Thai massage: it's better in Bangkok
The blueprint for Thai massage is written on stones in the walls of Bangkok's Wat Pho. Inside, skilled masseurs practice the art on rich and poor. Andrew Spooner put himself in their capable hands
Sunday 30 April 2006
Bangkok is synonymous with indulgence, its streets a steamy hive of brazen parlours and wild times. Some come here to lose themselves among the sinful pleasure domes of the Thai capital. Others to hark back to the dreamy imagined days of exotic Siam, temples and palaces.
With a dodgy back that causes perpetually knotted muscles, I am in Bangkok to get a massage. And no, it is not the kind born from the orientalist fantasies of balding, middle-aged Western men. There will be no scantily-clad females, nor any "extras". This is, for the record, purely medicinal.
It is my first, fuggy, jetlagged morning in Bangkok as I walk out into an astonishing heat and soaking humidity that works up an instant sweat. The combined heaviness of heat and befuddled head reduces me to a stumble. I need a cold drink. I need to sit down.
My destination in this city of sin is not some nefarious back-street joint but the legendary temple of Wat Pho. Founded in 1788 after the Burmese sacked the ancient Thai capital at Ayutthaya, this temple became Thailand's first university. The king, Rama III, in an effort to preserve his nation's cultural heritage from the marauding Burmese, decided to gather together all the knowledge of his empire.
Texts and teachers, healers and doctors, recipes and potions were all summoned to the great temple. This combined wisdom was inscribed on to stones that were then built into the structure of Wat Pho. They were left in public view so that the knowledge could be easily disseminated among Rama III's subjects.
Inscribed on the stones set in one of Wat Pho's sub-buildings are a number of human figures. Lines and markings run the length of each figure with instructions pointing to particular points on the body, the places where specific ailments can be treated and healed. These temple carvings have provided the blueprint of what is now widely known and practised as Thai massage, and today, within the confines of Wat Pho, it is still possible to get the most authentic Thai massage in Bangkok.
To get in the spirit of Thai-style massage I'd spent the previous day attempting to learn how to do it. The Soi Phen Phat massage school was established by a Chinese family, the Tangtrongchits, in the early 20th century. With an eye for a good deal, the Tangtrongchits bought up the rights to teach Thai massage. And, as the spa industry booms, Soi Phen Phat is beginning to attract attention from Western practitioners eager to gain an authentic education.
The basic introductory course lasts for five days. The class I attended was held in a large open room where rows of students - mostly Japanese and Western backpackers - were stretched out on thin mattresses, kneading and pressing each other into contorted grimaces. My teacher was a jocular Thai called Suchat. "I want to show you where the 'sen' are," he said. "They are quite powerful lines of power." He giggled and gave me a gentle poke in the leg that sent a pulse of numbing nerve energy through my limb. "See?"
Suchat's teaching method was to show me a series of massage movements, each focusing on particular "sen" and combining into a full programme. First Suchat would practise the moves on me, then I'd have to replicate them on him. Suchat reduced me to a state of dozing bliss each time he demonstrated a certain massage position, and being semi-comatose doesn't make for a diligent student. My day ended with sore wrists and slight bemusement: what exactly is a Thai massage, I still wondered.
Back in the temple, as I made for a small pavilion where the masseurs ply their trade, I was about to find out. I would be in good hands, as the Wat Pho masseurs are famed for their skills. Powerful politicians, businessmen and wealthy middle-aged Thai women often park their Mercedes and BMWs in queues outside the temple's gates. Poor street cleaners, mechanics and labourers attend along with throngs of tourists.
Wat Pho is also a living place of worship. When not being massaged, visitors are free to wander the temples and stupas (pagoda-like monuments associated with the veneration of relics) taking in plumes of incense smoke and the serene ambience. Many Thais, given Wat Pho's connections to the venerated Thai royal family, see it as a particularly auspicious place and come to supplicate before the endless array of golden Buddhas.
Before I enter the massage pavilion, I decide to get myself in the right mood with a visit to one of Wat Pho's sub-temples, Viharn Phranom. It is home to an astonishing reclining Buddha. The gigantic gilded figure is 46m long and comes complete with 3m feet and a 15m face. The giant Buddha lies on its side, eyelids drooping, limbs languid. He looks as if he doesn't have a care in the world.
Suitably inspired, I return for my massage and opt for a one-hour session at 300Thai baht (£4.50). Dozens of people are already being massaged into a variety of states, from agony to delight. My masseuse hands me a pair of baggy cotton trousers, pointing me towards a small cubicle. I return feeling sartorially chastened, holding up my hippy-pants with one hand. As I lie down on the mattress the masseuse kneels, clasps her hands together and murmurs a short prayer. I feel a little nervous.
She begins with a soothing back rub and leg massage, focusing on my "sen". Drifting from stupor to sleep, within 10 minutes I am snoring so loudly my masseuse prods me awake with a chuckle. She then starts to work on my lower back but stops short. "You have problem here, sir?" she asks. I have two prolapsed discs and the muscles in the lumbar area are continually locked. I ask her to take it easy. After placing a supportive pillow under my stomach she forces phenomenal pressure into my stiff muscles. It unleashes a pleasurable pain that I know is good. I glide into a state of profound relaxation.
Thirty minutes later I am woken with a nudge. "Finished. Thank you, sir," says my gracious masseuse. Lurching across the room to my cubicle, I realise that I am severely and pleasantly spaced out. My back feels strangely supple, my thoughts tranquil.
Back out in the heat and the heart of Wat Pho, I climb some steps and sit before a giant golden Buddha, incense wafting. All is calm and divinely peaceful. I feel great. As I sit pondering the infinite, this massage lark finally begins to make sense.
Etihad Airways (0870-241 7121; www.etihadairways.com) flies to Bangkok via Abu Dhabi from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester, from £442.
More details on massage at Wat Pho can be found at www.watphomassage.com
For further information on travelling in Thailand call 0870-900 2007 or visit www.thaismile.co.uk
Andrew Spooner is the co-author of Footprint's Thailand travel guide
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