Walking on silk

A massage teacher in Thailand changes a Westerner's life.

By Thomas Golembeski
Published February 22, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

I had been in Bangkok -- known in Thai as Krung Thep, the City of Angels -- for a year before I met an angel myself. Her name was Sompit, and day after day, in her blue and yellow uniform, she would wait for me at Wat Po, the second holiest shrine in Bangkok. With its 150-foot-long, gold-covered image of a Buddha reclining, Wat Po is a major stop on every tourist's itinerary. But most visitors do not delve deeply enough into the maze of buildings to learn that Wat Po also houses Thailand's oldest public university, where Sompit taught traditional Thai massage. Not long ago, I had the good fortune of being her student.

When most people hear the words "Bangkok" and "massage," they naturally think of the international flesh trade that draws foreign men to Thailand on sexual vacations. But the "modern" massage offered in Patpong, Bangkok's red-light district, is very different from the "traditional" massage offered at Wat Po. While the former focuses on sexual pleasure for men only, the latter promotes both physical and spiritual rejuvenation, and is enjoyed by all members of Thai society. During my many visits to Wat Po, the clients I saw ranged from elderly matriarchs barely able to walk to office workers on their lunch breaks to Buddhist monks in their saffron-colored robes to babies fresh from their mothers' arms.

I was spending a year in Bangkok teaching English and living across town from Wat Po, in the Hua Mark district. Every morning, I was awakened at dawn by the ringing of bells summoning Muslims to prayer at a nearby mosque. A tiny old man on a rusty Schwinn used to ride throughout the neighborhood, calling out into the darkness, just in case anyone missed hearing the chimes. Walking down Soi 24, a twisting side street leading to one of Bangkok's main avenues, I would see the faithful leaving their shoes at the threshold before entering the mosque. Already, the streets were alive with vendors hawking T-shirts and students breakfasting on rice porridge at sidewalk food stalls. Miniature squid dried on open racks, warmed by the rising sun, while the pungent smell of fish sauce lingered in alleyways.

Since rush hour lasts all day in Bangkok -- the city suffers from some of the worst traffic jams in the world -- I usually traveled by water bus to Wat Po. The canals are extensive enough to earn the city the nickname "Venice of the East," but they are choked with filth. Pollution controls are haphazard and much of the city's sewage ends up in the canals. But this does not deter the commuters dependent on the klong, not even the petite businesswomen in silk suits and spiked heels who would lunge from the rickety piers onto the passing boats with briefcase under one arm and purse slung over a shoulder. The water buses displayed Bangkok's society in all its diversity -- one minute, I was gliding past slum dwellings of salvaged wood and corrugated tin where women washed dishes and clothes in the black water, the next I was peering into the backyards of lush compounds where workmen tended the gardens of the wealthy and diplomatic elite.

Near the end of klong san saep sat Wat Po, an enormous stone complex that resembled a walled city. From the canal pier, I could see the temple's gilded spires rising above the surrounding neighborhood, the patterned mosaics of the ancient skyline growing more detailed as I neared the front gate. I would pass through the main hall where the reclining Buddha was and immediately feel the noise and stress of the city leaving me. The soothing aroma of burning incense filled the room. All around were small altars where melted candles dripped wax onto the floor and plates of fruit and rice were arranged as tributes to the Buddha. The steady rhythm of offering coins being dropped into bronze bowls set in racks along the walls was like raindrops on a rooftop.

Deeper inside the complex was the massage school, where Sompit would be patiently waiting for me, fanning herself with a tattered magazine. Rising to her feet, she would bow slightly and say, "Hello, Thomas. It is good to see you." Sompit was, I imagine, in her early 50s, but her cheerful eyes and warm manner emanated an ageless vitality. As we proceeded into the school, we passed other masseuses -- some grinding powders for use in herbal therapy, others scattered about on padded platforms kneading the muscles of their clients with fingers, palms, even elbows, and still others sitting with small groups of students discussing the philosophy behind these techniques. All conversation took place in hushed tones, while soft breezes wafted through the school's open walls. The teak ceiling, painted a pale orange, radiated a calm that even the insistent traffic noises of the city outside could not penetrate.

I had been skeptical when an American friend suggested I try
traditional Thai massage. But he assured me that the school at Wat Po
was completely legitimate -- in fact, therapists traveled there from all
over the world to learn from masters of the trade. At the time, I
was preparing to return to the United States after a year of teaching
English, and I was feeling a bit anxious about where my new life would
take me. My friend convinced me that a traditional Thai massage would
make me feel reborn, as if I had traded in my tired, stressed-out body
for a new model. He was right.

