The Ultimate Massage
Published: June 2009
By Susan Orlean
Where do you go for your third date, when your second one was an impulsive trip to Rio?All the way to Thailand, to experience some of the world's most extraordinary spas
My first massage in Thailand left me speechless. It took place a few years ago, when I passed through Bangkok on my way home from Bhutan. I had several hours between flights, so I called an American friend living in Bangkok to see if he wanted to meet for coffee. He had a better idea. "Let's skip the coffee," he said. "Let's go for a massage." The suggestion astonished me. We were friends but not good friends, and certainly not that good. I was too curious to say no and too shy to ask what he had in mind, so I waved down a tuk-tuk, one of those motorized tricycles that swarm Bangkok like bees, and met him on Khao San Road at a storefront called something cheerful like Happy Massage or Good Luck Massage or Welcome Thailand Salon.
Just stepping through the door struck me dumb. The room was haphazardly decorated and harshly lit, and except for a bit of maneuvering space, the floor was covered with mattresses fitted with a ragtag array of sheets. There were about a dozen fully clothed foreigners lying on them. Each one was being bent and folded by a small Thai woman who was also in street clothes. The place had an industrious feel, sort of like a workroom in a taffy factory, where lots of things were being tugged and braided and patted into shape. I must have stood there for a full five minutes marveling. In the meantime my friend had flopped down on a free mattress. A moment later a tiny Thai woman climbed aboard and began pressing his right thigh somewhere near the left side of his face. I wasn't sure whether I liked the looks of it, but everyone lying down seemed so content that I couldn't resist; as soon as a tanned Australian finished her post-massage nap, I sank onto her place.
I got addicted right away. Thai massage—nuat paen boran, or "ancient massage," as it is known to distinguish it from the kind of massage that Thailand's legions of prostitutes offer—is a hybrid of kneading and stretching and yoga and acupressure that dates from the time of Buddha. There is nothing showily or self-consciously spiritual about it, but massage is inherently Buddhist, an expression of saen sabai, the ideal of pursuing comfort and relaxation. One of Bangkok's leading schools of massage is at Wat Po, the grand and decrepit temple on the banks of the Chao Praya River. Wat Po also houses the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand, a gigantic golden figure with mother-of-pearl feet and a luminous half-smile of pure ease. Buddha, it seems to say, strongly approves of massage.
I have had plenty of massages in the past that were candlelit and aroma-filled, and I have had tattooed masseuses who chanted in pidgin Sanskrit while they worked my midsection and who have ascribed every knot in my neck to some misstep in my previous life. Thai massage is entirely different—firm, efficient, almost breezy, leaving you alert and chipper, rather than dopey the way a deep Swedish workout can—and dispensed with the kind of dispatch you'd expect from, say, a high-functioning auto mechanic or bank teller. My friend and I chatted the entire time we were being massaged, the way people chat while getting manicures, and we trotted out bright-eyed and loose. Oh, and it was cheap—three or four dollars for a leisurely hour, which was about a dollar more than the price of a plate of pad thai from a street vendor, and about the going rate in Bangkok for a bootlegged DVD of any current Hollywood release.
I DIDN'T GET ADDICTED ONLY TO THAI MASSAGE: I got addicted to Thailand, to its steamy clamor and brooding elegance, to its androgynous sexiness and weirdly benign eroticism, and to saen sabai, which I had at first imagined myself too antsy to ever appreciate. And while I was happy enough with my three-buck massage, I wondered what the other end of the scale was like. Because it's accessible and inexpensive, Thailand has become a way station for backpackers and budget travelers, but there is also the gilded Thailand, a place long known for opulent hospitality and languid pleasures that I decided to explore a few months later. As it happened, I was about to go on a third date with someone I'd been fixed up with, an investment banker named John who seemed even less prone to relaxation than I was. I invited him to accompany me to Thailand. Since I'd spent the previous 17 years married to a spa-phobe, I wasn't hopeful, but it turned out that John loved the idea. I was probably crazy to do it—if the 18-hour flight didn't deflate the romance, 10 days in a strange place together certainly could. But we'd been daring from the start—our second date had been a quick trip to Rio. So instead of dinner and a movie, we crossed the world for a massage.
