Friday, 13 November 2009

Alex's Massages

You may not know that I am a bit of a massage afficionado. I have had weekly massages for sustained periods, particularly when I used to work in restaurants and have a very stiff neck and shoulders. Then the rigours of office posture didn't help things so much, so I used to have weeklies when I worked for Easily in Farringdon Rd.

Before this trip I'd had kinesiology, shiatsu, swedish and sports massage (over 100 in total, I guess), but little Thai massage. Apart from an amazing guy in the middle of a park in Madrid once. Though he might have been Chinese. Anyway, I digress...

So I was excited about coming to SE Asia and trying out some new styles at very reasonable cost. I was also interested in comparing styles and learning what each culture's specialty is. This has been more difficult, because they do seem pretty similar. I've had Thai that feels like Shiatsu at times, and vice versa. I have picked up a couple of things while I've been out here, but, I must admit, mainly from Wikipedia (which everyone knows is 100% infallible). For instance, I thought Shiatsu was Japanese, but it apparently originates from Traditional Chinese Medicine which was introduced to Japan and then adapted. Shiatsu generally uses pretty firm, deep finger pressure, but what I didn't know is that it is one of the only massage techniques to attend to the seven Chakras (apart from kinesiology, chakra massage and cranio-sacral therapy).

It's been hard to analyse the difference between Thai, Lao and Khmer styles, particularly because I only had one in Laos and several in Cambodia turned out to actually be Chinese. I get the impression the 3 are fairly similar, but also I think that, even within the same country, you can get quite different massage. The quality depends on the level of training and masseurs incorporate different elements and styles as they learn more - like anywhere in the world.

Standards vary - Thailand has the highest standard easily, it being being far more established along with tourism. Thai apparently massages along "sen" lines, 72,000 vessels through which "lom" (air) passes. The difference between Thai sen and say Chinese meridians is that sen are not connected to internal organs. The noticable thing about Thai is that some of it is more like an assisted yoga workout, with the masseur using various parts of their body to stretch you out e.g. sticking a foot almost into your groin to stretch out your thigh. Sometimes crossing over a leg for a deeper stretch, or sticking knees or feet into your back and pulling you back over it. I've had fingers, the flat bases of the palms, elbows, and even knees used for acupressure.

Thai has the cheapest quality massage, averaging at 3 or 4 dollars an hour. Cambodia is about twice the price, although you can find local massage for 5,000 Riel (just over one dollar) if you travel into the communities. I didn't try one of those unfortunately.

Anyway here is a little history of my massages so far on the trip. Admittedly this might be more for me than for you :)

1. Lamu island, Kenya
A young lady called Betty performed a fairly standard sports massage. Didn't notice any cultural oddities.

2. Vilankulos, Mozambique
A Zimbabwean lady gave me a fairly uninspiring sports massage.

3. Kao San Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
Here we go. First proper Thai massage. Lots of using feet to stretch me out. Also, first introduction to quite comprehensive head massage. Ears anyone? Pulling down quite hard on ear lobes.

4. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
I asked for oil - not always advisable in Thailand, they are generally better working without, but she was pretty good. And damn strong. First really quite scary back stretch. They don't pull any punches in Bangkok.

5. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
Good but not memorable for any particular reason.

6. Bang Saphan, Thailand
This was excellent. Think I went for oil again though, doh.

7. Chiang Mai, Thailand
This was very good indeed. So good I stayed for an extra hour of head massage. Some good head techniques used here that I had more of in Cambodia - the hair combing with fingers, scrunching and fluffing (not that fluffing). The finger in eye socket (next to nose) pull.

8. Akha hill tribe, Muang Sing, Laos
This was mental. And unexpected. We were in a remote hill tribe, in the chief's hut on stilts. Many of the village were in the room, drinking Lao Lao (rice whisky) with us and looking through the children's books we had brought for them. Then our guide said "Do you want a massage?". Our having agreed, everyone just stayed in the room and carried on doing what they were doing. Some young girls (about 12) came in, giggling. I had two just for me (4 hands). This was one of the hardest, most scary massages I have ever had. They would each use both hands to pump down on an area very strongly, particularly worrying on kneecaps. Also on the back, they would scrunch big pieces of skin and twist them round, which is something I have never had.
They laughed at my yelps. An experience.

