Monday, November 4, 2013

Massage, Madam?

Today a friend posted on her Facebook page an hilarious account of a hairdressing disaster in Bali. Thinking she'd entered a reasonably-priced beauty salon, she soon discovered that not only was her $35 haircut going to cost just $3.50, but the hairdresser didn't own a pair of scissors and intended slashing her hair with a blunt, dirty razor. It got me thinking about my salon disasters in Thailand, the challenges of language differences and about how you often get what you pay for.

True bliss! A 'welcome' massage at the Banyan Tree Ko Samui

Fortunately, I've never had a hairdressing drama in Thailand - having said that, I've always opted for the most basic, foolproof straight cuts (complete with head massage and blow dry) and never braved foils, colour or an advanced style.

I have had the odd pedicure fail, however - note to self: do not request a pedicure with polish from a parlour on the beach. Sand is not a friend of nail polish, however dry the lacquer feels...

I've also had some extremely amusing - ie, not so good - massages in Thailand. Very few, mind - in general, I find my massages to be incredibly relaxing, therapeutic and conducted with the utmost of grace. But when you are having a massage a day - why not when they are so cheap? - there are bound to be a few sub-par experiences, which only add to the rich tapestry of the travel experience.

One memorable massage occurred in a little town in the Golden Triangle called Sop Ruak. I was with a friend, both of us in dire need of a good rubdown. I wanted a basic Thai massage; she requested a hot oil massage, and was immediately ushered upstairs to get naked. I was left in the hands of the elderly matriarch of the family - 70 if she was a day, toothless and speaking no English. "At least she has years of experience," I thought as I changed into my fisherman pants. Wrong. It seems Granny only just picked up the art (no, wrong word - butchery, perhaps?) of massage - she prodded and poked me till I was black and blue all over, ignoring my "jep"s (ouch!) and "bao bao!" (softer) requests with a brutal giggle.

As bruised as I was, my gal pal, by all accounts, fared far worse. She emerged from her massage an hour later, whispering, "I think I've just been sexually assaulted!" It seems her young masseuse was fascinated with my friend's perky white breasts, and kept giving them a squeeze, asking "you have baby, no?" Despite her protestations that no, she didn't have a baby, the young woman continued to touch her up, declaring "you very full - you have baby?" I, of course, pretended to be shocked, but in truth was laughing my head off.

The price is right...

Fortunately, experiences like this are the exception rather than the rule in Thailand, where massage is a way of life. Most masseuses - particularly those in spa resorts, hotel spas and upmarket day spas - are very well trained; as are many street masseuses, who proudly show off their graduation certificates on the walls of their salons. 

One of my most treasured massage experiences was at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, where the local villagers supplement their income by offering massages to guests each night. Not only do these lovely ladies give excellent massages, but the experience also provides an opportunity to interact on an intimate, friendly and informative level, with cross-cultural sharing of ideas, language and a whole lot of laughter.

Another excellent massage program has given female prisoners in Chiang Mai prison new opportunities and the chance to start a new career when they are released from jail. These girls - most of them incarcerated for petty crimes such as theft or prostitution - are given massage training through a certified course; they then practice what they've learnt on paying clients. Everything they earn (with each massage costing 180 baht) goes into an account for them to access on their release; so clients are helping these women get a footing and a productive start to a new career. It's a win-win situation; a massage that's as good for the soul as it for the body.

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