It was midnight when our flight arrived in the musty Bangkok airport. Instead of bothering to schlep into the city, we spent what remained of the night at the airport hotel. The next morning we headed by car for Chiva-Som, a grand spa in Hua Hin, a beach town two hours south of Bangkok that King Rama VI made fashionable in the 1920's. As Bangkok expands—exponentially, it seems—it is reaching closer and closer to Hua Hin, so the area isn't considered as stylish these days as the country's plush island resorts like Phuket and Ko Samui. Even nature is playing rough—according to a story in that morning's Bangkok Post, erosion is quickly wearing away Hua Hin's pearly beach. Still, the royal family remains loyal to it, and our driver mentioned that King Bhumibol was visiting his Hua Hin palace that very day.
I caught a glimpse of an official-looking guard as our car passed the palace entrance, but that was the whole of it; the king's presence amounted to just a rumor, a wisp that blew away—and as soon as we entered the resort, so did the rest of the world. Chiva-Som is built on a series of seaside hills that roll down to the beach several miles from the center of town. It is actually a large collection of snow-white buildings and pavilions and ponds and fairy bridges set amid thickets of broadleaf shrubs and succulents. Every nook and alcove at Chiva-Som has something beautiful tucked into it: a reflecting pool, a stone Buddha with a pensive face, terra-cotta pots, swags of Thai silk textiles. Once I crossed into the main reception building I lost any sense of a busy town nearby, any sense of the racket from the highway right out front, of the royal entourage that might or might not have been next door, even of the thumping waves on the beach just beyond the Chiva-Som swimming pool.
While our room was being prepared, John and I were led out to a shady porch off the main entrance to study the spa menu. It was a dreamy, green morning and the place was quiet except for a groundskeeper grooming a hedge of pink hibiscus. An overhead fan tapped out a steady tick-tick-tick and a crow chuckled in a breadfruit tree. The menu listed the usual spa indulgences, such as massages and herbal wraps, but it also had a more clinical menu of iridology, detoxification, organ massage, and flotation tanks. Guests—never more than 112, mostly Japanese and Australians and a few Americans—often stay for two weeks, typically with serious weight-loss or health goals, spending their days detoxifying and realigning and nibbling on Chiva-Som's low-fat cuisine.
There is something therapeutic about the place, rather than purely sensual—more an experience of purification than of hedonism. In fact, there's nothing sexy about it. The men's and women's spas are segregated, and only a few treatments can be done by a couple together. We were both dying for a massage but signed up for a few curatives, too. John decided to meet with the iridologist, who would analyze his physical condition by studying his irises. I signed up for chi nei tsang, an internal-organs massage, which sounded like an X-Files episode, and a Thai boxing lesson, in case I felt more like fighting than relaxing.
THE NEXT MORNING, JOHN HAD HIS IRISES PHOTOGRAPHED (prognosis: general good health, though various spots and featherings revealed that he's prone to headaches and has a sensitive stomach). In the meantime, I met with the internal-organs technician, a birdlike woman with darting gestures and a trilling voice who was convincingly outfitted in a lab coat and sensible shoes. We were in the Chiva-Som spa, a serene streamlined building with fountains and orchids around every corner. After leading me into her office, the technician directed me to lie down on a gurney, then prayed quietly while I peeked through my mostly closed eyes. Then she began to palpate my belly.
"Innnnnhale," she cooed, "and exxxxxxxhale, and smile at your neighbor."
"My neighbor?" I started to sit up. She poked my side.
"Liver!" she announced, sounding pleased. "Innnhale . . . and exxxxxhale, and smile at your neighbor." She was so absorbed in her exploration of my abdomen that I couldn't bring myself to ask which of my neighbors she had in mind, and why I should smile at them, and whether she was suggesting that I hadn't smiled at them in the past. On second thought, she might have said, "Smile at your navel," but I decided it didn't matter much anyway; if she wanted me to smile at anyone or anything, I was perfectly willing.
Chiva-Som is a wonderful but deeply solemn resort. The dining room is romantic, with its jade walls and mountainous bouquets of orchids, lotuses, and jasmine, but there are calorie counts on the menus, and wine only if you ask with some urgency. When you request a drink, you will be offered juice, and if you explain you want a drink drink, it will be suggested that you take a taxi into town, which John and I did one night when the healthfulness and purity and mellowness started to drive us crazy. We ended up in some Hua Hin swingles bar with bad carpeting and tarty waitresses, a sharp reminder of the Thailand Chiva-Som definitely does not represent. After having a few umbrella drinks we checked our e-mail in a stuffy, overlit cybercafé and walked amid the souvenir booths and market vendors on Hua Hin's main drag, the late-night heat heavy with the smell of chilies and fish paste, the clatter of town as loud as if it were midday. We lasted less than an hour before we raced back to our cool white room. For the next three days, we remained happily ensconced in the almost surreal tranquillity of Chiva-Som, being wrapped and dunked and cleansed and massaged.
