To rephrase a catchy pop song from the 1980s, “One night in Bangkok” makes a hard man…well, hard. But a massage in Southeast Asia’s number-one sin city doesn’t always have to be a red-light affair. Away from the neon-lit strip joints, sex clubs, and massage parlors of Patpong I and II lies the holy Buddhist shrine of Wat Po, built in the 16th century, where those seeking a real Thai rubbing (with no g-strings attached) can mix up yin and yang and attain physical nirvana.
Wat Po (“The Temple of the Bodhi Tree”), a 20-acre Asian erector set housing the 45-meter-long Reclining Buddha, is older than the city of Bangkok itself. It’s mazelike clusters of cramped cloisters and aerial spires are decorated with motifs covering everything from astrology to animal husbandry. It has long been a center of traditional Thai medicine, including massage, which is used to cure everything from nagging back aches to pernicious diseases.
Looking for more proverbial bang for the baht, albeit with a PG rating, I found myself entering the legendary wat in search of fleshly delights. Following the crowd I made a beeline for the statue of the colossal Indian philosopher lying like a gargantuan couch potato among the worshipers, their bare feet pointing away respectfully from his image.
As if in a dream I imagined the Buddha trying to tell me something, sotto voce. What I couldn’t be sure. I flipped through my guidebook until my finger landed on the surprising fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to never have been colonized by foreign powers. Why was that? I wondered–unaware that I might soon enough find out why.
At the massage school, a Siamese seductress accepted my handful of baht and led me inside, while my eyes adjusted to the androgynous gloom. There were rows of hospital beds full of fully clothed, groaning patients, whose limbs were being gleefully mangled amid the wild hoots and derisive snorts of bystanders, their faces contorted with laughter as if in great pain.
“You, come here!” came a commanding voice.
Without further ado, I was plopped down on a cot while an enormous Asian “Pat” vigorously got down to work. In an epileptic seizure of suppressed rage, this Julia Child of Oriental medicine set about the task of horrifically punishing me, kneading and pounding my floury flesh. I felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy spread out on a pan heading to the oven, the universe stone deaf to my
piping castrato pleas for mercy. A central tenet of Buddhism, by the way, is that “life is suffering.”
As if I hadn’t already cried uncle, Oddjob, the masseuse, then dug deadly pyrite fingers into me, and with the precision of an acupuncturist, prospecting around for heretofore unknown muscles, hit a nerve that had been slumbering peaceably for eons. In a fit of dementia, I babbled a mantra, begged the Buddha for forgiveness, then imagined I’d metamorphosed into a leaping grasshopper, in the process of being pinned live into an entomologist’s display case.
Flipped sunnyside up, I tried to make a break. Starcrossed synapses kickboxed, then went down for the count. Beginning to blackout–legs chopsticked, arms pretzeled, digits unstuck–I allowed my bones to be yanked clean out of their sockets. A gravitational wave of endorphins flooded through my knotted mercurial nerves. Om.
Actually, it wasn’t really that bad. At least, in the aftermath of exaggerated pain I can safely say I’ve never felt more relaxed in my life.
As I somnambulated punch-drunk out of the heavenly spa, a saffron-robed monk stepped out from the shadows and barred my path. He clasped his hands into a wai and bowed. With a shaky “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple” sculpture, I waied him back. I’d memorized my only Thai towline: “Sawat dii, khrap,” I exhaled in greeting.
The mysterious monk just stood there, smiling like a benevolent Siddhartha.
“Khawp khun, khrap,” I tried next, flipping through my pocket Berlitz. This meant, let’s see, “Thank you very much.”
The monk stared blankly out into space, a quizzical cocked eyebrow signifying that he was indeed wise in the ways of the world. I pointed to the translation.
“Oh, I seeeee.” He giggled nervously.
Awareness dawned on me that, due to an errant pronunciation of the polite ending “khrap,” I had been saying “crap”–when all the while the magisterial monk spoke English.
“I think you very much like massage?” proclaimed the monk. I thought about this for a few seconds, and before I could answer, unbidden the image of the Reclining Buddha (fresh from a rubdown) entered my mind’s eye, an ambiguous smile soldered on his bronzed lips.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a “trick” question.
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). He has just written a novella, Move, and a travel book, Fluid Borders.