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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

Along with spicy curries and elephants, traditional Thai massage is one of the mandatory “when-in-Thailand” experiences.  It feels like one part shiatsu, one part Swedish massage, and one part yoga, in which someone else stretches you out while you lie there and try to breathe.  It can be deliciously painful, and is full of abrupt surprises, like having your spine suddenly wrenched to one side and hearing your vertebrae pop in a chain.  It’s also very intimate, with the masseuse climbs over you and uses his or her own body to hold parts of your body in place while working on others, or to leverage more force.  You might, for example, find your masseuse wrapping her legs around yours in a complicated knot to open your hips and stretch out your hamstring.

It’s part of a long healing tradition, attributed to an ancient monk who developed it as a way to ease the aching muscles of those who had been sitting in long meditation sessions.  Massages of varying quality are available in many wats in Thailand, as easing pain earns the practitioner merit.  In some professional settings, the masseuse will wai a Buddha image before he or she begins.  Rural children learn massage as part of their duties.  They give massages to their elders when they come back from the fields, bent over and aching from planting rice seedlings or harvesting vegetables.

Lila Thai Massage is a vocational-training program of the Chiang Mai Province Jail for Women, in which offenders are trained as traditional Thai masseuses.  They spend six months before their release working at Lila Thai as part of their certification.  Housed in a rented shop-front on a busy street, and designed to assure nervous Westerners (to whom the spa is marketed), Lila Thai could not be more lady-like or demure.  The interns wear purple traditional Lanna skirts, soft music plays, and the smell of various jasmine oils and tiger balms wafts through the air.  It’s impossible to tell who are the prisoners and who are the guards.  When they have no clients—the usual state of affairs—the interns are allowed to sit outside and watch the world go by.  Despite this admirable business plan and atmosphere, I wonder what luck the interns will have gaining legitimate employment as masseuses when they are released.  The cities are already chock-a-block with traditional massage businesses, and who in the countryside would ever pay somebody to give them a massage when their own children do it for free?

I always ask for Khun Joo when I go to Lila Thai.  She’s a plain woman, somewhat older than the rest, and has a slight limp.  Ken acted as a translator for me once, so that I could ask her the usual questions about her age and where she’s from.  She was visibly torn between her shyness and her pleasure at being spoken to so politely and being called “Khun” (“Miss”) by this large farang. Even if we hadn’t asked, I’d know Khun Joo was from the country: her broad tough feet give her away as someone who rarely wore shoes growing up. While excruciatingly polite, she doesn’t have urban modesty, and doesn’t mind pulling my shirt up over my breasts while I lay on my stomach so that she can get better access to my shoulder blades and neck. She is strong, and knows what she’s doing.  Ken balked at asking Khun Joo what she was in for, but she’s from Chiang Dao, a mountainous area notorious for the opium trade.

One day as a lark, I brought Ascher and Camilla—regretfully unskilled in massaging their elders—into Lila Thai.  I wanted a massage badly, and I figured I’d just get them one as well so that I could have some peace.  Now, the Thais tend to dote upon children, particularly farang children who know how to wai and speak a few words of Thai.  But there is nothing like bringing a few children into a room full of women forcibly separated from their own.  As soon as we entered, the interns descended upon them in a mad flurry of chucking, cooing, pets, adoration, and fondles.  Once I explained I wanted them each to get a massage, a miniature prison riot broke out over the question of who would have the pleasure of massaging Tookita.

Ascher, exhausted from a sleep-over, submitted graciously to the massage, even though it was all “girl stuff” in there (Lila Thai also provides facials, manicures, and pedicures).  Within twenty minutes, he had fallen sound asleep in the lap of the masseuse.  She sat for another twenty minutes like that, gazing down at him, and gently rubbing his ear-lobe.  Another woman came up, held his hand, and spread his fingers out a bit, all the better to see his childishly-grubby fingernails and the still-tender skin.  They sat together and stroked his hair, until the party happening around Camilla became too inviting, and they carefully extricated themselves, laying him tenderly down on the pillow to finish his nap.

Camilla’s first massage was more of an opportunity to hold court at the center of five or six masseuses, have cups of herbal tea fetched for her, exchange her few words of Thai for their few words of English, and enjoy pats and caresses in the vague shape of a massage (an advanced client at this point, she can now surrender to a full hour’s worth without getting antsy).  After a while, they dropped the pretense of giving her a massage, and carried her off to live out her nickname.  They sat her down and painted her fingernails and toenails the most sparkly shade of pink they could find, they stroked her curls, they photographed themselves with her individually and as a group, they showed her cute animated creatures on the computer, they sang her songs, and touched her, touched her, touched her.  She’ll never know what a kindness she did by simply allowing herself to be spoilt and caressed.

Ascher is now too savvy to be seduced into a nap, and is not old enough to appreciate being adored and caressed by several lithe Thai women.  So he declines the occasional trip to Lila Thai.  Camilla, however, is always game, particularly as she almost always leaves with a fantastic new mani-pedi.  When we enter, a shout goes up, “Tookita maa lau!” (“Tookita is here!”)  She lies down happily and submits to be loved by a bevy of interns, while I close my eyes and submit to Khun Joo.  When I open my eyes to sneak a peek at her, Khun Joo is always gazing off into space, towards the sunlight filtering through the pink-curtained window.

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