Phuket: Thai Massage – It’s all about the pin
Thai massage is also known as ‘lazy yoga’. This is because a lot of the massage techniques involve stretches and positions that yoga practitioners would be familiar with. Rather than expend a lot of effort pushing your muscles to hold some complicated yoga pose, you can get a Thai massage and lie there while someone else puts in the effort to make you more flexible. Traditional Thai massage (which is recognised as a form of medicine) involves stretches and putting pressure on particular focus points, but it’s adapted for the more wussy foreigners by using tiger balm and oils to decrease any pain. Thai massage is performed everywhere in Thailand – even on the streets. Unfortunately, the practice has a bad reputation due to some of the seedier establishments, but there are some definite health benefits from going to a professional. The most respected institutes of learning originate in the Buddhist temples. As we’re partial to a bit of yoga ourselves we’re quite interested in knowing a bit more about what’s involved, although it does sound like a lot of hard work.
With a certain amount of trepidation we meet at 10am in the morning and are introduced to our Thai massage teacher for the day. The spa owner, himself a physiotherapist, asks a few questions about Lee’s problem shoulder and instructs her to focus on that before leaving us at her mercy in the spa treatment room where mats are already laid out. Our teacher introduces herself as Pin and informs us about the party she was at last night, displaying all the mosquito bites she got at it. With that random information out of the way she’s ready to begin the class. It’s evident early on that her directives have been a bit lost in translation. She’s aware that Lee has problems with an injury to his shoulder, but she seems to think our sole purpose for spending five hours in a room with her is for me to watch and learn as she treats Lee to an exceedingly long massage. A never-ending one it seems at times.
Being very kind-natured, she spends the morning focusing on the back and shoulders as requested, and throws some back-breaking deep tissue pummelling in for good measure in an attempt to apply some real therapy to Lee’s shoulder. He’s definitely grimacing with pain and quite possibly sobbing into the pillow at times while she wrestles him into uncomfortable positions and uses her considerable strength to manipulate him in the way she wants. She has a habit of babbling merrily to herself as she works which makes it a little difficult to keep track of what’s relevant instruction and what’s just filling in the silence. Her favourite mantra is to tell us “lies, not bone… bone pin!”. Loosely translated this means we should work on the magic lines of each part of the body which are muscular in nature, not the bones. Working on the bones means pain, or pin as she likes to call it. Suddenly her name seems perfectly appropriate.
It takes a good two hours for her to work through all the steps and critique me while I gingerly try and mimic what she’s done without actually inflicting more pain on Lee. She’s a great fan of digging those elbows in. She sends us off for a lunch break then, promising to go through each step again in detail afterwards so I can take notes. This will be necessary if I’m to have any hope of remembering a tenth of the information she’s been trying to convey in her badly broken English. We leave to pick up a snack and see if any actual bruises have developed on Lee yet. He’s getting a bit tired of being used as a demonstration punching dummy, and I could do with a break from concentrating on figuring out just what the hell she’s saying as well as the finer details of what she’s doing with fingers that are buried deep in muscle.
After lunch we go through the whole process again while I’m expected to take copious notes. It becomes clear that she believes Lee is only here to benefit from massage, not participate in any actual technique learning. With astonishing optimism she goes ahead and ploughs through the guts of her own massage manual covering the entire thing, which would usually be used for a five day training course, in a little over an hour. At a certain point I decide a few things. First, it’s impossible to learn this much in a single day. Second, it’s physically impossible to take the kind of detailed notes required to remember everything. Third, I haven’t a clue of half of what she’s saying. Fourth, I’m losing the will to live, I’ve definitely lost the will for ‘learning’ much more of this. My nonsensical scrawled notes start to become briefer and when I’m finally called upon to repeat a segment I’ve got to the stage where I’m mostly pretending to run through it rather than force my muscles to apply force while my knees are shaking in agony from balancing on the hard floor.
Pin takes a toilet break and we’re dismayed to see that there’s an hour to go. Lee is feeling quite tender, I just can’t face the boredom of faking interest in seeing him being contorted for a whole other hour. We completely disconcert her when she returns by suggesting that she demonstrate the morning’s back and shoulder work on me so that Lee can learn a bit about how to do it. She’s totally taken aback at the thought that we won’t get to work on his legs again like she’d planned. Nonetheless, she adapts and I get to stop listening while she goes to work on me. I get the special contortion treatment and have most of the air squeezed out of my lungs. Lee pretends interest for a few minutes then gets away with reclining on a mat and agreeing with whatever she’s saying even if he doesn’t follow more than one out of every ten words. This nicely uses up the last hour when the spa owner returns and offers Lee the option of getting a deep tissue massage the next day. Looking somewhat fearful of what pain that could entail, Lee declines and opts to rest his shoulder instead.
Our introduction to Thai massage has ended and we’re free to go. We have somewhat mixed feelings on the overall success of the day. We’ve learnt a lot about the practice of Thai massage. We got a personalised class focusing on a particular problem area, just the focus should really have been on both of us learning rather than one. Lee also got a good working over on his problem shoulder – hopefully he won’t live to regret that as the effects emerge over the next couple of days. We got treated to an insane amount of information in one go which was quite mind-numbing for me and painful for Lee. The lack of good English was a big problem, but if we apply ourselves to putting it all together before we forget the demonstrations completely, then we’ve come away with a lot more knowledge than we were expecting. I’m inclined to think that although the process of learning hasn’t been terribly enjoyable, we probably will benefit a lot from what we do remember of the course.