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Rows of massage chairs filled with happy customers are a common site in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Photo by Charlotte Tarant of Globe-Jotters.

Unbelievable! It’s been exactly two months since I boarded the plane to fly back to the U.S. That’s the same amount of time I spent in Southeast Asia, but in some ways I feel like I’m still adjusting to be back in “reality.” I guess that might be because I’d like my reality to include more regular stints immersed in other cultures.

Even more unbelievable is the fact that I’m just now getting around to finishing the uber-long post I started while still in Thailand about one of my favorite aspects of traveling in that part of the world: the amazing availability of inexpensive massage.

I refuse to just let this fall by the wayside, lost and abandoned like so many other epic pieces of writing (ha!).  So, with apologies for the length, here is Part One of my story of tripping through Bali and Thailand told through the lens of massage.

I’m hoping that by buckling down to finish this story I may feel just transport myself back to those sun-baked streets for a brief while. Maybe I should turn on a heat lamp! I’m making a commitment to finish Part Two and get it posted within two weeks.

If any of you have fun travel massage stories to share, I would love to read about them in the comments…


On the street alongside dozens of travelers and locals, on a table in quiet, flower-strewn, air-conditioned rooms, on a mat on the floor of someone’s living room, in a women’s prison – I’ve taken advantage of the inexpensive massages offered over here in a variety of venues. Now, as my time in Southeast Asia winds down, I’m wishing I’d made it even more of a priority.

After more than a month of traveling a friend posted a comment on my Facebook page, “Hope you’re enjoying all those massages.” And it struck me: if there’s anything this stiff creaky body needs it’s more massage. But so far, I could still count the massages I’d enjoyed on one hand. Clearly it was time to get on the program, or rather to lay down and open myself to receive.

Every massage here has been it’s own unique experience – and not one has disappointed.

In Ubud, Bali, we couldn’t walk more than a few yards without being offered (or really, begged to agree to) a massage. Clusters of girls in matching shirts stood outside their spa and pressed price lists into the hands of passing tourists. Fresh flower petals floated in large clay bowls outside the spa doors.

Prices started at about $8 for a full-body and $5 for a foot massage. Many other treatments were on offer, including facials, pedicures, spa packages and even the special “fish treatment.” A photo told the story of this exclusive treatment: You placed your feet in a tub full of fish who proceed to nibble away at the calluses and dead skin until your tootsies emerge soft and beautiful.

Although, my feet could use some de-callusing, we decided to pass on that one.

The choices overwhelmed. Ciel and I planned to do a little research and visit the insides of a variety of the places, before making our choice, but on a spontaneous whim we nodded yes to the woman a couple of doors down from our lodgings.

Fortuna Body Treatment Center - where we got our first massages.

“Foot massage?” she inquired. Footsore and tired from walking the hot, dusty city streets all day, we stopped and looked at each other. She led us upstairs to check out her massage room and it looked clean and comfortable. Why not try out the half-hour foot massage?

Wow. I’d imagined we’d be sitting in chairs, wasn’t even sure if they’d use oil or what. Was I in for a surprise. After stretching out on full-sized massage tables, we received professional treatment, of not just our tired feet, but our calves and thighs too. After a half hour we both felt completely rejuvenated and promised to return for full-body massages. Ciel was especially impressed with her therapist, who spoke barely a word of English, but whose strong hands knew how to pound out the aches and pains.

We followed up a couple of days later with a one-hour full body treatments with the same two ladies. I secretly wished we could switch so I could try out Ciel’s favorite, but my therapist (who owned the place which included a full restaurant) could hold her own just fine. I laid there listening to temple bells chime, roosters crowing and the laughter in the streets, watched geckos crawl up the white walls of the high-ceilinged room and allowed my body to receive.

Our massage therapists at Fortuna. Taking a break in the restaurant downstairs as they wait for more customers

More than a week went by and finally while in Lovina we stopped in at one of the ubiquitous spas (it’s the same all over Bali and Thailand too – you can’t walk more than a half-block without being confronted with insistent massage offers.) I liked the idea of the “Lovina Special” which promised a leg massage followed by back and shoulders. Sounded like just right since I’d just concluded a stressful bike ride, traveling almost 20 kilometres on a busy street to visit a hot springs. Ciel wanted a pedi and a foot massage.

