Southeast Asia – No Happy Endings
The only thing I love more than massages is cheap massages. Sure, a luxurious spa with relaxing music, aromatherapy, essential oils, and a highly trained therapist who will definitely not grope you in weird places is nice. I splurge on one every birthday. But it just cannot beat an hour-long massage that costs $5. Even if the masseuse doesn’t speak English. And you are being massaged in a garage. On a bed, rather than a massage table. And the masseuse is literally in bed with you. But it’s OK, you are both fully dressed and the garage door is open, so everyone on the street can see. Did I mention it was only $5?
But let’s go back to the beginning. The first time I experienced a massage in Southeast Asia was in Thailand. Massages in Thailand are cultural experiences, enjoyed by Thai people as well as tourists. In a lot of touristy areas of Bangkok, we would often see armchairs set up right on the street for foot massages. I had a few foot massages and it was just the thing to take care of the tired and aching feet at the end of thirty thousand steps day, as we explored the city from morning to night.
Finally, I decided I was ready for a full body Thai massage. From what I knew, it’s an ancient-style massage, traditionally considered to be medicinal and consisting of the masseuse twisting you into yoga poses, climbing all over your fully-clothed body, and shoving their elbows and heels into every muscle crevice. I was a little bit apprehensive as I handed over my money to a seemingly harmless Thai woman and it did turn out to be one of the most painful massages I ever had. But here’s a thing about me – I loved it.
Next, for whatever reason (most likely sadism), I decided to convince Victor to try a Thai massage as well. I knew damn well that he is very open to new experiences as long as they are presented as cultural and traditional. I also knew he doesn’t really like massages. Therefore, I leaned heavily on the “Thai” portion of the experience and barely mentioned the “massage” part.
And so off we went, into a tiny massage parlor, where two beds stood next to each other in a small room and two young, yet surprisingly strong, Thai teenagers proceeded to massage the living crap out of us. It was definitely more painful than the first Thai massage I had, but I still enjoyed it. Victor, unsurprisingly, did not. As he later explained to me that the only reason he didn’t buck and throw a masseuse off himself and run for the door was that I was right next to him and seemed to be tolerating the abuse pretty well. He decided he was not going to wimp out and if I could take it, then surely he could take it. He regretted that decision for an entire hour and since has never agreed to any kind of massage from anyone. The trust was just gone.
And now, here we were in Cambodia. Traditional Khmer massage, much like Thai massage, requires the masseuse to use their entire body to arrange and stretch you in different positions and therefore to basically spend most of the massage physically in bed with the client. I really didn’t think I could possibly convince Victor to join. So, in Cambodia, I was left to explore the Khmer massages all on my own. And explore I did. Here are my top weirdest massage experiences in Cambodia:
A massage parlor in Siem Reap called “Pidor Massage”. For those of you who speak Russian, you get it. There is really nothing more to explain. I don’t know what “pidor” means in Khmer, but the massage itself was completely heterosexual, overall nice, but not strong enough for my taste. Overall massage: 7/10.
Next was a very nice massage parlor in Kampot with provided pajamas, comfortable bed, beautiful curtains separating each “room”, and a very skilled young female masseuse who kept taking it easy on me, despite my urging to go “harder”. The best part of the massage was when another client close by fell asleep and started loudly snoring. While the curtains provided privacy, they didn’t do much for sound isolation. Still, it was easy to ignore, but the entire thing was made even more comical by the loud sounds of hysterical slapping following each snore. Clearly, his masseuse was doing her best to wake him up, alas, unsuccessfully. Both I and my masseuse started uncontrollably laughing as his snores grew louder and the slaps became sharper and more desperate. Overall massage: 8/10.
Seeing Hands Massage. A tiny massage parlor, also in Kampot, where all masseuses are blind. For whatever reason, the entire massage parlor was set up as if everybody is blind, including customers. The usually clean and welcoming lobby was full clutter and random dishes, a pile of dirty laundry sprawled on the chairs. A massage room was tiny and had two beds in it. But the biggest surprise was that the second bed was already taken by an American tourist, a young man, who was being massaged by a large older blind Cambodian woman. As I laid down on my bed, a foot away from me was a complete stranger, moaning, as the bed creaked under him. And when I say moaning, I don’t mean in pleasure. It sounded like he was being tortured for information. Then, every two-three minutes, the masseuse would dig her elbows so deep into his arms or back that his continuous pained moaning would turn into actual screaming. His desperate “Auuu, auuu, auuu!” were immediately followed by her very cheery “SOOOOOOORYYYYYY!” As I wasn’t blind, I could clearly see that at no point did she actually make a move to ease the pressure or move her hands anywhere else. She just continued with the same force on the same spot until he inevitably cried again. Ten minutes in, I could barely contain my giggling.
Meanwhile, my masseuse, a middle-aged blind Cambodian man, touched my face, as a way of “meeting me” and asked me if I like my massage “Strong or Medium”. I immediately chuckled to myself how “Gentle or Soft” wasn’t even an option. Remembering how soft my few previous massages were and completely disregarding the tourist begging for his life a foot away from me, I said, “Strong!” “Strong!” my masseuse exclaimed, “OK, OK…” He grabbed my left foot and got started. Twenty seconds later, trying to force my clutched teeth open, I hoarsely whimpered, “…. Medium… Please.”
Overall massage, including entertainment from the next bed: 9/10.
And now we are back to the massage that started this post, the one that was so ridiculous that I decided this was worth being written about. In Battambang, right across the street from our hostel, there was a sign declaring the presence of a master masseuse with a long list of qualifications and a price tag of $5 per hour. It was hung on a garage door.
“I am absolutely not doing this,” firmly declared Victor the moment he saw me staring at the sign, “You can go. I’ll wait here.”
And so off I went, holding on to a 5 dollar bill and my naïve belief that maybe this wasn’t so weird after all. In the garage (and it was a garage, there was a broken motorcycle in the corner), there were two large beds and a bored looking Cambodian girl eating soup on one of them. I laid down on the other bed and a young man, barely in his twenties, immediately started twisting me into a pretzel form, to the sounds of soup being slurped a few feet away. Now if you have learned a few things about me by this point is that I like it rough. And this was rough. It wasn’t needlessly painful like the Seeing Hands massage felt at times, but very precise and technical with the force applied and exact points where it was performed. It was the best massage I ever had. I forgot I was in a garage; it didn’t matter that the masseuse was in bed with me; I couldn’t care less that the garage door was open and everyone could see inside, I was in heaven.
At some point, I was on my back, he picked up both of my feet and lifted my legs high into the air vertically. He then proceeded to ninja slap my feet, legs and eventually butt. As he was slapping my butt, I suddenly heard several people entering the garage and loud Khmer conversation. My masseuse, while holding my feet with one hand and enthusiastically slapping my ass with another, eagerly joined the conversation with the newcomers. So here I was, in a garage, with my ass in the air, being slapped by a stranger, in full view of some random Cambodians, contemplating every decision of my life that brought me to this very moment. A few minutes later, when the massage was over, I sat up to see a large Cambodian family sprawling on the bed next to me, every single one of them eating soup and encouragingly smiling at me. Overall massage, despite humiliation I can never live down: 10/10.