Among the many reasons that Jessica and I came to live in Italy is the easier access we have to places that we’ve always wanted to visit. So, when Jessica asked that we celebrate her 40th birthday on a beach in a warmer climate than that of Puglia, we found that our options now included locations in the eastern hemisphere. After doing some research and considering the possible locales for our festivities, we decided to spend a month in Southeast Asia. We made the island of Penang in Malaysia our base but, part of the appeal of this modern Southeast Asian island was its proximity to Bangkok, Thailand and, part of the appeal of Bangkok was the prospect of getting a genuine Thai massage.
Prior to our visit to Bangkok, our experience with Thai massage was limited to walking past the dozens of Thai massage parlors in Prague so we looked forward to actually having the treatments. And, as inexpensive as the services are in Bangkok, we were able to try several different places.
There are decisions to be made when one elects to have a massage in Bangkok, beginning with how much you want to spend. While a massage there is cheap relative to what you might pay in Europe or North America, the prices vary widely from, say, the equivalent of $US20 to $US70 for one hour. The facilities are reflective of the price with some places having nothing but a thin mattress on the floor for the recipient to lie on and a drape separating one bed from the one next to it. The more expensive places are more spa-like and offer showers and some modicum of privacy. I came to appreciate that privacy when, in one of the less well-appointed places, I was unfortunately able to hear the guy next to me as he moaned throughout his session. Whether it was from his agony or his ecstasy, I couldn’t tell but I did have a guess.
Another set of options for the would-be massagee is the range of “services” he/she is interested in. If you want a hot stone massage followed by an aromatherapy session, you are going to want a higher-end spa that offers a broader menu. Are you just interested in a basic therapeutic massage? Then one of the many massage parlors will suit the bill. If, on the other hand, you are looking to end your massage “happily,” just look for the places (and you won’t have to look very hard) with a half-dozen or so young girls dressed in outfits reminiscent of schoolgirl uniforms sitting at the entrances to their respective places of employment. Bangkok even offers “prostate massages.” I’ve had several of those, all provided by my primary care physician, and I wouldn’t recommend them, unless they come with an aged fillet and a good bottle of Bordeaux.
As for protocol, experienced spa devotees will most likely be disappointed at a perceived lack of decorum practiced by the masseuses, but I write it off as a cultural gap. For example, one of my therapists burped through most of the hour I spent with her. Yes, out loud, full-throated belching with not so much as an “excuse me.” Between expulsions, she would converse with the masseuse on the other side of the piece of cloth separating the mattress on which I was lying from the one bearing her client. And, at one point, my masseuse ran out of oil and left me to replenish her supply.
The protocols also extend to the degree to which one is clothed during the massage and here I am only referring to the one receiving the massage and not, as in the case of the famous “soapy” massage where both giver and receiver are sans clothing. In one place, Jessica was required to wear a cotton outfit that looked to be custom-tailored for the Michelin Man. I have no idea what purpose it served or whether is was to protect the modesty of Jessica or that of the masseuse. In most places, though, a simple towel covering private bits is the norm.
Jessica and I have very different desires when it comes to massage. Where I prefer a slow, gentle, relaxing experience, Jessica likes a deep tissue treatment along the lines of what they used to dish out at Abu Ghraib and she had little difficulty finding therapists who were more than willing to abuse her for a couple of hours. Unfortunately for me, since the only Thai words I know are the ones for “thank you” and “hello,” I was utterly incapable of explaining to my masseuses that I wanted to remain an unfamiliar of pain. “Easy,” “soft,” “gentle,” “light,” I would say to each of them and they would each nod her head in understanding and then proceed to give me the massage equivalent of a waterboarding. I was subjected to all manner of mistreatment as elbows, knees, knuckles and, I think at one point, a Phillips-head screwdriver plunged deep into parts of my body that, until the agony began, I had quite forgotten about.
As we left one establishment after I had received a particularly grueling hot oil massage, I asked Jessica how her Thai massage had been.
“It was great,” she said. “I had a few knots that were pretty deep but she found them and worked them out. How about yours?”
“Well, I have no hair left on my legs, I feel like someone has been sitting on my back–oh, wait, she was sitting on my back–and, I’m not quite sure where my spleen is, but I think she broke it. On several occasions I was going to tell her where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, who the second gunman on the grassy knoll was and how to create nuclear fusion, but she didn’t really care about that stuff. She just wanted to hurt me. Otherwise it was great.”
“You’re such a baby,” she said sympathetically.
Photos (as always) by the beautiful and talented Jessica Coup. See more of her work at www.jessicacoup.com.