My first treatment came not from Sompit, but from a tall, gangly masseur
with a thin moustache. He led me to a low platform bed, had me lie on
my belly and promptly sat on my lower back, clasping his hands under my
chin. He started to rock back and forth, and with each roll he
stretched my body a little bit farther. Being twisted like a
contortionist for an hour and a half felt strange, but at the end I did
indeed feel completely relaxed and energized. On my way out, I
registered for a two-week course in traditional massage and was assigned Sompit as my teacher.

Sompit began each of our sessions with a silently recited mantra.
we would talk quietly in her hesitating English and my rudimentary Thai
about touch being the most basic and natural expression of love and how
massage satisfies this fundamental human need. From the beginning,
Sompit was understanding and patient with me, the skinny farang
(foreigner) with the usual psychological baggage of Western society. On
the first day of class, my massage partner was a gorgeous young Thai
woman with long black hair tied into a neat bun. When Sompit finished
demonstrating how to massage someone in the supine position, she
motioned for me to practice on the beautiful stranger I had met just
moments before. I flushed, and Sompit recognized my fear of laying
even a finger on the woman; a foreign man touching a Thai woman carried
unspoken connotations.

"You shouldn't worry about touching anyone at Wat Po," Sompit said.
"Many Western students feel awkward at first because of different
cultural attitudes toward the body. Always remember, massages here are
given with love and respect and are intended to benefit both the giver
and the receiver."

Over the course of our sessions, I was instructed in the Four Divine
States of Mind: loving kindness, compassion, vicarious joy and
equanimity. The giver of a massage feels compassion for the recipient
because he understands the anxieties life can impose. Through the
massage, he showers the recipient with loving kindness and releases the
recipient from the tensions that tighten the body and cause emotional
distress. The recipient, in turn, is relieved of these burdens and
experiences joy, but so does the giver, resulting in equanimity for both
parties. The secret of the exchange lies in the flow of prana, or life
energy, between the two partners along the meridian lines of the body.
With her slender fingers, Sompit would trace the meridians and their
offshoots across my chest and limbs, showing how they form a
crisscross network that distributes blood and prana to bones, muscles
and organs. Emotional or mental distress causes the meridians to tense
up, blocking the flow of prana. Kneading and pressing on these spots
loosens the blockages and restores inner harmony.

"Massage is so wonderful because it can be done almost anywhere -- in a
park under the shade of a tree, on the beach or inside," Sompit said.
But the setting, she stressed, is crucial; it should be clean and quiet,
with little chance for interruption. Talking should be minimal, and
both parties must be mindful of the present moment. Sompit would focus
her concentration by muttering mantras under her breath, her lips moving
slowly to the rhythm of her kneading. And she would keep her hands on
my body as much as possible, in order to promote a circuit of energy
that let the prana flow continuously.

After only a week of study with Sompit, I began to see tumultuous
Bangkok with new eyes and became more aware of the kind of energy I was
sending out to the world. My departure was now only days away and I
made an effort to revisit favorite spots in the city and check out
neighborhoods I had missed. Downtown, I walked through Lumpini Park
before the sun had burned off the morning fog and watched legions of
elderly Chinese practicing tai chi chuan, looking like a band of ghosts
floating in the mist. I slipped easily through the crowded markets and
past the discount haberdasheries of the Indian Quarter with none of my
old claustrophobia. I was no longer even intimidated by the pushy
salesmen selling gold off of red velvet display cases in the ubiquitous
jewelry shops. Everything in Bangkok seemed to have changed, even as it
remained the same.

During my last session with Sompit, while starring up at the slowly
revolving ceiling fans, I suddenly realized I no longer feared returning
home. My transition from world traveler to an unknown occupation was simply the next phase in my life, and not worth the time and energy
I had spent worrying about it. I chuckled softly, and Sompit responded
by tickling the sole of my foot.

"It is good to see you smile, Thomas," she said. "You have nice,
straight teeth." Sompit said that I had looked tired and thin when I
began my massage study, but now I looked younger, happier and had even
learned to smile. I laughed again, realizing I felt completely rested
and relaxed; I was now ready to go home.

Saying our last goodbyes, Sompit escorted me to the exit of Wat Po
handed me the school's certificate of achievement. Then, giving her
usual slight bow, she added, "Thomas, it was very nice to meet you.
When you go to America, don't be serious all the time. Go gently each
day, like you are walking on silk."

Thomas Golembeski

Thomas Golembeski is a writer who lives on the East Coast.

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