After about 10 minutes of attempting to communicate our wishes to the woman in attendance she finally summoned a young fellow working at the Internet place next door who translated. There ensued a flurry of slightly panicked confusion when she realized we both wanted treatments. She whipped out her cell phone and within five or ten minutes a short dark-haired woman pulled up on a motor scooter. She pulled off her helmet and smiled at me. I think her name was Wayan.

It was about 6 p.m. and guilt washed over me as I suddenly got an image of Wayan receiving that call as she cooked dinner for her family, children clinging to her legs. She’d probably dropped everything to motor over here to service the tourist. But since she seemed delighted to get the business, and I let the guilt go.

I pointed to “Lovina Special” on the massage menu, and she nodded and directed me to a curtained area where a massage table stood. I undressed as I listened to Ciel attempt to explain what she wanted to the first woman, who seemed a bit slow on the uptake.

As my massage began, I realized she was using an identical system to my first Balinese massage. So much for the Lovina Special, I thought with disappointment. But as the pressure deepened and she reached the tight muscles in my calves and thighs, I decided to lose any preconceptions and expectations and just relax into this.

Since then I’ve let that be the mantra of all the massages I’ve received. They are rarely what I expected but never have I left less relaxed than when I entered.

Sanur

When we got to the beach town of Sanur, we kicked ourselves for not taking advantages of more massages in Ubud – the prices were higher for everything, including spa treatments. There, the massage ladies prowled the beach approaching tourists to offer foot massages, pedicures and even full body treatments – right there on the beach. One older lady who grabbed Ciel’s arm and started kneading.

“I have 25 years experience,” she urged, leading Ciel to a table fronting the sand. She finally agreed, and I left her to the adventure and walked on. Two more beach ladies managed to talk me into a $5 beach pedicure while I waited, and I was impressed with the results. Her English was good and we talked about our daughters as she filed and polished my toes.

On our last day, we scouted out the Sanur spas, each one fronted by a gaggle of uniformed therapists calling out to passersby trying to attract some business.  A bubbly young woman with a fringe of dark bangs called to us.

“You want massage, we have great massage here,” she urged in beautifully accented English. “My name is Ketut.” After chatting with her for a few minutes, we peeked into the premises, which were basic but adequate and agreed on a price.

I had second thoughts after using their bathroom facility, but by then it was too late. I had to draw the line though when I realized she had assigned me a young male masseur. I just wasn’t comfortable with the idea so I spoke up, telling her I would prefer to have a woman therapist. There ensued a bit of fast-talking confusion and Ketut reappeared, “I give you massage,” she announced.

We could tell that neither therapist had received a lot of training  (seems to be the case in Bali – they learn a basic formula for Balinese massage perhaps in a course of a few hours), but Ketut was a natural and had learned all the moves. We lay adjacent to each other on tables that lacked a face cradle, leaving both of us with slightly cramped necks at the end. I got the better end of this deal since Ketut could understand my instructions, Ciel had to continually ask Ketut to tell her therapist to apply more pressure.

Bangkok

I walked the streets near the backpacker’s paradise of Khao San Road that first evening, and I watched the rows of tourists stretch out on lounge chairs on the side of the street enjoying foot massages. That seems a little weird, I thought.  But the second night my legs ached after walking for hours on the concrete city sidewalks, and after a beer I decided to go for it.

I stretched out on the chair flanked by dozens of other foot-weary travelers and surrendered my feet. My therapist expertly kneaded my arches and toes while conducting an animated conversation with the other workers. My reclined position afforded excellent views of the street, crammed with backpackers, revelers, food vendors, and various strollers. I observed wide-eyed newcomers walking up the road laden with their backpackers, moms and dads holding the hands of toddlers or carrying babies, young girls decked out in hippie skirts headed for the bars, back-slapping drunken guys from Europe and Australia, groups of Thais chattering to each other as they walked. I listened to conversations in broken English, Thai and many languages I couldn’t place.

Superlative people-watching while getting my calves and feet kneaded into a state of relaxed happiness. Total cost: about $4. The best of Bangkok.

