#20 – Learn a new skill: Thai massage course at Wat Pho in Bangkok

I have now officially passed the six month mark of my 30b430 trip. That’s six months of no work and my brain is beginning to fry. Frequent swapping between countries with different currencies means that my maths skills, bad at the best of times, have become pretty much none existent; not being able to speak the language in the countries I’ve most recently visited has seen my foreign vocab skills reduced to being able to say “hello” and “thank you” and most of the time I can’t even remember what day of the week it is.

Sure, I’ve learned how to argue the fare with taxi drivers and the importance of using your elbows in the non-existent queuing systems in Asia, but I felt like it was time to put my brain back into gear.

I decided to sign up to take a Thai massage course in Bangkok, which is something I wanted to do last time I was here but for one reason or another never got around to.

I opted to study at Wat Pho, which runs a course which is really well-regarded in the rest of Thailand. However the first task you have to pass before you enrol is actually finding the school. After a ride on the Skytrain and a boat down the river, I arrived at Wat Pho itself, one of the Bangkok’s most famous temples. But it turns out the classes are no longer held there any more as student numbers have become too big. So there was a lot of pointing and waving arms as one person after another tried to direct me to the school.

I eventually found it tucked down a little side-street. The girls on the front desk were very sweet but didn’t speak much English. However they kept reassuring me “yes, yes”, everything was fine. I could just come back in the morning to start the class immediately. I was a little hesitant as to how the classes would be taught though, based on our current communication problems, especially when I asked whether they would in English and they told me “yes, English and Thai”.

But I decided if it was good enough for the Thais, who certainly know the power of a good massage, it was good enough for me. Signing up also meant I had to break the habit of a lifetime and invest in a pair of ‘poo pants’. Many people will know my aversion to the dreaded ‘poo pants’ (think MC Hammer) as they are often favoured by the type of person who thinks you can’t be a ‘traveller’ unless you are constantly wearing a pair, along with friendship bracelets up to your elbows and no shoes. However, I’m ashamed to admit this after so many years of complaining about them, but they are actually the comfiest things ever.

Starting the first day of school is always daunting, what with all of the ‘what if nobody likes me?’ teenage angst to deal with, But luckily for me I was immediately put into a group with other people from all over the world and we were given out introduction to massage in English. For anyone who has never experienced a traditional Thai massage, it’s definitely quite different to the relaxing aromotherapy or Swedish massage we’re more used to in the UK.

In fact, I think ‘relaxing’ is probably a word which wouldn’t feature in the same sentence as ‘Thai massage’. There’s a lot of pulling and pushing and stretching with the massuese sat next to you on the bed and even at times kneeling or walking on you. So learning how to massage is definitely one where you have to leave the English reserved nature at the door as pretty soon you’re going to be kneeling on the back of someone you’ve just met.

After being introduced to the first two steps we were split into different groups and I was partnered with a Thai lady who told me: “This is my first time massaging” before proceeding to give me an amazing massage. It turns out she regularly gives them to her elderly parents and was only coming to the school to get her certificate so that she could open her own salon. It was the same story for the other three Thai people in the group. They had all grown up learning the technique but just needed the official qualification.

After starting the course I noticed that massage is something which is very much incorporated into daily life in Thailand. You see little kids in the street giving their parents head massages; stallholders cracking each others’ backs and workers having foot massages at the end of a busy day.

I actually think the massage technique may have something to do with the fact that you see so few people in Asia with walking sticks. One of my teachers who must have been well into her 70s regularly asked the other teachers to walk up and down her back.

Our teachers were lovely and in a mixture of broken English and Thai soon told us if we were doing things wrong. This included some of the older ladies smacking us on the bottom if they wanted us to sit down during a particular move. Again, pretty sure that’s not something you’d see at home.

Working those poo pants.

On my second day I was partnered with a very enthusiastic Japanese man who hadn’t quite got the hang of the amount of pressure he should be using, particularly on someone quite small, so it actually turned out to be quite painful as he was going through the steps.

However any time he made a mistake he would be mortified and would keep apologising profusely, which I then got embarrassed about and felt terrible and wished I’d never said anything, So instead I chose to say nothing and consequently spent a fair bit of time feeling quite tense.

By the third day my body felt really achey, which was quite ironic considering I was in a massage class. Throughout the course of the week we were taught all five of the steps. There was a lot to learn and it was a bit of a shock to the system having to use my brain again. But as time went by I was reassured by the teachers that I wasn’t going to break someone’s back by kneeling on their legs and I found a way to politely tell my Japanese friend to go easy on the pressure points.

Picking up the techniques.

The other nice thing about staying in a place for a while it that you quickly settle into a little routine. I loved my morning walk to the Skytrain where I would see the monks in their bright orange robes collecting alms and people eating their breakfasts of rice and noodles at tables on the street.

I loved cramming onto the boat, where the ticket collectors were always shouting at us to “hurry, hurry”, despite the fact that no one could actually move any faster if they tried. I loved arriving at the port where the smell of dried fish first thing on a morning turned your stomach slightly. And after class I loved treating myself to a sliced mango and wandering slowly back to the pier, watching families sat eating rice noodle soup together and the tourists cutching their maps and looking lost.

The morning commute.
My fellow passengers.

The other really great thing about the school was I instantly met a brilliant group of people and we instantly bonded over our noodle soup lunches and exam fears. Because at the end of the course we all had to take a practical test. Now I haven’t taken a practical test since I learnt how to drive and the fact that it took me three times to pass, explains everything.

Even though we all knew deep down that it didn’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things we really, really, wanted to pass.

My lovely classmates.

I’d like to be able to say that it all went well and that I breezed it, but that would be a lie. In the boiling hot room, as I sat right next to the examiner, I totally panicked and forgot everything. Fortunately for me I had been partnered with an extremely lovely girl, who reminded me to breath and taught me the importance of finishing something – even if you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

Somehow or other I managed to pass though and I am now one of those tiny ladies who can cause a great deal of pain (in a good way, obviously).

Woohoo! I got the certificate and everything.
#20 done and the waiting list is open.