Southeast Asia is full of amazing sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. Visitors can get lost on packed city streets, wander for hours in mazes of markets, drink fresh coconut milk cut down from fruit on a tree, eat noodles seasoned with lemongrass and basil, and fall asleep to the blare of car horns, tuk-tuks zooming down crowded lanes and the songs of roosters crowing in the distance. All of these bits and pieces are part of what creates the fabric of Asia, part of traveling in the world where the sun rises. These fragments of memory fill my mind when I think of Asia. But when I think of my time in Thailand and now Cambodia, along with all those memories that linger on my tongue and flood my mind, I have to add the incredible, succulent act of massage.
Same, same but different, different. Where do all these women learn how to give massages? Where did the art of Thai massage originate? Who discovered that by placing all emphasis on the feet the whole body feels transformed and rejuventated? It is so different from other popular forms of massage we usually get in the States: Swedish, shiatsu, deep tissue…Thai massage uses techniques from all of these and adds a physical twist that stretches and strengthens the body. I wonder how the Thai massage therapists know where to place their hands, feet, and elbows to invoke such intense physical pleasure (which at times feels pretty close to pain) in every muscle. No visit to this part of the world is complete without several visits to the massage therapist, whether it be for a foot or full body work-out.
In Chiang Mai we had our first massage on this trip. Satiated by a meal of vegetarian pad-Thai and crispy spring rolls, we popped into a little spa near our hotel. For about $7 US dollars, a person can get an hour of reflexology and pressure-point massage on the part of the body that we so often ignore: the feet. After a brisk washing, we are ushered by our massage therapists into a darkened, quiet room and settled into plush recliners. Our feet are soaked in warm water and we lay back, and offer our clean and tired feet to the capable hands of another.
The women begin to knead, rub, push and massage each foot. The smell of menthol from the green cream they apply while massaging permeates the air. The cream warms the souls of the feet and alternates between hot and cool. My masseur’s hands move up and down my calves, around my knee and ankle joints and her fingertips prod into the arches of my foot, bringing mild pain and euphoria at the same time. She pulls on each toe until a satisfying pop is heard. I keep my eyes closes, focusing all my energy and attention on the sensations being created in my feet.
I don’t know how the masseurs know just where to touch and how much pressure to apply. The Thai foot massage is a tradition and it’s based on the Chinese art of reflexology. All points on the foot correlate to an area of the body. Some are more sensitive than others, almost tender, while others are more tolerant. All of it feels delicious. Strong, warm and confident hands envelope my feet, pushing, pulling, slapping and kneading each tired muscle so that my feet are relaxed, tingling appendages that seem to exist outside my body, separated from me in some strange way.
The women work rhythmically, their hands moving constantly and their voices speak back and forth to each other in a sing-song whisper. I am deep in the arm-chair, eyes closed, and the women’s voices seem so very far away. Their voices, conversing a language I do not understand, sound like music drifting into my consciousness from a distant place. I am miles away, a small point of light in a cozy, warm room. Rarely have I ever felt so relaxed.
The Thia foot massage is a wonderful, unique experience that everyone should have when visiting Thailand and other parts of Asia. After a day of exploring city streets and pounding across miles of new terrain, nothing feels as absolutely decadent as a Thai foot massage, as offering your weary feet to the hands of another and being transported to a different dimension, at least for an hour.