International Writers Magazine: Thailand
How to brave a Bangkok Massage Parlour
Night in Bangkok makes a hard man . . . well, hard. Still,
a massage in Southeast Asias premier den of zen iniquity doesnt
always have to be a red-light affair. Away from the neon-lit strip
joints, sex clubs, and massage parlors of Patpong I and II lies
the holy Buddhist shrine of Wat Po, built in the 16th century, where
those seeking a real Thai rubbing (with no g-strings attached) can
mix up ying and yang and attain physical nirvana.
Wat Po Massage School
Wat Po (The Temple
of the Bodhi Tree), a 20-acre Asian erector set housing the 45-meter-long
Reclining Buddha, is older than the city of Bangkok itself. Its mazelike
clusters of cramped cloisters and aerial spires are decorated with motifs
covering everything from astrology to animal husbandry (yuck!).
It has long been a center of traditional Thai medicine, including massage,
which is used to cure everything from nagging backaches to pernicious
diseases. Antsy with anticipation, I decided to give a full-body massage
in the temple compound a go.
Looking for more proverbial bang for the
baht, albeit with a PG rating, I found myself entering the legendary
wat in search of fleshly delights. Following the crowd of pilgrims,
I made a beeline for the statue of the colossal Indian philosopher lying
like a gargantuan couch potato among the worshipers, their bare feet
pointing away respectfully from his image. There was a mien of post-prandial
mirth and satiation on the Buddhas face, as if he did indeed have
a pretty good masseuse.
As if in a dream I imagined the Buddha trying
to tell me something, sotto voce. What I couldnt be sure. I flipped
through my Lonely Planet guidebook until my finger landed by
chance on the surprising fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian
country to never have been colonized by foreign powers. Why was that?
I wonderedunaware that I might soon enough find out why.
At the massage school, a Siamese seductress
accepted my handful of baht and led me inside, while my eyes adjusted
to the anonymous and androgynous gloom. Lo and behold, there before
me were rows of hospital beds full of fully clothed, groaning patients,
whose limbs were being gleefully mangled amid the wild hoots and derisive
snorts of bystanders, their faces contorted with laughter as if in great
Id changed changed my mind. I wanted out.
You, come here! came a commanding voice.
Without further ado, I was plopped down on
a cot while an enormous Pat of uncertain lineage and gender
vigorously got down to work. In an epileptic fit of suppressed rage,
this Julia Child of Oriental Medicine set about the task of horrifically
punishing me for my sins, kneading and pounding my floury flesh. I felt
like the Pillsbury Doughboy spread out on a pan heading to the oven,
the universe stone deaf to my piping castrato pleas for mercy. A central
tenet of Buddhism, by the way, is that Life is suffering.
As if I hadnt already cried uncle, Oddjob, the masseuse,
then dug deadly pyrite fingers into me, and with the precision of an
acupuncurist, prospecting around for heretofore unknown muscles, hit
a nerve that had been sleeping peaceably for eons. In a fit of dementia
I babbled a mantra, begged the Buddha for forgiveness, then imagined
Id metamorphosed into a leaping grasshopper, in the process of
being pinned live into an entomologists display case.
Flipped sunnyside up, I tried to make a break.
Starcrossed synapses kickboxed, then went down for the count. Beginning
to blackoutlegs chopsticked, arms pretzeled, digits unstuckI
allowed my bones to be yanked clean out of their sockets. A gravitational
wave of endorphins flooded through my knotted mercurial nerves. Om.
Actually, it wasnt really that bad. At least, in the aftermath
of exaggerated pain I can safely say Ive never felt more relaxed
in my life.
As I somnambulated punch-drunk out of the
heavenly spa, a saffron-robed monk stepped out from the shadows and
barred my path. He clasped his hands into a wai and bowed. With a shaky
Heres the Church, Heres the Steeple structure,
I waied him back. Id memorized my only Thai towline: Sawat
dii, khrap, I exhaled in greeting.
The mysterious monk just stood there, smiling
like a benevolent Siddhartha.
Khawp khun, khrap, I tried next,
flipping through my pocket Berlitz. This meant, lets see, Thank
you very much. The monk stared blankly
out into space, a quizzical cocked eyebrow signifying that he was indeed
wise in the ways of the world. I pointed to the translation. Oh,
I seeeeee. He giggled nervously. Awareness dawned on me that,
due to an errant pronunciation of the polite ending khrap,
I had been saying crapwhen all the while the magisterial
monk spoke English.
I think you very big fan massage?!
chuckled the monk. You like very many?
Looking for minor shades of meaning, I thought about this query for
a few seconds, about how Id shot blanks in Bangkok, and about
what an egregious loser I was for not actively going through with the
experience of getting laid during a massage, but before
I could answer, unbidden the image of the Reclining Buddha (fresh from
a rubdown and looking slightly embarrassed) entered my minds eye,
an ambiguous smile soldered on his bronzed lips.
I couldnt help but wonder if this was
a trick question.
© John M. Edwards Feb 1st 2008
work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,
Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, North Dakota Quarterly, Richmond
Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently
won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award and
a Solas Award. He lives in a cool loft in New York City.
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