The Thai massage: pain or pleasure?

The gentle waft of Tiger Balm. The soft plucking of strings played back on a dodgy old stereo. A comfortable pillow behind your head. And a small woman with amazingly strong hands seemingly trying to poke holes right through your body with each extended finger. Then the sound of an electric drill as the person next door hangs a picture. Or builds a wall. Or a new house.

Welcome to getting a Thai massage near the pier in Thewet, north west of Bangkok city centre. At 150 Baht it ranks as the cheapest massage I’ve had in Thailand. After an hour I can also tell you it was one of the best.

The little shop I chose sits just round the corner from a 7-Eleven (where doesn’t in Bangkok?) and fronts onto a market. Just outside, vegetables are being sold. A few yards away it’s all fish and just over the river is the flower market.

However, all this matters not a jot as I let my mind float while my body is abused and scrunched by a young Thai girl with the strength of three US Marines on steroids. And, boy, does it feel good.

Judging by the welcome I receive, this isn’t a shop that normally sees many farang. Especially not those carrying two rucksacks (I was on my way to switch hostels at the time). One chap who’s working on an older lady’s legs is the only English-speaker in the shop but this in no way prevents an overwhelming sense of politeness emanating from the other two staff.

Gently my bags are laid down in the corner and I’m gestured towards one of the beds. A fresh sheet is placed down and cover wrapped around the comfy pillow. I remove my shoes and rather guiltily allow the young masseuse to wash my feet, I say guiltily as due to a combination of street dust, humidity and those bloody Crocs I bought in Darwin my toes and ankles are coated in a foamy grey scum. I know I wouldn’t want to go near them if they were attached to another person.

However, this brave woman doesn’t wrinkle one nostril as she wipes all the gunk away with a damp cloth before directing me to lie back. My legs and torso are covered in another clean sheet and the pressure begins to be applied.

Deceptively gently at first, more a rubbing than a squeezing, my left leg gets a minute or two of nice sensations before the thumbs, fingers, elbows and knees are employed. For some reason this is still pleasurable. I think it’s the fact that the skilled practitioners with their steely grips know just how long to apply any pressure before the recipient will break down.

After my leg has been pummelled, twisted, pulled and the toe knuckles popped, she moves over to the other and repeats everything. Well, after I remove my camera from one of my pockets as it was nestled just where she needs to grip me to paralyse one of my thighs.

Legs complete, my left then right arm are subjected to similar (mis)treatment and then I’m gestured at to roll over.

Once more the feet get the first attention as my young torturess works her way up to my back and shoulders. At one point she is kneeling on me, knees embedded in my lower back as she kneads the knotted muscles of my neck. I swear they weren’t knotted when I came in. They bunched up in terror as her hands approached.

The big impressive move is to maintain that kneeling position as she grabs my wrists. I lift my shoulders off the bed and she arches my spine in a way it rarely gets arched these days. I feel like the runners on a rocking horse, only more relaxed.

Finally, she motions for me to sit up. Positioning herself cross-legged I’m invited to lie back with my shoulders resting on the pillow in her lap. My head and neck are massaged and it’s very tingly. She doesn’t manage to crack my neck and I swear she’s disappointed by this.

She finishes with a deep wai and a “kawp khun kaaaa” which never seems right as it’s me who should be thanking her. The older lady who runs the shop gives me a cup of tea and the young man – while continuing his rub-down on the customer he was with when I entered – engages me in some brief conversation.

I hand over my 150 Baht, and 50 Baht for the girl herself as a tip. Even with that, it’s barely half what you expect to pay on the streets near Silom where I am now heading. For an hour in the skilled hands of someone who likely breaks three Charles Atlas Grip Strengtheners before breakfast this is an absolute bargain.

I step out with a spring in my step and my mind in a better place, walking through the fish market, past the flowers and on to the orange-flagged ferry heading south down the Chom Prayah.

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