I am flat on my back in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand. My body is just one of many on a sea of cots that resembles the operating ward in "M*A*S*H." My masseuse, who speaks no English, straddles my leg, pressing hard on my inner thigh. Though I speak no Thai, she has no trouble understanding my groan. In her saffron-colored smock she smiles at me with friendly eyes, pushes more, and slowly releases her hands. I feel heat emanating from the spot she has just released. She smiles again and turns to my other thigh. I am mid-way through the best massage I've ever had.
Recognizing the value of massage in healing the body, a turn-of-the-century Thai ruler (at that time the country was known as Siam) established the Traditional Thai Massage School at Wat Po temple (sometimes referred to as Wat Pho) so that his subjects could afford to enjoy the blessings of a good massage. My one-hour massage cost just $5.
This massage experience is not private, so clients remain in their street clothes. It's a good idea to come in loose, old clothing. Oil isn't used, so unless you want to add an herbal enhancement, which has staining properties (but is also a great way to decorate up a t-shirt without going to the bother of tie-dying), your clothes will not be damaged. Loaner shorts and shirts are available if you ask. But not everyone worries about the end result. I saw a Japanese woman in a stylish pantsuit stretched out on one cot, her designer handbag doubling as a pillow.
Thai massage is based on the idea that invisible energy lines run throughout the body. When these lines get congested, energy imbalances are created in the body. So muscles need to be loosened and blockages disrupted to bring the body back into harmony. Movements, though sometimes harsh, are never abrupt.
My masseuse continues, looking me over and then pressing firmly on various pressure points. She manipulates muscles and pulls on my fingers until the knuckles pop, and then, using her own body for leverage, she stretches my upper thigh by pushing with her bare feet, followed by a hard pressing with the heels of her hands. A few times she walks on me. I endure. This is an assertive body-to-body massage, with my masseuse at times using her feet and elbows to execute the treatment.
Part-way through all this manipulation I fall into a Zen-like state and become aware of the sharp mewing of a cat, of birds chittering in the trees, of a gecko moving along the wall, of electric fans keeping things cool, and of the constant chattering among the workers and between them and their children--who are with them on the premises. I also take deeper notice of the fact that we are within a covered pavilion with a chain link fence serving as walls; it is reminiscent of a refugee encampment.
My massage ends with my masseuse looking me straight in the eyes. She plugs my ears with her fingers, causing noise to fade away, and then quickly pulls them out, causing a pop and the rapid return of reality. I'm still wondering what that was all about.
After my massage, I explored the old temple site, which is best known for its enormous Reclining Buddha, featuring mother-of-pearl feet and said to be half as long as a football field (I was able to get only a small portion of it into my camera's viewfinder). I also viewed its exotic chedis, or spires, and inscriptions carved in marble in 1836 illustrating the principles of Thai massage. I heard too late from a Japanese-national friend, who was the person who first told me about this Thai temple massage, that the gift shop here sells a book on Thai massage written in English. I so wish I had purchased one.
More expensive massages are also available in Thailand, as are the more traditional styles of massage that we are used to in the West. But why opt for anything less than this bargain native miracle? It is the perfect antidote to pulling an over-packed suitcase, and to the general stress of travel.
Cost: Temple admission, 20 baht. Massage: 1/2 hour, 100 baht; 1 hour 180 baht; 1-hour herbal massage, 260 baht. The exchange rate during my visit was 38 baht/US$1. The masseuse gets half of the fee.
Tipping is not necessary, but I left the equivalent of $2. My masseuse looked surprised at the tip, bowed to thank me, and offered me a bottled water.
You can also sign up for a 10-day, 30-hour course for 4,500 baht. The Thais take a 1-3 year course.
Remember that this is a school and you are classroom material, so sometimes your masseuse or masseur will be using you as a guinea pig. And sheets are not changed after each client.
Hours: Open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Reservations are taken, but you can also just show up and wait. There are two massage pavilions, with 22 cots in each.