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The International Writers Magazine: Thailand

Bangkok Blues
John Edwards
How to brave a Bangkok Massage Parlour

“One Night in Bangkok” makes a hard man . . . well, hard. Still, a massage in Southeast Asia’s premier den of zen iniquity doesn’t always have to be a red-light affair. Away from the neon-lit strip joints, sex clubs, and massage parlors of Patpong I and II lies the holy Buddhist shrine of Wat Po, built in the 16th century, where those seeking a real Thai rubbing (with no g-strings attached) can mix up ying and yang and attain physical nirvana.

Wat Po Massage School

Wat Po (The Temple of the Bodhi Tree), a 20-acre Asian erector set housing the 45-meter-long Reclining Buddha, is older than the city of Bangkok itself. Its mazelike clusters of cramped cloisters and aerial spires are decorated with motifs covering everything from astrology to “animal husbandry” (yuck!). It has long been a center of traditional Thai medicine, including massage, which is used to cure everything from nagging backaches to pernicious diseases. Antsy with anticipation, I decided to give a full-body massage in the temple compound a go.

       Looking for more proverbial bang for the baht, albeit with a PG rating, I found myself entering the legendary wat in search of fleshly delights. Following the crowd of pilgrims, I made a beeline for the statue of the colossal Indian philosopher lying like a gargantuan couch potato among the worshipers, their bare feet pointing away respectfully from his image. There was a mien of post-prandial mirth and satiation on the Buddha’s face, as if he did indeed have a pretty good masseuse.

       As if in a dream I imagined the Buddha trying to tell me something, sotto voce. What I couldn’t be sure. I flipped through my Lonely Planet guidebook until my finger landed by chance on the surprising fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to never have been colonized by foreign powers. Why was that? I wondered—unaware that I might soon enough find out why.

       At the massage school, a Siamese seductress accepted my handful of baht and led me inside, while my eyes adjusted to the anonymous and androgynous gloom. Lo and behold, there before me were rows of hospital beds full of fully clothed, groaning patients, whose limbs were being gleefully mangled amid the wild hoots and derisive snorts of bystanders, their faces contorted with laughter as if in great pain.
I’d changed changed my mind. I wanted out.
“You, come here!” came a commanding voice.

       Without further ado, I was plopped down on a cot while an enormous “Pat” of uncertain lineage and gender vigorously got down to work. In an epileptic fit of suppressed rage, this Julia Child of Oriental Medicine set about the task of horrifically punishing me for my sins, kneading and pounding my floury flesh. I felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy spread out on a pan heading to the oven, the universe stone deaf to my piping castrato pleas for mercy. A central tenet of Buddhism, by the way, is that “Life is suffering.”      

 As if I hadn’t already cried uncle, Oddjob, the masseuse, then dug deadly pyrite fingers into me, and with the precision of an acupuncurist, prospecting around for heretofore unknown muscles, hit a nerve that had been sleeping peaceably for eons. In a fit of dementia I babbled a mantra, begged the Buddha for forgiveness, then imagined I’d metamorphosed into a leaping grasshopper, in the process of being pinned live into an entomologist’s display case.

       Flipped sunnyside up, I tried to make a break. Starcrossed synapses kickboxed, then went down for the count. Beginning to blackout—legs chopsticked, arms pretzeled, digits unstuck—I allowed my bones to be yanked clean out of their sockets. A gravitational wave of endorphins flooded through my knotted mercurial nerves. Om. Actually, it wasn’t really that bad. At least, in the aftermath of exaggerated pain I can safely say I’ve never felt more relaxed in my life.

       As I somnambulated punch-drunk out of the heavenly spa, a saffron-robed monk stepped out from the shadows and barred my path. He clasped his hands into a wai and bowed. With a shaky “Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple” structure, I waied him back. I’d memorized my only Thai towline: “Sawat dii, khrap,” I exhaled in greeting.
       The mysterious monk just stood there, smiling like a benevolent Siddhartha.
       “Khawp khun, khrap,” I tried next, flipping through my pocket Berlitz. This meant, let’s see, “Thank you very much.”        The monk stared blankly out into space, a quizzical cocked eyebrow signifying that he was indeed wise in the ways of the world. I pointed to the translation.  “Oh, I seeeeee.” He giggled nervously. Awareness dawned on me that, due to an errant pronunciation of the polite ending “khrap,” I had been saying “crap”—when all the while the magisterial monk spoke English.
       “I think you very big fan massage?!” chuckled the monk. “You like very many?”

Looking for minor shades of meaning, I thought about this query for a few seconds, about how I’d shot blanks in Bangkok, and about what an egregious loser I was for not actively going through with the “experience” of getting laid during a massage, but before I could answer, unbidden the image of the Reclining Buddha (fresh from a rubdown and looking slightly embarrassed) entered my mind’s eye, an ambiguous smile soldered on his bronzed lips.
       I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a “trick” question.                                                            

 © John M. Edwards Feb 1st 2008
pigafet at

John's work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, North Dakota Quarterly, Richmond Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He recently won a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award and a Solas Award. He lives in a cool loft in New York City.

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