"We are not about denial," someone said to me at the Regent resort's welcome cocktail party a few days later. We had left the beach and taken a two-hour flight north to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-biggest city, which rests at the foot of the sacred mountain Doi Suthep and the teak forests that lead to the Burmese border. The Regent is 20 minutes outside Chiang Mai, in the steep hills that jut up from the plains, a scatter of teak buildings and gazebos set around glittering green rice terraces. It is a setting so rich and sumptuous with color and smells and textures, so bubbling over with gorgeous things—with frangipani and jasmine and malabar trees, and parrot-shaped heliconia and blue-headed lizards—that you are instantly drunk with the look of it and want more right away. If for one moment I had wondered whether the Regent was much like Chiva-Som, the sight of a large chocolate cake on a dessert cart and the banging of a "cocktail drum" signaling evening drinks made that moment pass, and it was banished completely once I read the activity list: "Enjoy cocktails in the Elephant Bar." "Visit a local antique gallery." "Attend our weekly buffet BBQ." "Cocktails at the pool."
OUR ROOM WAS A TEAK COTTAGE decorated with northern Thai products—the robes and slippers were made of rustic printed cotton, the television and CD player were hidden in a handsome teak cabinet. We had our own porch, which gave us the sense of being suspended in the trees, and an astonishing view from the bed of the resort's rice paddies, which are worked by locals using water buffalo and traditional tools. John and I went overboard and booked a two-hour couples' massage at the hotel's Lanna Spa. We walked to the spa along a path that winds around the cottages and pools. At one turn there was a stone Buddha; at another, a clay pig with splayed legs. As we rounded the last turn before the spa, we came across an old rice wagon with a woven cane hood—a stark sight, graceful but mournful-looking, as if long ago a harvester had been interrupted and left his empty wagon behind.
I'd never had a two-hour massage before, and I wasn't sure I had the patience for it, but as soon as we entered the spa I was ready to stay as long as possible. The place embodies the harmony particular to Asian design—roughness balanced with refinement, opulence that is more insinuated than announced. It is the most beautiful spa I've ever visited. We waited for our masseuses on an oversized sofa upholstered in iridescent silk, sipping spicy ginger tea from celadon cups; walked to the treatment room on a path of smooth gray river rocks; lay on wooden massage tables draped with handwoven cotton sheets; rinsed after our massage under a copper showerhead the size of a giant sunflower. The masseuses were two gentle local women with bashful gazes and long braids who murmured to each other in Thai and then gestured for us to choose a scent for our oils.
The massage was a combination of Swedish, which works deep into the muscles, and Thai, which relies more on manipulation and pressure—or at least I thought that before I lost track of what was going on. At one point John actually fell asleep and started to snore, which is one argument against a couples' massage; otherwise, there was something wonderful about being in the same room and ending up almost giddy from the combination of lavender oil in the air and our legs being so loose that they nearly buckled. Two hours of massage struck both of us as about 15 minutes longer than necessary, but it was still hard to imagine an experience that smelled, looked, or felt better, anywhere in the world.
OUR DAYS IN CHIANG MAI WERE PERFECT: long, fattening breakfasts of tropical fruit and French pastries and Belgian waffles and Japanese pickled fish, afternoons of bicycling around the nearby farms and villages or exercising in the gym, massages late in the day when the heat closed in, drowsy dinners of Thai and French specialties, and the daily parade of the hotel's family of water buffalo, roaming the property on their dainty legs, sneaking bites of the shrubbery as they passed. There is so much to do in the area that you suffer a little trying to decide whether to lounge around or take side trips. We broke away long enough to do a half-day elephant trek north of the city and to make a surgical strike in Chiang Mai's shopping district, where we stocked up on ceramics and silk. And one night we took the hotel bus to the extensive night market in town, another clamorous madhouse of food and clothes and trinkets and crafts.
