After a long morning reclaiming a newly-damaged suitcase that arrived at Bangkok Airport five days after I did, I splurge on a cab home. My driver, Chakan, has what I can only assume is a heroic hangover. He keeps asking me the destination in a whispered moan every half mile.
“Sukhumvit, Soi 12.”
Driving in Bangkok, it’s like surfing a glacier. The panoramic lines move almost imperceptibly. This is good news for Chakan as he can open his door every now and then to wretch chaotically onto the blistering tarmac. It’s a real greatest hits, a tour de force of expulsion - dry heaves, angry bile, full-throated vomit. I double mask, discreetly. If it’s not a hangover, I don’t want his norovirus, having exuberantly redecorated the bathroom of a very exclusive restaurant the last time I was in town. I’d get out, but we’re on a highway and I’m neither linguistically skilled nor geographically confident enough to know how to negotiate that situation.
“Sukhumvit, Soi 12.”
Bangkok built toll roads from the new airport to try and alleviate the vehicular pressure. It worked for a few years, but slowly people just bit the bullet and everyone started using them. These arterial roads are now awash with automobile cholesterol (carlesterol?).
The toll roads are brimming with lurching steel, drivers just using hard shoulders and the median strips as extra lanes. Their utility is gone, but you still have to pay to use them. It's a neat trick. The roads are now taking their toll on the drivers. Especially Chakan, who has taken to manically turning the radio on and off for a sliver of a song every twenty seconds. In his license photo, he looks like Colin Firth. In the glare of the front seat, swaddled in booze sweat and perma-fumes, he looks like Colin Firth wearing prosthetic makeup to play the main role in a biopic of Keith Richards.
Two hours later, I clamber out of his cab several blocks from my place, just to give him space to suffer. In any case, I can walk faster than he can drive, even with my junked suitcase. Back home, I look up Chakan's name. It means ‘healthy body’.
Over the course of my job, I’ve been lucky enough to have visited and reviewed dozens of spas and treatments. I’ve winced under hot pebbles, been exfoliated with stony fistfuls of mud and brutally whipped with branches by joyless, bare-chested Turkish men. If it can be done with essential oils to new age music, or by strapping sadists armed with bits of tree, I’ve likely tried it.
Thailand has become a regular destination for me, and I’ve experienced more and more Thai massage, from the heights of opulent hotel penthouses down to temple-adjacent blind monks, working elbow to elbow in rooms of forty or more tables. From shiny, high-end kneading joints to dusty, backstreet pummel factories, I’ve been around the Thai massage block.
If you’ve never had a Thai massage, it’s like getting roughed up by a yoga teacher. It’s not so much the gentle coaxing of tired muscles as it is electroshock therapy for your tendons. There’s no gentle kneading, it’s more a bracing interrogation of your body’s more vulnerable pressure points. I mean, if it’s done right.
I try to get in as many as possible when I go to Thailand. In the rarefied air of the five star salons, it’s like a ballet. In the prim day spas off the Sukhumvit Road, it’s like a choreographed wrestling match. These iterations are fine, but give me the rundown shacks around Pratunam market, where the masseuse is a 70-year old woman, five feet tall with thumbs like gnarled knots of oak. You just know she could easily withstand a vigorous rugby tackle. These sessions? These sessions are like a Buddhist street fight.
You pay your $6 for an hour and sit down while she washes your feet and sizes you up. Why is she frowning? I’m convinced that she can assess your frailties just from this simple ritual. She leads you to a curtained treatment room, and leaves you to change into the loose pajamas provided and lie face down on a thin mat on the wooden floor.
Even though she doesn’t speak much English, I can sense her judgment from the start. Oh great, I have to prod this pasty mound of European dough. Many times, she’s audibly displeased with my physical limitations. Lots of indignant sighs. At one point she stops and harangues me, saying, as far as I understand it, that if I want to come to her in the future, I have to get a deep tissue massage first so that there’s at least a modicum of suppleness to my limbs. She can’t work with this. It’s amateur hour. She does her best.
Her steely digits find previously undiscovered nooks, making jolting inroads in a bodily equivalent of first contact. You know in Alien when the Xenomorph opens its mouth and an extra set of teeth jut out? It’s like that, but with her thumbs. Two thirds of the way through, she stops and says to me, without any emotion: “I think there is something very wrong with your body.” The heft of the damningly brief prognosis hangs in the air. I manage a tepid “OK?” and we head into the home straight, nothing more said.
There’s always the big finish. The spine aligner. The snappy ending. They put you in a sort of wrestler’s half-nelson and then sway you once, twice, three times a lady, but on the third time your torso is twisted and wrenched away from your stationary hips, and there should be a 21-vertebrae salute, with cracks that can be heard around the royal temple.
As you catch your breath, there’s a ceremonial rap of little back pats to signal to you that the fight is over. She won. She always wins. I am dismissed. I crawl out of the shop, a broken man. I’m not in her league. I clearly need to raise my game. Now I really need a massage. The kind where it doesn’t feel like a punishment. Hey, I wonder what’s very wrong with my body? (PO)