9. Siem Reap, Cambodia
An expensive (20 dollar) oil session. Nothing special, but the luxury was pleasant.

10. Siem Reap, Cambodia
A blind guy who preferred Japanese shiatsu and Anma, so that's what he gave me. Very good, I stayed for another hour of foot massage. He only got one dollar out of the five I paid for each hour.

11. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
A seven dollar job just down from the guest house. Advertised the masseurs as blind, but apparently that was the previous lot - these girls could all see. Not bad, nothing special or distinctive - although she did introduce me to the the eyebrow pinch, which I liked. Had a Khmer traditional, then a back and shoulder the next day.

12. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
This was a $5 special from a local lady. Was a bit scared of lying down on the bed, not sure how sanitary it was. She was good, knew her stuff and quite hard. Did some back scrunching and deep acupressure. And for the very first time in my life, and a complete surprise, she cricked my neck - hard. I was so shocked I didn't let her do the other side.

13. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
EXCELLENT. Chinese style apparently. Some intense use of elbows in the kidneys and bottom pressure points. Excellent head work - first time actually IN the ears! Crazy hair combing and fluffing. Eyebrow pinch. Had a couple with this woman ("girl 28").

14. Trat, Thailand
REALLY EXCELLENT. Very similar overall to the previous Chinese in Phnom Penh, but with added Thai stretching. I had learnt that the standard for Thai is 2 hours, so that's what I had. And then had another hour of foot. I had previously not given reflexology/foot massage it's dues - I will from now on, absolutely amazing. The nice woman, Lia, was quite gentle on the back and leg stretches, taking it real slow. Had 3 hours with Lia the first day, then an oil the next day and after we came back from Ko Kut, went back again for some really deep knot breaking down (bad bed) while Tania had a foot massage. Usually masseurs have used elbows when breaking down knots in my back but this guy (Lia's colleague) just used one finger. Particularly painful on the neck, but effective.
These people were really nice so I will put their details up. They give you great tea afterwards as well.

16. Ko Jum, Thailand
AMAZING! OK, it just so happens that my most recent is number one - so far. Mangon (on Long Beach, 300m from Joy bungalows) has everything that everyone else had - and more. Comprehensive on the acupressure and excellent use of palm bases as well as fingers. The use of the palms on the back was a revelation - I've never had anyone do that so well. Really hard continuous pressure (putting his whole weight behind it) over a significant area. Some people do it using their arm bones (ulnas) as rolling pins but this was better. And he knew how to use oil, just for the back (I told him I had some problems with my back and had sunburnt a bit). Terrific stretches, more variety than with anyone else. One brilliant position - pulling my arms back, with his feet in my back. Excellent head massage. Highly recommended, although not cheap (this is an island after all) at 300 Baht an hour. Speaks really good english.

So - what have I learnt. Definitely go for 2 hours, traditional Thai massage. Try and avoid oil unless you are having massage for an ailment. Enjoy!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Arrival in Laos with photos

Travelling comprises an endless series of mainly two decisions: where to stay and what to eat. To cut the number of decisions we need to make by half, and with total disregard for conventional traveller wisdom, we have taken to staying at the very first place we find, in this case the first guesthouse at the top of the road leading down to the port at Houayxai on the Laos side of the border crossing from Chiang Khong. Our guidebook for southeast Asia (Mark Elliot’s Graphic Guide to SouthEast Asia – an awesome book that takes a treasure-map approach to travel writing and refuses to promote any particular restaurant or hotel at the expense of those he simply hasn't had the opportunity to visit) is a 2003 edition and describes what you get for accommodation at three dollars a night as what one might expect for that price. At least seven years later, he’s half right: about three dollars is still the price, but we had a clean bed with bed linen, mosquito net, a fan and hardly any disease-ridden six-legged invaders.

