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.