Chiang Dao

Another week or so passed until the previously mentioned realization struck me:  Time to start making the most of the expertise and price points of bodywork over here. By that time I was in the Northern hamlet of Chiang Dao, and I rode my bike into the center of town to the little massage place my friend Dave had pointed out to me.

“That lady gives great massages,” he said on that first day as we drove through town. And I’d made a mental note.

I hesitantly peeked in the side door, unsure if they were even open. A teenaged boy appeared smiling and gesturing in welcome, although he spoke just a word or two of English. I managed to convey that I was seeking a one-hour massage, and he beckoned me into the tiny rooms. It appeared that the owner was already working on someone and he directed me to the adjacent bed.

Thai massage, different than the Swedish variety, is conducted with the subject fully clothed in a loose-fitting cotton tunic and drawstring pants. I’d heard about the technique for years, but had never tried this form of bodywork.

My therapist handed me my uniform and motioned me towards the closet-like bathroom. We had to communicate in pantomime since we were both limited to about five words of the other’s language. Inside the bathroom, once the fluorescent light stopped flickering on and off and I could see what I was doing I struggled with the wide-legged pants. How did one tie these things on anyway? Eventually I managed to attach them to my body and I emerged to stretch out on the table on my back as directed. Just a basic facility here – no face cradle, an electric fan wafted a thin breeze through the close room, and a television blared what appeared to be a Thai version of MTV.

I felt a bit disappointed that I wasn’t going to get the main lady – the one Dave had recommended, but here I was and we’d see how it went. For about $5 for an hour massage, I couldn’t go wrong.

My worries dissipated as soon as she planted her firm fingers on my feet and legs. I’d been biking several kilometers a day, since this was my sole means of transportation around town, and hadn’t realized how sore those muscles had become.

Ouch! But in the “hurts so good” kind of way.

Music from the TV filled the room (now it was looking more like a Thai version of “American Idol”), the fan whirred, and I fought my annoyance as my masseuse gazed at the screen and chatted with her fellow therapist while she kneaded my legs. Then it dawned on me: this woman had the experience and strength to give an expert massage even if I didn’t have her full attention.

In this case, the multitasking massage worked. I rose from the table after being pummeled and kneaded with fingers, fists and elbows. My entire being radiated a sense of relief and renewal. Another lesson in letting go of expectation.

After I’d dressed they sat me right back down on the bed and handed me a cup of tea. I was soon to learn that this is the custom of Thai massage. One sits and sips a hot drink for ten minutes or so after the treatment. This strikes me as an excellent way to give your body a chance to absorb the healing.

Chiang Mai

Determined to be true to my new resolution, right after my arrival back in Chiang Mai. I stopped in at the little massage shop directly below Chinda House where I’d booked a room. I’d walked up and down the sois (alleys) all afternoon checking out various rooms and accommodations and my toes and arches were ready for some attention. At home that might have involved a soak or a scrub, but I was in the land of $3 foot massages!

A European couple were already enjoying simultaneous foot treatments, so the ladies enlisted the male therapist to address my feet. As soon as I removed my shoes and he took my feet in his lap, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t taken the time to wash them first. I remembered the guidebook’s admonition about being careful with your feet around Thai people. Their culture considers them dirty and one must never step on things, or face the soles of the feet towards a person. Oh well, this was a foot massage after all.

I couldn’t read his face as he brought out rubbing alcohol and carefully cleaned my soles and feet all the way up to my ankles. I hoped this wasn’t because they were particularly dirty, but realized later that this is standard practice before most Thai massages – probably because they don’t want to touch any feet that have not been disinfected.

Then he began to squeeze and knead my arches. Ouch! This wasn’t just some wimpy California foot massage. I leaned back in my chair and tried to relax by perusing the wall decorations. A row of certificates hung on the far wall and I noted that my young masseur had indeed been certified by a Chiang Mai massage school. And, pain not withstanding, he was getting those pressure points.

After he gently dusted both feet with baby powder I got ready to leap up and continue on with my agenda, but instead was handed a steaming cup of sweet ginger tea. Oh yes. Part of the therapy is the relaxation and integration afterward.

The next day, after a morning of temple visits in the hot sun, I pedaled over to the Women’s Prison – an unlikely place for a massage it would seem.

To be continued. Watch for Part 2 highlighting the variety of Thai massages…

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