Travel Essay: We shortcut through the Vat Mixay (temple) complex and enter the Lao Mekong Hair Nails & Massage, on Nokeo Koummane Road in downtown Vietiane, Laos. The temperature hangs in the 90s in the capital, and we’re due for a treatment our daughter, who works in Yangon, has promised a long time. We shed our flipflops, don the proffered house sandals, and sip glasses of cold water as we sniff and select our oil. Wife and daughter opt for lemon grass; I go with lavender. I always liked lavender.
We climb the stairs, change out of damp shirts and shorts, put on the wide-mesh unisex low briefs we’re issued, wrap a towel, climb aboard the cushioned platforms: belly down, opening for nose and mouth between pillows. We lay on contiguous tables. Our daughter loves massages, especially here in Southeast Asia where a one-hour oil massage costs less than $20.00. At a “Natural Springs Spa” an hour from home, the one-hour massage runs $109 and the “Hot Stone Massage,” $129.Sandals and towel and low briefs and low cost aside, my Protestant upbringing has not prepared me for this.
My parents, warm hearted, didn’t make a habit of running their palms over my brothers and I after early childhood. I’d catch my father momentarily naked, once in a great while, in their bedroom or just after a shower. My mother never wore shorts after age forty-five or so, too embarrassed by her calves’ bumpy matting of varicose veins. She passed her severe modesty on to her three sons. Except when applying makeup, she never sat before her vanity or lingered before a mirror. She didn’t like clothes off unless you’re swimming; in our house, as I doffed socks and shirt, just back from a run, she sometimes shook her head.
I grew up chubby, with too much body, and thought the best thing to do was keep it covered. Once I slendered, after eighteen, I felt less shame.About twenty years ago in Istanbul, we vowed to have a Turkish bath. We’d crossed the Golden Arm into the Sishane district, walked uphill past the Galata Tower, but entering the 16th-century hamami on the women’s side, my wife and daughter lost courage. I persisted, initially baking on a marble platform until my sweat ran. The paunchy attendant, with luffa sponges and a shallow metal basin or two, worked my body over.
And over. I trembled out of the gleaming hamami, a big white jellyfish. Southeast Asia is not Istanbul. This would be hands on. We’d received a foretaste of full-body massage just down the street from Melinda’s apartment in Hledan Township in Yangon. Melinda patronized this beauty salon and figured we should pamper ourselves. At 9:30 in the evening, a comfortable 80 degrees or so, we three walked in for a shampoo. No cut, just shampoo. I kept trying not to act surprised that small businesses stay open after 10:00 p.m. A guy, long-haired with the usual slight build, took on my head. For well over half an hour he massaged, periodically working south to my neck and arms. His size belied his fingers’ strength as he pressed and pushed and kneaded.
At home in the shower, my spread fingers rack my scalp for a few seconds. More like a quickie drive-through car wash.Neither my fingers nor anyone else’s have ever worked over my scalp like this. As the attendant moved away, my head awoke from a warm cocoon, my blond-gray-white hair lighter than ever, seeking escape. We emerged at nearly 11:00 p.m., having paid our 4000 kyet ($3.00) apiece. I walked about four inches off the pavement.
Pampering one’s body? I didn’t grow up with a religious tradition that allowed for such a shampoo. Other than over-eating or masturbation, I didn’t know much about this kind of thing. I don’t fault my parents who lacked both time and inclination. They would no more enjoy a massage than a visit to a hamami. I imagine they regarded massages as a waste of money and time. My father might have given it a go, but not Mother.She would scoff. I’ve been trying to unlearn their indifference to their bodies. A runner for decades, I stay more slender than they or my brothers have managed, and after it heats up I like the sun on my skin. It matters that my legs have good muscle tone; that my calves bulge slightly. It matters to me. It’s taken me a good while to outgrow a sense of indifference, tinctured with mild shame, about my body in all its particularity. I’m always happy to call it Protestant shame: our lapsed lot, covering up with a lot more than fig leaves.
