As you are all probably aware, one of the things Thailand is famous for is its massage parlours. Walk down any thanon or soi and a glut of welcoming places will list the dozen or so Thai massage offerings for you to sample. Massages come in all forms: Thai (300Baht), With Lotion, With Oil, Indian Head, Just Head, Foot, Traditional, Chinese….either at one or two hour slots. Every venue has a gaggle of smiling Thai ladies sawadee ka-ing you, their siren call to come sample the stress-relieving delights of their tiny emporiums mixed with the heady rush of incense or some herbal concoction that wafts out of mysteriously dark doorways. To date, I’ve been the last of our little conclave here in Bangkok to take up the relaxing delights of one of these many opportunities. Whilst I am happy enough to get a sports massage in response to some aging, weary, muscle-protesting complaint in the interests of restoring my physiological mechanics, the idea of being soothed by the strange hands of someone who is not the Diplomat raises troublesome and disconcerting questions of a pseudo-Victorian straitlaced-ness that has seeds in an overly idealized notion of romance. This was coupled with the leering suggestive comments of anyone in the UK I mentioned this to about the concept of a “happy ending”. In other words, make sure I avoided such happiness at all costs.
What’s that you ask? “What’s one of those?” Forget it, I’m not going there. Use your imaginations.
With these two aspects lingering in my mind, no wonder I’d found reason not to go do this, and, Yes, I know “get over it, go enjoy it”; anyway, this nagging hmmmmmm was neatly got round by the Diplomat and the Handmaiden suggesting we all go together.
How could I refuse? I couldn’t, apparently.
Off we set, the two ladies purposefully striding down our soi towards a place previously visited, with me ambling along behind. We arrived at the entrance of a well-presented, recommended, sterile, clean massage house. Bringing up the rear I ventured over the hearth, removed my shoes and was guided by three Thai ladies to a small room with bowls of water. They then proceeded to wash our feet, both a tradition and a necessity. Flip-flops abound in the farang community, the dust and dirt of Bangkok’s streets becomes our dark grey socks. I was concerned that a tickle reflex might involuntarily cause me to kick someone or something but the practiced hands, soothing creme soap and firm strokes of a bristly brush overrode any such fears. In a scant minute or two I was staring at either the clean flat feet of a clod-hopping galumph or the exquisitely crafted pieds of a tuned athlete (you pick one).
So far so good.
We were then all ushered upstairs to the first storey where ten or so mats were laid out with what resembled hospital curtains to block each off from view. I was kindly offered a sanitized, light brown garment to don, though the Diplomat had to tell me, in a loud whisper, that I was supposed to wear it (keep your boxers on, apparently, to prevent wild misunderstandings). Struggling to pull the stiff-seamed garment over my head I then laid down. Less like a man who was planning on relaxing and more someone imagining all kinds of dire goings on. The harsh light of a bulb above me exposed my nervous, fidgety, countenance. Later the Diplomat commented that I looked petrified. Still, our alcove was curtained off, and the Diplomat, the Handmaiden, and travelswithadiplomat waited patiently. A minute later two Thai ladies and a man sashayed in.
This was my first ever massage by a same gender opportunist. It was like sitting at the front of a roller-coaster. You think you know what’s coming, you know it’ll cause some strange sensations, but you have to accept your fate. I reasoned, as I sub-consciously adopted a position that could only be described as “stiff as board”, that the kind-faced man who was liable to stretch my sinews to breaking point and generally pummel me into a soft-limbed, quivering mass of jelly, really was the best person to give a deep tissue massage. I had barely arrived at my philosophical answer to an uncertain future hour when he spun me on my front and proceed to walk up me.
I could feel every strong toe digging into my spine, shoulders, buttocks, quads. What started as a breath-expelling whoosh of compression quickly became oddly interesting as he meticulously and precisely showed me in complete silence which parts of those regions were out of alignment, sore, in dire need of manipulation, or just plain bone-idle soft. He then got off and started a massage which mainly comprised compression rather than kneading, squeezing rather than twisting. I had to admit as I stared at the blissfully happy, eyes-closed Diplomat, that the sensations I was experiencing weren’t soothing, but probably necessary. This was one of those times when each second is indelibly imprinted on your memory banks as you process something entirely new. I was more curious than relaxed, more inquisitive than swooning in endorphins, more thinking about what my muscles, bones, and sinews were telling me than being soothed by the lullaby music that drifted ethereally over us.
My masseuse moved on, pulling, stretching, tweaking, grinding; performing all kinds of gyrations on me that I dared not look at. Methodical, utterly professional, he was slowly turning a rigid farang into a malleable piece of foreign plasticine. Every so often, the Diplomat, would mouth: “Is everything OK? How are you finding it?” Tricky to explain, a simple nod imparted acceptance at the very least. After 30 minutes a soft pressure encouraged me to flip onto my back. I felt utterly exposed. Without any concern for my flapping modesty, the masseuse drove his foot into my inner thigh and pulled.
Now, as most men will tell you, having anything driven into that area so close to your genetic raison d’etre makes you instantly wary, almost defensive. Things were getting too close to the danger zone, as Kenny Loggins would warble into Tom Cruise’s headset. I dared not move as he climbed all over me, twisting my shoulders, forcing my legs into positions only professional gymnasts should be required to do; yet, on the whole, I found that my frontage was similarly relaxing into correct alignment. He worked on arms, fingers (the only time I heard a loud crack), neck. After 45 minutes I was actually beginning to relax. Nothing hurt; in fact, I felt cautiously alright. Then he moved round, sat cross legged behind me and firmly pulled my head into his lap.
Everything froze. I dared not breathe. Time stopped. The Diplomat almost broke a rib with a suppressed snort of laughter. If I moved my head an inch either way I might well find myself with an odd sensation in an ear. Now, I’ve had a head massage in a hairdresser’s before. Usually by some bored trainee who has no idea what they are doing and I find the squelchy softness of someone shoving their soapy fingers in your ear and swirling it round akin to nails down a chalk board. Think moist. Couple that with a kneading stroke on your ear lobes and I am liable to retch. Not a sensory overload I want to experience. This was a whole new level.
I opened my eyes to see the smiling eyes of my masseuse gazing down at me as he worked his fingers around my scalp, using his thighs to keep my head locked. I dared not think which part of me was scant millimeters from his…
Then, without a word, the hour was up, our three masseuses quietly got up, leaving us to stretch and don our attire. The Diplomat was giggling and asking me how I felt. The Handmaiden was looking as serene as always.
Honestly? I had to give it some thought as we went down, paid our dues, tipped our new friends, and slid back out in a hot Bangkok afternoon. How did I feel? Would I do it again? Well, I did feel somehow lighter, looser, more right in my gait. Had I relaxed? No, but I might in future, with practice. The question is though….would I practice? I still don’t know the answer to that. I’ve not been back so far and I suspect I might have to be cajoled again into it, preferring to jump on my bike and pedal pell-mell round whatever roads or parks I can find for a better relaxing release of endorphins. I will say that the place was friendly, the people professional, expert, and kind to a farang who was experiencing something new and is still processing the sensations that came from it.
If you like massage, then do come to Bangkok and get the full range. They are very good at it, it’s inexpensive, and you’ll feel better for it. Everyone I know goes regularly.
Me? I’m happy for them. Carry on.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?