But the greatest draw was still the Lanna Spa, and even after four or five visits, I still felt enchanted by it. This was certainly the essence of saen sabai, and John and I were getting so comfortable and relaxed that we started having those indirectly direct conversations about how perfect it would be to honeymoon—in the hypothetical circumstances in which one might find oneself honeymooning, of course—at the Regent. If we'd been utterly seduced by the place, we weren't the only ones. One evening after being scrubbed with rice kernels and doused with aromatic creams, we started chatting with an American woman who'd planned to climb Mount Everest but had gotten sick at base camp. She was so disappointed about having to pull out of the expedition that her mother treated her to a week at the Regent. "It was almost worth it," she said. "Everest would have been great, but this!"
We stopped in Bangkok for a few days before leaving Thailand. It was a kind of readjustment point where we could still relax while the rush and jostling of the city prepared us for going home. Our room in the Oriental had a theatrical view of the river, and all day long heavy barges and needle-nosed motorboats floated by. Eight years ago the Oriental opened a large spa across the river, and every day we rode the hotel ferry over to have a massage.
There is nothing fantastical about the Oriental's spa—it has neither the narcotic atmosphere of the Regent Chiang Mai nor the crisp beauty of Chiva-Som. Instead, it is a big, square-shouldered building with teak floors and dark marble fittings, a masculine, handsome place that comes as a surprise if you are accustomed to the delicate, detailed Thai aesthetic. Nevertheless, our first massage was exceptional: as we lay side by side on a single enormous futon, two masseurs, young Bangkok guys who looked like gymnasts, maneuvered around us for an hour and a half. It was the only couples' massage we had that placed us on one big mattress.
I thought it would be nice to do the rest of our treatments this way, but the next day, as we played squash at the Oriental's gym, I twisted awkwardly and needed serious therapeutic attention. No more soft lighting and mood music: my back really hurt, and I no more wanted company while being massaged than I would have during a tooth extraction. So while John was polished and rubbed and sent to luxuriate in a sauna, I had hydrotherapy and deep muscle work to try to untangle my lower back. Even though the spa hadn't charmed me at first, I was now grateful for its efficiency and professionalism—and grateful for the fact that in Thailand, pharmacists can prescribe most drugs.
My last massage of the trip left me melancholy. I had gone in for a final effort to calm my back, and my masseur was another one of the beautiful young men who seem to dominate the Oriental's staff. Like so many Thai, he was shy and tender, and he seemed unwilling to let me go until I assured him that his massage had helped me. This is, of course, what lies beneath the sheer indulgence and pleasure of massage—the feeling that someone truly wants you to feel good. No, my back didn't feel that much better, but I felt better, and yet sad. It was the melancholy of the end of a great trip, and the melancholy of reentering the real world and exiting what had been a probably impossible-to-repeat third date.
But in the end, the right things endured. My backache did not; my jet lag did not; my melancholy did not. My memories of Thailand did, as did my passion for a great massage, and it looks as if that hypothetical honeymoon at the Lanna Spa in Chiang Mai is really going to happen. I'm sure Buddha would approve.
Chiva-Som International Health Resort 73/4 Petchkasem Rd., Hua Hin; 66-32/536-536, fax 66-32/511-154; doubles from $220; treatments from $15.
Regent Chiang Mai Resort & Spa Mae Rim-Samoeng Old Rd., Mae Rim; 800/545-4000 or 66-53/298-181, fax 66-53/298-190; doubles from $347; Lanna Spa treatments from $50.
The Oriental, Bangkok 48 Oriental Ave.; 800/526-6566 or 66-2/236-0400, fax 66-2/236-1937; doubles from $250; treatments from $23.
also keep in mind . . . Banyan Tree Phuket
33 Moo 4 Srisoonthorn Rd., Cherngtalay, Talang Phuket; 66-76/324-374, fax 66-76/324-356; doubles from $400; treatments from $30. An award-winning, Asian-flavored spa resort with 108 villas, each with its own garden and open-air bath; 56 also have private pools. Order from an impressive round-the-world menu of massages: Swedish, Indonesian, Hawaiian, and, of course, Thai. A favorite treatment ingredient is local honey.
and coming next year . . . Trisara
Three Dolphins Beach, Naithorn Bay, Phuket; 66-76/313-333, fax 66-76/311-999; doubles from $750 (introductory rates, July—November 2002, from $250). The future of the ultimate: a 40-room spa resort dreamed up by Anthony Lark, former general manager of Amanpuri, on Phuket. Treatment rooms are set in private gardens.