The best massage in Bangkok has nothing, I repeat nothing to do with a lissome naked Thai beauty soaping you to distraction using every inch of her skin and the only sponge nature has endowed her with.
Rather, depending on your definition of “best" (and, I suppose, your idea of “massage”) it takes place in absolutely no privacy, in daylight, and both of you keep all your clothes on. And while it may not be as profound a religious experience as the famous Bangkok “body-body," this dry alternative occurs under the incurious gaze of hundreds of Buddhist monks.
It is available daily, 7:30 – 5, in one of the largest and holiest temples in Bangkok: the Wat Po (Place of Meditation). A Thai temple is characteristically a series of courtyards littered with glittering gingerbread pagodas, adored statues, and chanting shaven-headed novitiates by the dozen. The Wat Po has also one or two tables of fake Rolex watches being hawked at ten bucks each and a few palm readers with an impressive command of several foreign languages. The Wat Po also contains the biggest reclining Buddha in the country: nearly half a golden football field of him, counting the mother-of-pearl feet. This beatific Buddha looks as if he has just received the finest kind of classical Thai massage; on a recent Saturday morning I paid my respects, then went myself to the next courtyard to do likewise.
I must admit that having heard about Thai massage traditions going back twenty or thirty centuries, etc., conferring the same benefice on the giver as the recipient, etc., I was with customary barbarian ignorance prepared for saffron-robed monks themselves to be doing the kneading. This is of course not the case. But the Wat Po School of Thai massage, in two screened, slant-roofed enclosures, has been the finest in the country for at least three decades. Eighteen very hard beds with mattresses are laid side by side in each; fans keep the Bangkok humidity and heat at bay.
Nearly all the beds were taken by barefoot clothed bodies either lying prone for being gently bent, pressed, and squeezed by barefoot clothed masseurs. Both sides of this corporeal tug of war were of both sexes. My hopes for a pure massage, with no impure overtones, were dashed when (after paying my 140 baht, about six dollars) I was introduced to my masseuse. Instead of some wiry Thai who would wrestle me into shape, I was given instead a gorgeous young woman named Mon with big dark eyes and long black hair, slender in tight three-quarter trousers. Naturally, I felt surges of retrospective guilt at having put off a traditional Thai massage for so long.
Thai massage is based on the theory of ten primary and invisible lines of force running through the body. Pressure is never exerted on the bones, but exerted and released on the muscles after slowly loosening them. Another technique involves cutting off the circulation entirely in one area for a minute, then releasing. The movements and stretches are always gradual and subtle; you find yourself in positions with names like “the reclining cobra" without any strain. For anyone familiar with Bangkok traffic, the gentleness and flexibility of this massage will be a surprise.
What most astonished me, though, was how much pressure Mon could exert. She began on my feet and after popping my toes, worked her way very gradually up my legs; at times she simply leaned on me, and seemed to weigh as much as a truck. She would tug one bent leg up easily, give a disarming smile, then suddenly 10,000 pounds would be painlessly applied to a tight muscle I never knew existed. She would rock back and forth on my limb for a moment with the pressure on, then move elsewhere. It was less like a massage than like a highly skilled mechanic giving an engine a very thorough tune-up.
After my legs, she went to work on my back, treating it like a crossword puzzle, clambering all over me, up and down and across. Since it is impossible to say exactly what was going on, I can only state it felt as if she were leaning, walking, kneeling, and squeezing with her toes, fingers, and heels all at the same time. Eventually she took my arms, which by now had little fight left, and stretched them until they were each about fifteen feet long. Then she went to work relaxing my skull.
All the while she kept up a singsong twittering conversation in Thai with the masseur two feet away from me who was giving a comatose Dutchman the 100,000 pound treatment. Perhaps I looked soft, and that was why I’d been given this slip of a girl rather than someone who’d treat me like a twist-off cap? Anyway, the massage school in the Wat Po struck me as the most relaxing place in Bangkok; I left invigorated, not exhausted. I recommend this traditional Thai massage heartily—and should you decide to try the other kind of Bangkok massage, please, gentlemen, no matter what the weather forecast, even if you wear nothing else, be sure to wear your raincoat.