We celebrated our first night in Laos with a curry (obviously), the dishes we ordered representing, very brightly, each of the colours of the Indian flag, which was probably the most authentic aspect of the meal. The place won’t be winning any awards for food, but the owner was a nice guy from Bombay who gave us some good advice about getting to Luang Namtha (the first stop on an itinerary that had, as usual, been planned for us by other travellers) – namely that it would be cheaper to take a tuk-tuk to the station to get our bus rather than the tourist bus from our guesthouse. The last bus I’d taken in Laos had been a very bumpy affair, which hardly mattered once we’d clambered onto the roof to see glorious views of Laos’ spectacular scenery. So, I was a bit disappointed this time when our bus’ roof was clearly intended for luggage only. Stupid improved roads. Boring comfortable buses. I slept nearly all the way.

Guidebooks don’t have much to say about Luang Namtha, other than it’s a good place to organise a hill-tribe trek from and, sure enough, it wasn’t that inspiring when we first arrived. The town is arranged around a long, wide main street lined with the usual farang guesthouses and bars and the ubiquitous whiteboards listing a variety of fruit shakes, pancakes and British, American or Israeli breakfasts. Hill tribe sellers wander up and down the street trying to sell you bracelets and necklaces and, if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, marijuana and opium. But barely 10 minutes away by scooter, heading north along the main road towards China and turning right at the first major junction to cross a bridge over a beautiful river (where, housed in a small sentry box, a policeman in a tightly fitting uniform prevents the taking of photos), you find yourself among rice paddies that stretch out to the bottom of ranges of hills that slide past each other as you ride by like layers in the pop-up books I used to get as a child. The sun and the clouds painted patterns all around that made me swear that never, ever again would I forget to take my camera anywhere. I couldn’t bear to look at how beautiful it all was.

Like everywhere in Laos, Luang Namtha has caves and waterfalls to visit that can be found along the same road, signposted on the left well before you reach the paddies. The stony track gradually made its way uphill, along a river and more paddies and what I thought was the biggest pig in the world, but what was, in fact, a pink buffalo (who knew?). Once we’d parked up and paid the 5,000 Kip entrance fee (37p), a gentle ascent up a wooded path led to a pretty waterfall where more locals than tourists were mucking about, fully clothed, in the water.

Surprisingly nice as it was, Luang Namtha was not our main destination; we’d come here to take a 1.5 hour bus ride even closer to the Chinese border and the well-known ‘traveller hub’ of Muang Sing where we planned to do some trekking. So, after three days (an extra day specifically to return to the rice paddies with my camera), that’s what we did.

Luang Namtha:

MAP: Laos, Cambodia and back into Thailand

Hello. Sorry it's been a while, we've been travelling you see. Here's one of my maps to act as an update. We were in Laos for September and Cambodia for October. Now we are back in Thailand and about to meet our good friends Nairoby (Nairi and Toby) in Bangkok.

I tend to leave the more detailed stuff to Tania - which maybe isn't fair because she also has all the thousands of pictures to manage - so her posts may appear before this one, I've saved some blank ones as drafts. Sorry, I'm getting overly technical.

Oh, I've shaved my head. And kept an amish beard. It's a reasonably "strong look".

Click on markers for info and drag map to follow our course.

Thailand, Up North

Going to Koh Tao was a mistake. Distinctly average and overpriced food and massive queues of hung-over and semi-naked tourists for the ham-and-cheese toasty machine at 7/11 made a poor impression of Thailand, and apparently the diving wasn’t all that (I guess after the whale sharks in Mozambique, most other things must seem quite … small). In the end, we couldn’t leave fast enough and decided to head straight up north. I was big enough to refrain from saying, “I told you so” (Ha! Of course I wasn’t).

We went to northeast Isaan, the other side of the Mekong from Laos, which Alex has already told you about. After Africa, it was a sight for thirsty eyes, where the heavy rains feed the forests and rice paddies with every type of green there is, from rich bottle shades to bright neon glowing in the sunlight. In fact, if the sun isn’t shining right, it’s tricky to take a picture of all the incessant green. The Mekong cuts through it; a great, sliding slick of rich brown striped at the edges by elegant, longtail boats. But at sunset, it transforms into a liquid mirror reflecting all the colours of the sky. People like me with cameras line the riverside path, adding our own percussion of shutter clicks to the soft beat of music floating over the Mekong from Laos.

