Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Massage Of Madame Ow-Ow: From A Broad Abroad In Thailand

I was introduced to a real stress-reliever while in Thailand; a most amazing practice, and one that all new expats come to love. It was the wonderful Thai massage. It is usually performed by strong young girls, however I did notice a few males in the trade. One hour of this relaxing massage and most women would be able to negotiate with a terrorist. What a warm and muscle-stimulating practice it is — for most people. I have a problem with pain. I admit it. I have no tolerance for pain and don't try to hide it.

After a few trips to the massage parlors around town, I'd earned a reputation as Madame Ow-Ow. The tiny massage girls all seemed to be amazed that I could be so sensitive. As soon as I appeared in the waiting room, I'd hear the giggles start. Fine, giggle all you want — just don't hurt my body. Like it or not, they had to use a little less muscle with me. One of the little power-houses literally left her fingerprints on my arms and legs in the form of purple circles. I warned her about my condition before she started on me; in fact, I showed her some old bruises that the last girl had left on my rump. She obviously had no clue why I was pointing to four round dots on my butt, but as was the norm in this land of smiles, she giggled and began leaving her own marks. Giggling I later learned, can also be the Thai way of hiding embarrassment. Bruises or no, I kept going back — possibly because it felt so good when they stopped. Okay, I admit it, I'm a masochist.

Seeing all the massage parlors in town brought back memories of an earlier visit to Thailand. I had to laugh as I remembered being introduced to the words: "Physical Massage." It was in the 70s and we were expats living in Iran. My husband, feeling we had earned this treat just by living in that hotbed, had surprised us with a week of R&R at Pattaya Beach. On our first day there we decided to let the kids enjoy the pool while we read and soaked up the sun. We were half asleep when my youngest son, about ten years old at the time, came running up to us. "Dad! Can I have ten bucks?"

"Whaa for?" my half-asleep husband asked.

"That lady over there said to bring ten bucks and she'd give me a good massage."

At these not so soft-spoken words, we both sat up — as well as most of the people around the pool — and looked in the direction my son pointed. And there she was, a beautiful Thai girl who looked to be no more than sixteen, standing in her shimmering red gown, leaning seductively against the massage parlor door, smiling the sweet Thai smile and motioning for my son to come to her.

"Uh, I think not, son," I said.

"But, why?" he whined in his usual "you love her more than me" voice while pointing to his sister. "You give her money all the time. Can't I just have ten bucks?"

Honey," I whispered, "she's not a nice lady. She'll take your money and God knows what she'll do to you. Besides, massages are for grown-ups. Wait until you're older, then you can pay for it."

"Paaaleeez," he cried plaintively.

By now the male population around the pool was sitting upright, awaiting our decision.

"No! And that's final," said my husband in a not-so-final voice. This was not the answer my son wanted to hear. He was the kind of kid who never would accept the word "No" and could argue you to the ground until you cried "Uncle!"

"She said it was good for me," he yelled in his outdoor voice. "How could she hurt me, Mom? Dad could go along with me to make sure I got my ten bucks' worth."

"No." I said, this time in my outdoor voice. "No more talk of massages." I turned to my husband for reinforcement, but he was busy putting a bookmark in his novel. "Go back to sleep," I said, "you're not going anywhere either."

One of the best massages I found was in an old run-down home outside of town. The Hilton Hotel Spa it was not, but you soon overlooked the lack of fluff for the wonderful treatment you received. The house was over 100 years old, with cracked windows, torn curtains, sagging sills, patches of linoleum missing here and there, and a musty smell that permeated the whole environment. The interior walls in the center of the house had been removed and the space had been converted to a large dormitory-type room, with mats laid out side-by-side on the floor. Much to my discomfort, air conditioning (or air-con as the Thais say) was sadly absent in this old house. The AC phenomenon was introduced to Thailand with the advent of the farangs invading their land. The Thais don't seem to feel the heat as the farangs do. When the temperature drops to eighty-five degrees, it might move them to put on a sweater.

