Is it just massage? That’s the question in Bangkok, where sex is part of its exotic reputation.
“Sometimes the customer not understand because of the area,” says Khun Tui, a successful businesswoman who owns Tarntip Massage and Spa, my local Bangkok massage salon, in the tourist area off Sukhumvit Road.
“We have to explain,” she says. “Relax only. Healthy only.”
The available massage products range from Annie’s Massage, near the infamous Soi Cowboy sex district, which advertises soapy, sensual, stimulating and shocking massage to the neighborhood massage clinic and the five-star luxury experience.
Tui launched her business in 2003, named for a river with a beautiful waterfall in Isaan, the northeastern part of Thailand where she was born. In February this year, she expanded to a larger facility across the soi, the Thai word for alleyway.
I have enjoyed massages in about a dozen countries. Since I turned 40, my vacations have revolved around pampering — I’ve seen enough monuments, museums, ruins and marketplaces –including massage, facials, body scrubs and good meals. I have come to appreciate the nuances in the world of healthful massages.
And, for the non-rich and famous, in a more than reasonable price point, Thailand is the best value for dollar. Tarntip is my favorite. The Lotus Massage is my favorite on Koh Samed.
In her ten years in business, Tui, married 21 years with two children, a 16-year-old daughter who wants to be a lawyer, and a 13-year-old son who attends military school, has built a business, known among the local hotels catering to foreigners, as a source of good, healthy massage. She has 14 employees.
Tui arrived in Bangkok in the late 1990s, taking work in a plastic kitchenware factory to help support her family. Her husband, Vivit, provided visa services to foreigners. Each week, he relaxed by going for a massage.
The factory was not satisfying, either professionally or financially, and Tui decided that there was a business opportunity in the health benefits of massage. She enrolled at the massage school at Wat Pho, the home of the Reclining Buddha. Today all her massage therapists are trained at the temple’s school, which opened in 1962.
“My money is very clean,” says Tui. Her husband adds, “we would make more (meaning more money with massage and sex) but we don’t want to do that.”
Therapeutic massage is an important element in healthy living in Asia. My Bangkok chiropractor’s new patient survey asks about the type of massage that the patient uses for relaxation.
There are foot massage parlors in every Asian country from Vietnam to China to Indonesia. From store fronts to day spas, in varying degrees of decor, they are typically large rooms with LazyBoy-style recliners, which smell ever so faintly of Jasmine and much stronger of Eucalyptus. The foot massage is based on the principles of reflexology that there is a point on the foot that corresponds with every point on the body.
My father, a registered masseur in Canada, was also a reflexologist, as kids when we had a stomach ache, usually from junk food at a friend’s house, we would climb into a big chair and stick out our feet for him to work “on the spot.” I am very familiar with the part of my foot that corresponds to my gallbladder, which I continue to knead when I’ve overindulged in rich food.
Massage is an integral part of our Asian Wellness Tour. We have investigated the offerings in every Asian country we’ve visited — I know tough job, but someone has to do it. While the routine is always based on reflexology the style varies from country-to-country and therapist-to-therapist.
In Bangkok, the foot massage, 60 minutes for TB250 ($US8.50) plus tip, mixes therapy with relaxation. One that I had at Tarntip, left me floating on a cloud, likely snoring softly in my chair. Snoring is a serious foot massage hazard. Since it happens in a room with as many as a dozen other people, you may end up next to a hearty German, who nods off, his snoring loud enough to raise the roof, leaving the therapists quietly snickering.
In Hong Kong, where a 50 minute foot massage is HD$198 (US$25) plus tip, the no-nonsense, firm style left me wincing a little, but in a good way.
We start thinking of massages in Bangkok about the end of November. By the end of January we are more than ready. We storm through the airport to the public taxi stand — we keep enough Thai Baht, the local currency, from the previous visit to hop into a cab without stopping at the Money Exchange — drive to the hotel, drop our bags, whip out our BTS, rapid transit card, and ride the Sukhimvit Line to Nana, down exit 1, ten steps ahead to Soi 7/1. And bliss.
Foot massage prices in Bangkok are very competitive and the price of TB250 is unchanged for a half dozen years. On Koh Samet, the price starts at TB300. Depending on the investment in the location, the price increases. One hour at the Lotus Massage, a spa-like atmosphere attached to a beach hotel, is TB490.
At the end of our visit, Vivit appeared with a photo album. He wanted to show us a photo of a person we’d recognize. He flipped open the book, and there was former US President Bill Clinton. In 2010, he was in Bangkok during filming of the movie Hangover 2. He visited the set nearby and walked through the area.
When we arrived in Asia, BBC was featuring a series about how women are transforming Asia’s economy. The entrepreneurs and the wealthy in Asia now, they are finding, are more likely to be women.
In one generation, Tui left her rural upbringing, her family works a sugar plantation, and has become a woman business owner in Bangkok, employing 14 people and helping launch other women business owners.
“I have plans for three locations,” says Tui, when I asked her how big she would like to grow her business. Like most women business owners, balancing between her family and her business, she says she must be realistic. Despite her busy schedule, she has not forgotten to look after herself.
“I take one week each year for meditation,” she says.
And that’s healthy.