Twice in Chiang Khan, we tried to find the golden Buddha visible from our guesthouse (a charming, wooden building with a balcony on the top floor called Fairytale Guesthouse) sitting atop a hill, admiring the view. But its position was so glaringly obvious, it seemed, that signposting had been considered entirely unnecessary. The first time, we completely missed the turning. The second time, we think we found it but a rainbow, brightly lit against the thundering sky behind it, signalled that we were in a race against time to beat the rain. We headed back with the glowering sky chasing us in the rear view mirror.

We got to a riverside restaurant just in time. A strong wind was shaking the window shutters and there was a buzz of activity as the restaurant owners quickly moved their flapping A-board sign indoors and secured the doors and windows. We saw the rain, an impenetrable grey, advancing along the Mekong with the preceding wind beating out the reflections of the river surface in front of it into a band of flat brown. My hair was whipping my face as I tried to capture the oddly two-dimensional effect. Finally, the rain was on us and we sat in the dark, waiting for our noodle soups, listening to the deafening clamour the rain was making above us on the corrugated iron roof. Out front, water cascaded from drains onto the street in front of the sheltering pedestrians and cyclists watching the storm. And then, as suddenly as it started, the noise softened, the grey lightened, journeys were resumed and through the now open door, we could see the storm continue its route along the river. “Wow,” we murmered, slurping our soups.

Leaving most of our stuff at Fairytale, we took a couple of days to explore the riverside, heading east from Chiang Khan, towards Pak Chom, something that has to be done independently as public buses aren’t interested in riverside views. So, we bumbled along on the fabulous, yellow scooter Foreign Legion Ian had lent us (he’d even bought an extra helmet for me, his only condition being that we return with it all), with me discretely flicking six-legged stowaways off the back of Alex’s shirt and speculating as to whether our heads have a gravitational pull as I watched flies buzzing round Alex’s helmet at 20mph as if we were stationary. I love being a passenger on a scooter. I did have a go myself for three minutes when I had a premonition that I would kill myself that way. Things feel much safer on the back of the seat behind my human shield called Alex.

Though very quiet, Chiang Khan is still farang-friendly, whereas Pak Chom seems to be where Thais go on holiday and apparently Thais expect a higher standard of accommodation than us backpackers, so, after a lovely afternoon exploring the tracks between fields of rice, maize and a meadow glowing with tiny blue flowers, we fell back on our bed complete with bed linen and flicked through the TV channels just because we could while our beers chilled in the fridge, marvelling at what you can get for 350 Baht. That night, we watched another downpour from a restaurant that had just finished serving food and chatted to the only English speaker, a local policeman who even offered to give us a tour of the area (sans handcuffs). For dinner, we had pancakes with egg and condensed milk and a sandwich filled with what turned out to be jam.

The next day we bumbled back along the river the way we’d come to return Foreign Legion Ian’s bike, who was delighted that we hadn’t nicked it. We sat outside with a few beers and watched the clouds gathering for some more action, and then he took us inside to show us his eye-popping collection of Pentax medium and large format photographic equipment, all neatly stowed away in a dry cabinet. They left me to play with his fish-eyes and tilt and shift lenses while the humidity reading on the dry cabinet slowly and steadily rose. I’m a big fan of digital photography, but this stuff, with its velvet-smooth focussing rings and deep and sure clunk-click noises is photography porn. When the humidity reading approached 70%, it was a race to get all the bodies, lenses, motor drives etc back in the cabinet before the moisture in the air ate it all alive. We drank tea while Foreign Legion Ian told us about his plans for a dramatic entrance to the digital world with a Pentax K7, 10-17, 18-55 and 50-200 while my mouth watered. I even spilt my tea.

After Chiang Khan, Chiang Rai felt like getting back on the tourist conveyor belt, but we weren’t too snobby to resist The Pizza Company, which left us feeling sick and a bit dirty. The night market was the most visually appealing of the many we’ve seen and it was great to have the excuse of buying presents to do a bit of shopping while sweet chilli sauce ran down my chin off weird and wonderful fried things on sticks.

By this point, somehow, we had spent some five weeks in Thailand and the horrible realisation dawned that we were running out of time to fit in all the things we wanted to our flight schedule before our year-long ticket expired, causing my hands to sweat. So, we headed for Laos in what felt like a bit of a rush.