Now, I could handle everything else in this place, but when the weather was at its worst, the massage room became one huge sauna and bordered on feral. I tried to get there early before it became too warm. Warm, as in 100 degrees F. The place lacked the niceties of Muzak and ambiance, but it was home to some wonderful girls.

The Blind Student Massage School, appropriately named, was home to young girls who were clinically blind, but who gave wonderful massages. The girls were mainly from poor villages where their parents were unable to get help for them. They were brought to Bangkok by Good Samaritans and schooled in the art of Thai massage. Once trained, they were sent to Pattaya and other towns to live with their benefactors, working to earn their keep. The Thai couple who owned this establishment gave the girls a home to live in, in exchange for their massage work and a small salary. They did very well on their tips and always thanked us profusely. We did wonder how they knew how much we tipped.

The routine went something like this: After check-in, you were given a towel and a pair of cotton PJs — designed to fit a ten-year-old — then escorted to individual vapor steam rooms the size of a small shower, with a bench seat for snoozing. After disrobing, you'd be saturated in wonderful mystical aromas of incense, eucalyptus steam and various other herbal delights. It took me five minutes of this heaven before I would doze off and dream I was Eve, lolling about the Garden in my birthday suit. When you'd yell "Uncle" they'd scoop you out of the shower, help you on with your PJs, and lead you to the massage room and the assigned mat on the floor. What joy! You were clean, warm, snugly, and then the fun began.

The girls would first try to identify you — a game they all played with giggles and excitement. They'd begin by running their sensitive little fingers over your face and downward. By the time they reached your legs they could identify you. Of course, with me, as soon as I uttered "Ow-Ow" I was caught, and had to listen to a chorus of giggles wafting through the room. I still think it was unfair; when they couldn't immediately identify me, they'd give a pinch to hear my Ow-Ow.

After one hour of this heaven you were escorted to the co-ed shower room where you'd find the usual male opportunists — showering, changing clothes, urinating, or sitting and watching you do the same. At first it was difficult, but over time I would envision myself as Raquel Welsh — loin cloth and all — and didn't feel quite as modest.

At this same establishment they offered haircuts, facials, manicures and pedicures — I asked for the sighted girls for these jobs —'all for less than ten dollars. If you came in for a wash, you were put on what looked like a hospital gurney and rolled to the shampoo bowl. The first time I experienced this I was a tad apprehensive. Okay, where’s the operating room? But it turned out to be another treat for the pampered farang. They had a very inventive way of preparing you for the shampoo by slipping one end of a rubber tray under your neck, while the other end drained into the shampoo bowl. Why don't we have this technique stateside? What a simple concept: the water doesn't drain down your neck, leaving a soggy blouse; no wet towels to deal with, and no concrete slab for your arthritic neck to balance on. You're in a lying position and soon you're fast asleep.

Along with these wonderful shampoos would come a head massage, neck and scalp massage, and anything else you wanted massaged. The shampoo was something all the expat ladies looked forward to; three washes, three rinses, and a twenty-minute head and neck massage.

Other pleasures to the senses were the trips that many of the ladies took to Bangkok for beauty treatments. The salon offered massages, hair and nail services, and pedicures. It was heaven to spend the day being pampered. If you were in a hurry it was the best place to go. To gain entrance you had to ring a buzzer, wherein the manager would greet you at the door and ask you three questions: (1) Are you in a hurry? (2) What services do you want? And (3) Whom would you like to have work on you? If the answer to number one was in the affirmative, the manager would assign as many girls to you as you had appendages; one girl for each hand for manicures, one girl for each foot for pedicures, one girl for cutting, curling and blow drying your hair. Watching all these girls working on me, I felt I was being prepared for a Thai barbecue.

It was marvelous if you needed to be in and out quickly, but made it quite difficult to read a book.

(Reprinted with permission from A Broad Abroad in Thailand by Dodie Cross).

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