Saturday, August 21, 1999

Lara Wozniak
Special to The Globe and Mail
Chiang Mai, Thailand

p. A15.


The Thai women who knead you

Massage schools for foreigners are a hot new trend.

Aree Sanyaluck pressed her palms and full body weight firmly down on two pressure points near my groin.

"Has your pulse always been this fast?" she asked over the whir of the fan cooling the near 30 C weather and blowing away the barrage of mosquitoes and red ants.

I felt like answering: When a 45-kilogram, 35-year-old Thai woman does handstands just below my pubic bone, I'm a tad nervous, not chatty. But I just shrugged and said, "Guess so . . ."

I had come to the jungle regions of Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, to study the ancient art of Thai massage.

The humour of the erotic image of Sanyaluck's positioning while I lay on my back on a thin floral mat on the wooden floor wasn't lost on me. Masseuses were perhaps best known as prostitutes for men visiting Thailand on R&R during the Vietnam War. Masseuses and bar girls still offer such services, despite public efforts to squelch the sex industry in Thailand.

But legitimate, non-sex providing massage parlours also abound throughout Thailand, offering one and two hour massages for as little as $2 to $5, depending on your bargaining skills and Thailand's fluctuating exchange rate.

Now, the latest trend is Thai massage institutes, which are setting up schools in seemingly every other alley around the country. They cater to teaching the art of massage to farangs (foreigners).

In Chiang Mai, such schools are an alternative to riding elephants in the jungle and visiting authentic ethnic villages populated with hill tribe people who haven't encountered tourists before, unless you count the group that visited yesterday.

Courses last from five to seven days and cost $60 to $150. Some institutes insist on two-week lessons, and double the price. Others charge a dollar-a-day after the first week. Sanyaluck's school -- Aree House -- charges $60, and allows students to stay on as long as they like after the first week, free of charge.

Sanyaluck keeps students' passport-sized photographs as records of their attendance and many of her students return for free updates. After nine years of running her own business and 13 years of teaching, she has thousands of alumni from all over the world.

Sanyaluck teaches in English, but if foreign students don't understand her or her Thai-accented phrasing, she simply demonstrates the move on them.

Of course, most of these massage schools in Thailand wouldn't pass safety regulations in North America. Sanyaluck learned massage from the Society of the Northern Herbalists. She spent a mere six months studying.

Nonetheless, I felt comfortable under Sanyaluck's tutelage, for many other massage therapists from all over the world pass through her school, stay at her guest house, or slurp her inexpensive spicy soups. They all share their experience, techniques and, occasionally, their secrets.

Besides, for 13 years, 365 days-a-year, she has been giving massages. There's got to be something to that.

Most people think massage focuses on tissue, muscle and joint manipulation or lulling the recipient to sleep. Thai massage works on pressure points and energy lines while stretching the body in a sort of passive yoga manner. It is designed to stimulate circulation, and despite the contortive moves, promote relaxation. Its exact origins are disputed, some say it stems from China, others say it is based on yoga principles and the ancient Hindu medical practice of Ayurveda. What is certain, however, is that prior to modern times, the art of Thai massage was maintained by monks in wats, or temples.

p. A16.

A healing session of Thai massage is popular with visiting Westerners.
A healing session of Thai massage is popular with visiting Westerners.

Now, it's offered by women hawking the relaxing benefits of massages given in their sidewalk stalls and small, glass-front businesses with mats laid out on the floor for all passersby to see.

Done properly, however, the masseuse will still chant a Buddhist prayer before beginning and on completion of a massage.

Sanyaluck prays to her corner shrine of Buddhas and goddesses carefully maintained with daily offerings of oranges, rice, Coca-Colas and sometimes her son's plastic soldier toys. She closes her eyes and eases the constant laughter from her face for a few moments before she begins, and she teaches her students to do the same.

With eight mats on the second floor of her 11-room, traditional Thai guest house, she can accommodate 16 students at a time, but her classes tend to be smaller. On average, she teaches about 30 students a month. Despite praying, agonizing groans, sudden giggle fits, "oopses" and "I'm sorry's" frequently crash the silence.

The herbal scent of Tiger Balm, promoted as easing an arm-length list of medical problems, including sore muscles, often fills the air. So does Sanyaluck's homemade herbal compresses: heavy cotton cloth heated and filled with steamed lemon grass, eucalyptus, menthol, camphor and lime. The hot compresses are gingerly applied to aches and pains, and they indeed seemed to ease the sore shoulder and butt muscles I injured during my schooling.

For not only is the recipient sometimes mauled by new students, the masseuse often ends up straining herself. Thai massage is by no means passive for the person giving the massage: The masseuse stands, kneels, pushes and pulls, picks the recipient's body up and moves it around. One particularly difficult move to master with a straight face is done by approaching the client as though you are about to deliver a baby, lifting the body up and placing it in a backbend position. The masseuse puts herself in a similar position, keeping her knees under the massagee's butt muscles. Then, by gently spreading her knees outward, the masseuse stretches the massagee's buttock muscles.

It feels good, if it's accomplished without breaking the client's neck, but it's also no wonder this form of massage therapy has sometimes been perceived as exotic, prolonged foreplay.

Of course, for many of the students, that's exactly what it was. After taking the course for two-and-a-half weeks, my boyfriend and I noted that most of the students were couples and they often ran home quickly after the lessons for a beer — and, perhaps, some more practice?

Lara Wozniak is a freelance writer.

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Created: August 21, 1999
Last modified: August 24, 1999

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