Upstairs with eyes closed, left cheek down, I listen for the masseuse’s moves and barely hear anything except her hands. Both here and later, in two other cities, I repose in my body and concentrate on the masseuse’s hands. She, always she, works silently, only whispering “turn over” or “over” in broken English partway through the hour. Left leg then right, then back and shoulders. My first masseuse starts with my ankle then works north, shaping my calves, kneading deep into my thighs. Her hands glisten with lavender oil, I imagine, as she works the dough of my toned flesh. Her hands anoint me, a wave crashing, onrush then undertow, their pressure building up a pleasing heat. They approach the mounds of my buttocks, retreat from the edges of underpants and towel though I wish they didn’t. Sometimes as she finishes her curving forth-and-back with both hands, she slaps them together just above my flesh, close enough to feel the air—applause to their work as though independent of the rest of her body. I learn to anticipate that soft slap. After the oil, her hands work through a towel. She rubs down, in. My limbs heat, just slightly. My long legs serve as warmup to back and shoulders, where she bears down. Less than two thirds my weight, she pushes with the entire length of her lower arm, and at least once she squats on my back. She pulls down on the shoulders, rubs each vertebrae. My ribcage stretches and my back shimmers, each vertebrae a harpstring. She bends my arm and pulls back and holds it momentarily in a yoga stretch like a kinetic sculpture. After the soft command I pull back from my drowse, heave around as smoothly as I’m able, keep eyes closed though I peek. I want to see her body as she works my body, watch her black hair curtain her face, her eyes. Bony shins and knee knobs, hard surfaces, prevent her hands penetrating, but the thighs invite her kneading.And my stomach, much more. She uses round motions on this softest dough. Her fingers approach, recede from where my abdomen curves above my pubic hair. They play the edge of the towel draped across my hipbones. With my chest she rubs from inside out, stretching apart my breasts, and my nipples tingle. Her fingertips feather my ribcage, poise over my shoulders, and the softer sides above my kidneys. She avoids only my face and genitalia. Her hands have made a pact with my body. I lay in a happy state, drowsed and aroused. I admit a clichéd male fantasy, wishing she would finish the job, fingers removing the towel, lowering those mesh briefs, rubbing my erection before her mouth opens, then her legs. This fantasy creeps close in my skin. But this isn’t quite that establishment. I know better. I have not embarrassed myself as the masseuse rises and quietly withdraws, oil bottle and towels in hand. She might have said, heavily accented, “All finished.”
I say “thank you,” forgetting to say Kob kun krub. Back in shirt and shorts, now less damp, I walk to the front room where we’re seated and presented with cups of steaming tea, its warmth, coursing down throat to stomach, matching my skin’s slightly scented glow. We pay, thank masseuses and clerks again, walk out into the wet furnace dazed into an awareness of our skin, ourselves. This kind of hour could become a regular habit, as it has for our daughter. In Luang Prabang, Laos, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, Melinda and I will again opt for one-hour, full-body oil massages.
One evening in Luang Prabang, as we ride our bikes back towards our hotel from the night market, we stop at another massage establishing that advertises “fish massage.” Melinda has told me about this version of immersion, wherein one species of small eager fish, Garra rufa or “doctor fish” (i.e. toothless carp) nibble away at the dead or horny skin on the feet or ankles of legs. At her excited prompting, I pay for the ten-minute special, remove my Tevas, and insert both lower legs into this pool, about 3’ x 5’, positioned at the entrance so that I (or whomever is receiving the treatment) become an object of curiosity and amusement, if not advertisement, for passersby. I’ve become the freak in a carnival side show, no barker needed.
I clutch a glass of soda but would prefer whiskey. I try to relax, imagine all the good fish lips accomplish, though I know this is no love affair with a young masseuse’s hands. Sometimes the pinpricks tickle enough that I flinch. Sometimes, looking through the clear water 2’ at the cluster of fish swarming my heels or toes, I immediately think piranhas and jerk. That diffuses the swarm but they’re soon back and I resign myself. After, as I quickly towel my feet, they shine slightly and I think cleansing thoughts—though subsequent reading suggests that some medical specialists warn against particular infections accruing from “fish pedicures.”
In 2011 it was discovered that 6000 Garra rufa imported to the U.K. were infected with bacteria that can cause pneumonia, meningitis, or soft tissue infections. Not a good plan for anyone with any cuts or open sores or diabetes or heart conditions. The CDC in the States reports that over ten states have banned fish pedicures due to sanitation problems. During my quick session, I blink “the ick factor in ichthyotherapy”: fish poop.
After a final surge of shopping in Chiang Mai’s Warorot Road (Kad Luang) market, on my final full day in Southeast Asia, Melinda and I enter another massage establishment on Tha Phae Road in early afternoon. My wife and I are flying to Bangkok in a few hours and the next day, flying back to the States. It’s the same sequence: selection of oils, removal of clothes, and eventually, hot green tea. This time I select the Thai Flower essence—my cutesy way of keeping a bit of Thailand on my skin, at least for a few hours. This masseuse pulls limbs more than the other two. I lay on a floor mat, and loose dark curtain separating me from my daughter. We hear a couple of quiet sighs from one another during the hour. I can’t get over the masseuse’s soft motions coupled with her arm strength. My ears track more slowly than my skin as she hovers and shifts, an accomplished musician who plays my body. Afterwards, Melinda declares this is one of the best massages she’s had (her attendant is male this time).
I know my skin won’t remember her hands for long but in another respect, they do. It remembers this particular luxury of hands on. At home, where such a treatment exceeds $100, my pocketbook holds me back. I register that cost as an unwarranted self-indulgence. But in Southeast Asia I go for it, eagerly anticipate hands and fingers rubbing oil. I have long abandoned any residual traces of body shyness. After all, skin on skin remains, first and last, our most elemental contact, and in my youthful age I welcome massages—that lazy iamb that stretches out, rests tongue near lower teeth and narrows mouth, and promises intimate creature comfort.
BIO: O. Alan Weltzien, an English professor in Montana, has lived in Poland, Bulgaria, Southern France, and Australia. He’s travelled in Japan once and SE Asia twice. He’s published dozens of articles, nine books, and two chapbooks, including a memoir, “A Father and an Island” (2008), and three collections of poetry, the most recent being “Rembrandt in the Stairwell” (2016).