It’s been nearly a week since my last massage. I may be going through withdrawal. In fact, during my layover at Changi airpot in Singapore I found myself wandering around the transit terminal in search of a place for one last rubdown.
I knew it was ridiculous. I knew it was unnecessary. And yet, there I was scanning the airport map for its “wellness center.” I found it, but not before I came across one of the many chairs that give passengers FREE 15-minute foot massages, which I chose instead.
See, massages in Southeast Asia are nearly as ubiquitous and necessary as bottled water. They’re also just as refreshing and cheap. From Bali and Thailand to Cambodia and Vietnam, it’s hard to refuse the sweet, simple phrase: “You want massage?”
During the 32 days I was away I had 11 massages. Please don’t hate or judge. I’m just following part of the Travel in Southeast Asia Protocol, which states that one must sweat from places one didn’t know existed, eat beef soup or fried rice for breakfast, succumb to mosquitoes while sleeping, drink lots of fresh passion fruit juice, forget about using toilet paper, and regularly indulge in a variety of body treatments.
You can go super cheap ($6/hour), mid-range ($12/hour) or high-end ($40/hour)—all of which are far less than you’d pay back home, be it New York or Paris. And while no two techniques are alike, after you’ve had one of each, the lines begin to blur between what, exactly, constitutes a Balinese, Khmer, Thai, or Vietnamese massage. At first, you may just think it’s a variation on a Swedish, which based on my experience is essentially when someone slathers oil all over your body and uses their thumbs and elbows to knead out knots. But then maybe you’ll have one when they don’t use oil, and require you to remain fully clothed and lift limbs in the air instead. Or maybe you’ll sign up for the latter and get the former and be all sorts of confused. Regardless, it usually just feels so damn good that it doesn’t really matter how it’s classified.
Sometimes things do go awry and over the past month I’ve learned that it’s best to follow your instincts—both good and bad—when choosing where, when and how much to pay for a massage.
First, the good instincts.
Back in Hoi An, Vietnam, I was on a bike headed to one spa when I saw a sign advertising for another. (When I say spa, by the way, I mean a place where massages are given. They do not all feature rose petals, classical music or locker rooms of any sort.) Up until that point, I’d mostly chosen places based on word-of-mouth or happenstance. But this time I glanced at Trip Advisor only to read reviews mentioning that you could hear the honks of motorbikes throughout since the place was located right off a main road.
Now, the honks of motorbikes and the crows of roosters in Southeast Asia are like pigeons cooing on a NYC air conditioner: annoying, but just a part of the landscape. After a while, you don’t even hear them.
When you’re lying naked on a table, however, with nothing but your own thoughts and a sheet separating you from going mad, it’s the sound of a horn honking or rooster crowing, which is not relaxing. At all. So I darted left on a whim and started pedaling into the unknown, following a sign that for whatever reason looked promising. Suddenly, I found myself on a narrow concrete path in the middle of rice paddies with little outside noises but that of my bracelets clinking together as I rode.
Every hundred feet or so there was another sign confirming I was headed in the right direction and eventually I landed at this incredible, colonial-looking townhouse overlooking the vibrant green fields. Inside, there were a group of young girls giggling while watching a video on a phone. Upon seeing me, they jumped up and immediately apologized, reaching for the treatment menu. I smiled, sat down to look it over and before I knew it was being handed a glass of warm ginger tea. (This is pretty standard and, yes, pretty awesome.) The price seemed about right ($24/hour) so I happily disrobed, thanking my good instincts for leading me to this wonderful, secretive spot.
Now for the not-so-good intuitions.
When Rach and I convened in Cambodia, it went without saying that we’d indulge at least once or twice during our time together. After all, beach, spa and shopping is what we do best as sister-friends.
Prior to meeting, she’d had two or three massages in Thailand, and I was on an every-other-day regimen in Bali—two of which were free. (My first hotel offered a 30-minute foot massage upon arrival and another hotel I’d booked a few days later offered a 30-minute head/neck/shoulder massage with views of the jungle, proving the normality of such pleasantries in these parts.)
Since we both live in cities where the cost of a traditional body massage can be upwards of $160 for one hour, just for kicks we wanted to see what you could get for $6. How low could you go, we wondered.
Quite low, it turned out.
After having woken at 4a.m. to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, followed by hours of cycling through 90-degree heat (with about 80 percent humidity), we figured our bodies deserved a few pats on the back.
We’d seen a spot on the corner near our hotel that offered cheap prices and looked fairly clean; almost cute, with bamboo “walls” and cool lamps over the reception desk. The charm, unfortunately, would end there.
We were ushered into their dark outdoor lounge area where there were wooden chairs and plastic bowls, which they then washed our feet in with what smelled and felt like Palmolive soap. Rach and I began eyeing each other dubiously as flies buzzed around our heads, but we just smiled and let them do their thing. After all, someone else was washing our fucking feet. Then we were given mismatched, worn-in flip flops three sizes too big, which we politely declined for our own instead.
The women didn’t speak English, but they were lovely and offered sweet smiles, hand gestures and head nods as a means of communicating. They took us down a dark, narrow hallway where green curtains separated about 20 mattresses lined up next to each other on the floor and were covered in faded blue sheets.
Upon lying back onto one—fully clothed since I was getting a foot massage—I became immediately certain an army of ants was working there way into my hair. The women then said something in Khmer and walked away for a few minutes, leaving us alone to get situated, which turned into us debating whether we should remain in our current situation.
Rach held up the cotton top and pants she’d been handed with a confused look on her face since she thought she was getting a full body massage with oil, while I continued to be on ant patrol. This, of course, sparked a giggle, followed by full-fledge laughter, which then led to one of those can’t-breathe, tears-from-the-eyes hysteria sessions, during which we began plotting our escape. Trying hard not to further disturb those indulging behind the curtains, we gathered our stuff and briskly started walking towards the exit. We apologized profusely, signaling towards our stomachs as if to explain one of us were ill and had to leave. They seemed to understand this quite well, which not only increased our guilt, but also my own fear that karma would kick me in the gut with a real stomach zinger some time in the future as a result.
So, the moral of the massage story? You get what you pay for—or, in this case, what you don’t pay very much for. If we were going to lay on sketchy sheets and have insects crawl all over us while paying someone to help us relax we may as well do it on the beach.
Which is exactly what we did a few days later.
PS. I started writing this post two countries ago, but the nature of the trip was that I was constantly moving and seeing and doing, and when I wasn’t I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. Of course, I have tons of notes and thoughts and so I hope to begin posting what I don’t think I’ll publish professionally a bit belatedly. Thanks for stickin’ with me!