully, upstairs to the massage room.
The massage room had none of the calming, new age ambience of the massage centres which have proliferated under the name of Day Spa or Wellness Centre across the western world. It was a large loft (disturbingly reminiscent of the dormitory at the boarding school where I spent my teenage years) with a bare, wooden floor. It was lined with cubicles with drawn, inscrutable floral curtains. There was a faint smell of baby oil, old timber and Pad Thai.
The “Daily Special” did not include any of the gentle ministrations of the “massage therapists” who work in Day Spas and Wellness Centres. It entailed, instead, an hour of merciless manipulations during which, by turns, I clenched my teeth in agony, gasped for breath, stifled screams of pain, swallowed terrified yelps and choked back hysterical giggles. My limbs were stretched, bent and contorted. Every surface of my skin was pummelled, pulled and pushed. Every muscle was pounded, twisted and punched. My neck was yanked. My head was thumped. My joints were snapped and my fingers popped. The air was squeezed out of my lungs. My back was cracked. My face was slapped and pinched and my feet were scraped and tickled. There were moments when I seriously doubted that I’d survive to tell the tale, but survive I did.
Afterwards, recuperating in a recliner, sipping Jasmin tea, I had to admit, I felt marvelous. Perhaps it was because, like liver and silver beet, the Thai massage really is famously good for one, or perhaps it was simply because the immense relief of final a release from that heavy man-handling and strong-arming brings on an incredible lightness of being, almost like an out-of-body experience.
Whether the Thai massage can be honestly described as one of Thailand’s pleasurable experiences, is debatable. Some survivors describe it as torture, others as agony and others again, as brutalisation. Whichever it is, there’s absolutely no question that it leaves you feeling wonderful and well..