It’s hard to walk down a street in the big cities of SE Asia without seeing a huge number of massage establishments. In some places massages are even available in the public squares or in the doorways of buildings. I’m not talking about the seedy image of massage parlours, but regular places where both tourists and locals can relieve the stress in their joints and muscles. (That being said, the seedy Asian massage places are present everywhere too and sometimes the distinction between the two is maybe less obvious than appears from the surface)
On our recent trip to this part of the world we indulged in a massage on an almost daily basis. It seemed like a very pleasant way to spend an evening, and at an average of $5 for an hour it was a cheap night out; and we were helping local businesses too! During the course of our time in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia I pretty much went through the menu of standard massage services available, so I thought I would list the types of massage normally on offer and share my experiences.
Foot massage. A good place to start, but be warned that the masseuse is unlikely to stick to the feet. In my first foot massage in Bangkok the lady worked up to my knees and lower thighs, and then later on my back and shoulders too. A nice way to drift away while being massaged, and you will usually get a drink of tea to enjoy while you are receiving your massage.
Back and shoulder massage. One hour on the back and shoulders is a long time, not only for the masseuse but also the recipient. It was amazing how a small person could inflict such pressure on my back! I tried this once, and then resolved to have an all-over experience. As with most of our massages, Sam and I were laid in adjacent beds so we were able to stare across and see what the other was going through, while the girls were able to laugh at us with great amusement, knowing that our lack of Thai, Lao or Khmer meant that they could say what they wanted without any fear of us understanding. My size 11 feet seemed to start the jokes off every time.
Lao massage. The Lao equivalent of the Thai massage, but softer. Or so they said. Someone didn’t mention that to the girl who pounded away on my back and pulled my arms through angles they had never seen. I was asked to put on a pyjama suit for the session at the start. About half of the massage involved me lying on my front while the masseuse worked on my back and my legs, and the other half while she worked on my front. Everything (apart from private areas of course!) was fair game for the massage, and I came out feeling like I’d been in a fight- and lost.
Khmer massage. The Cambodian variation on the all-over massage, but this one was sold as being gentler than its Lao/Thai equivalents, and indeed it generally was. We took 1.5 hours for this one, and I was so relaxed after 45 minutes that I may have fallen asleep at some point just before she threw her full weight onto my back with no warning. I don’t know if it was the loud slap on the back that woke me or the sudden pressure of having someone pounding away mercilessly on my back, but there was no chance of sleeping after that.
Oil massage. Like the Khmer massage but with oil, this one is not for the shy or sensitive. I was asked to shower first, and coming out of the shower with my towel the masseuse asked me to lie face down on the table, and then immediately pulled away my towel. For the next hour it was strategically used to hide my modesty while she worked away on my arms, legs and shoulders with copious amounts of oil. An initially uncomfortable experience, but probably my favourite massage in the end, and certainly the most gentle. It was also the only time the lady giving the massage spoke any English, and she was able to give me a little insight into her life. She didn’t like the job at all, but worked to pay for her studies in hairdressing school. She studied from 8 till 2, and then worked in the massage parlour from 2.30 till midnight, 6 days a week, and had a strong ambition to own her own hair salon.
4 hand massage. A final night indulgence, where two masseuses work on you at the same time. I have heard from others that when done properly it is a carefully synchronised operation that is wonderful to experience. I guess I don’t know, as I had two young girls only one of whom was taking it seriously and the other was busy chatting up the Kiwi guy on the next bed who had just announced that he was single. “You want Cambodian girlfriend?” was her only English line, but one she was determined to use to full effect. The massage was forgettable, although the hilarity that ensued from us ribbing the Kiwi guy made up for it!
Seeing Hands massage. Without doubt the best massage of the trip, and the only one performed by men. We both had an hour session with the blind men of Siem Reap. With no social care system in place, the disabled are left to fend for themselves, and Seeing Hands is a venture that gives the blind a means of self-support in an otherwise hopeless situation. The masseur found his way effortlessly around my back and shoulders and the pressure he exerted was a world away from that of the 45kg young girls. In fact it was frightening at times, knowing that he had so much strength in his hands to do me serious damage. I needn’t have worried, as he worked expertly on my spine before pulling my arms through controlled contortions that brought tears to my eyes. Paying the men is of course a act of trust, as they cannot see how much money is put into their hands, but their skills and bravery deserve the highest praise.
Back home now I wouldn’t dream of paying western prices for such a service, but certainly next time we are in Asia I will look forward to more sessions of pain and torture, delivered with a good price and a beaming smile.