Aa released the leg she had been grasping and set it gently on the floor. A lungful of air escaped her victim in a groan indicating return from the brink of pain. “Now you practice on each other, ok.” It was a suggestion, but between her broken English, stout frame, and authoritative tone, all of Aa’s suggestions sound like orders.
Jed and I made uneasy eye contact before simultaneously rushing to break the silence. “Yeah, no problem!” “Right, shall I go first then?”
I had enjoyed taking in the scenery on my first day in Chiang Mai, but that evening decided to make a more comprehensive plan for the rest of the week. I knew that my friend Tamber would be visiting in a few days and since she had never been to Chiang Mai, I did not want to do the basic sightseeing activities around town until she arrived. I had several days to fill with something more substantial. Thai language would take too long, meditation was too boring, and rock climbing too expensive, so I narrowed my options to wilderness trekking or a Thai massage course.
Initially I was leaning towards trekking. Just like hiking back home, I thought it would provide landscape photo opportunities and exercise. When I started to look into it further, however, I realized that trekking in Thailand is not quite like a hiking in the states. A typical overnight trek out of Chiang Mai includes two hours hiking, one hour white water rafting, one waterfall, a stay overnight in an ethnic minority village, one hour bamboo rafting, and one hour elephant ride. All that, in two days. Some might find this an appealing and efficient use of time, but to me it sounded like the package tourism that leaves me feeling smothered and a little dirty. I later found that there are other trekking options which are simple guided hikes, but these are less popular and therefore more difficult and expensive to arrange. So, I decided that I would take a three day course in Thai massage. It rained heavily that night and I felt even better about my decision as I imagined the trekkers leaving Same Same the next morning slogging through muddy rainforest all day.
Some might think I was rash in choosing to take a massage course before ever receiving one, and they would be right. Thai massages are known for imaginative and forceful techniques, quite different from a traditional massage; think pressing, twisting, cracking, and chopping rather than kneading or sliding. Some love it, some hate it. I expected to love it since I’ve always enjoyed forceful massage, but you never know. There is also an aura of sleaze surrounding Thai massage parlors, and though this is mostly centered on Bangkok and association with non-massage activities I wanted to be sure to steer very clear of that element. I chose my massage teachers by walking around to several of the ubiquitous massage places and talking to masseuses. The place I eventually chose, Jera massage, had decent English speakers, reasonable prices, and businesslike, laid back attitude.
Luckily, it turns out that I fall into the ‘love’ camp when it comes to Thai massage, as expected. And, I suspect those that say they hate it might enjoy a less forceful rendition of the same techniques, because speaking objectively Thai massage is totally awesome. One of the main differences between Thai massage and classical massage is the amount of stretching involved. Apparently Thai massage originated in India, though it is not practiced there now, and many (but not all) moves resemble yoga poses. My course booklet suggests that it might be a good idea to call it ‘Yoga massage’ instead of Thai massage, and I agree. Having practiced Yoga in the past, you get a lot of the same benefits without the work; a masseuse stretches and twists your body into the positions for you while you just relax and enjoy.
I signed up for the course and as I was the only student on that first day I would get plenty of attention. The proprietor of Jera Masage, Aa, is a short, stocky woman around 40 years old from Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand and the only place in the country that sees frost. Perhaps coincidentally, Aa’s powerful build and businesslike demeanor reminded me more of a hardy Eskimo than the typical slim and flirtatious Thai woman. I learned that Aa had not spent her entire life giving massages, but started out working in a factory assembling computer mice for a decade or so before going to live in a temple for a year to learn the massage trade. The only other masseuse in the place is Aa’s friend Wee, also from Doi Inthanon and cut from the same cloth. Wee’s younger sister Wee-oo, who unlike the others does not speak much English and is a hairdresser rather than a masseuse, served as the demonstration and practice dummy that first day. Also hanging around the shop at various times was a Thai woman An and her toddler Emmett.
I was to work from a book containing drawings and simple descriptions of techniques. I would watch the expert one time and take notes, then the moves would be performed on me so I could feel the intended effects, and finally I would practice. The first thing I was told to do before we began was memorize a list of key abbreviations to be used throughout the book. My interest grew as I committed to memory abbreviations including KP = Knee Press, EP = Elbow Press, FP = Foot Press, and DTP = Double Thumb Press.
The rest of the first day went smoothly as I learned to apply even pressure with the whole palm (when Wee-oo gritted her teeth and said bao-bao – softer), use slow, rhythmic motions (Aa: “Walking, not running!”), and pull both harder and faster than expected when snap-cracking toes and fingers (each successful ‘pop’ elicited a smile and a nod from everyone in the room). Six massage-filled hours later, I was invited to Emmet’s first birthday party where I ate delicious food and met Ines, a German traveler who had befriended this group on a longer stay in Chiang Mai a couple of years ago and had now returned for a visit.
When I showed up bright and early on Sunday morning for the second day of class, a new student had arrived. Jed was a tall, lanky Australian with a deep voice, surfer vibe and that classic Aussie swagger. He was in Chiang Mai to study bamboo building techniques as part of his architecture degree. I’m not sure how massage fit in to his curriculum, but we hit it off right away and it was great to have another Westerner around for conversation. On the other hand, the presence of another dude changed the massage room dynamics considerably. That awkward feeling you get when stepping way out of your comfort zone, dispelled for me on the first day by Aa and Wee’s calm professionalism, was tangible as we watched the demonstration of the first moves of the day. Aa hadn’t mentioned who we would practice on, but given the lack of alternatives both of us clearly suspected it would be each other. Soon enough, Aa’s order broke the suspense: “Now you practice on each other, ok.”
The initial awkwardness soon retreated, however, as both of us focused on proper technique. I was at first worried that I was getting short-changed by having to practice on someone who didn’t know what the massage was supposed to feel like, but quickly realized that the benefit of experiencing poor massage techniques for comparison with the proper ones more than compensated. Lessons from my own mistakes of the previous day was reinforced by literally feeling the pain caused by Jed’s initially clumsy maneuvers (Me: Ouch! Aa: Jed, this Thai massage not Thai boxing. Walking not running!). That’s not to say we completely avoided awkwardness throughout the rest of the day. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say that the three pressure points on the gluteus maximus are rather deep and quite a challenge to locate. Both of us were marginally successful suppressing our laughter at the many unspoken That’s What She Said’s.
Massage photos to come in a future post.