“A question, please,” said my classmate Olivia shyly. “In Brazil we don’t have this idea, but I hear that in America and Europe, Thai massage sometimes is, um… well… how you say…”
“Linked with prostitution?” I asked.
Olivia’s face lit up and then flushed bright red. “Um, yes.”
“Oh absolutely!” I said, thinking of all the joke emails from friends I currently have in my Inbox in reaction to the news that I’m taking a Thai Massage course. The majority of these emails go like this:
“Hoo boy! Which week do they teach you the happy ending?”
Oh my. Different kind of Thai massage, folks!
So here’s the deal: there IS a ton of prostitution in Southeast Asia, and most famously, in Thailand.
According to a 2004 issue of The Nation (pictured, left), Thailand has an estimated 2,800,000 sex workers, comprising 4% of the population here. This is one out of every 24 people in Thailand involved in prostitution. That’s a lot!
Sometimes the sex trade here is blatant, as in the “ping pong shows” and other yonically acrobatic displays on Patpong Road, or such as the fact that tuk tuk drivers will persistantly ask single male travelers, “You want boom boom?”
Most often, however, the sex shop display sign is more subtle, and reads simply: “Massage”. How’s an innocent traveling pup to know which are the real Thai massage parlors, and which are those that provide those certain special services at the end?
On day one of our (non-prostitution!) massage course, the lead instructor gave us the following advice:
“You always know real Thai massage. You know why? Because if clothes on, that’s Thai massage. If clothes off, not real Thai massage. Easy.”
He gave us a big wink and a smile, and everyone giggled. Prostitution is so prevalent here, everyone is always referring to it. For better or worse, these references are usually accompanied by chuckles and a sense of humor.
But let’s put prostitution aside for a moment and talk about a certain racy facet of legitimate Thai massage: the positions are shockingly intimate! Check out some of the diagrams from my instruction manual to the right (artfully colored in as part of our homework) and imagine yourself practicing those moves without blushing.
About seven times in class today, our instructors had to say, “Now very careful this move, because now we get near the Michael Jackson area!” (Yes, that’s right– I’m representing this concept with a photo of a cucumber street vendor, left.)
Real Thai massage involves pressing your feet and hands everywhere as you lift and twist and push against the receiver’s body. For many who don’t know what to expect when they enter a Thai massage, the experience is less relaxing than they expected, and more like physical therapy.
One instructor explained: “Some call Thai massage ‘Lazy Person Yoga’. Receiver lie there and masseuse pull the body into yoga position for lazy bum.”
The stretching and twisting in Thai massage can be overly intense for some, and several tourists I’ve met have been injured by an untrained spine cracking move during a massage.
That’s dangerous. But equally dangerous, in my scaredy-cat massaging hands’ opinion is negotiating that “Michael Jackson Area”.
“You don’t go high enough!” reprimanded the French woman I was partnered with today. “Point three is all the way up here by zee groin, not down by zee knee!”
“Oh right,” I stuttered, “I, um, forgot.”
I’ve spent so much of my life NOT putting my hands all over random strangers that it is an odd thing to start practicing it daily.
It is a tricky task communicating enough with my massage partners to make the whole endeavor respectful… and respectable! But it is endlessly fascinating, and I am thrilled to be in this course. Stay tuned for more!
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