Mar 10 2008

Chiang Mai Finale: Three Stories

Published by at 1:00 pm under Chiang Mai,Thailand

1. Brittany Takes a Beating

Since one of our worst fears prior to arriving in Thailand was that we would end up in prison unable to escape and fruitlessly trying to convey our innocence, it was strange that I found myself voluntarily walking into Chiang Mai’s local prison one morning. Stranger still that I was there to inquire about a massage, as under any normal circumstances, if you’re in a jail and an inmate offers you a “massage,” I can guarantee that it’s not something you want to be a part of, and you should get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible.

I understand that my actions require justification: the day after we returned from trekking through the jungle of Northern Thailand, my legs were aching something fierce. So I decided to splurge on a $5 full-body Thai massage. I didn’t want to visit one of those cheesy Western-catering resort-style spas. Instead, I opted for the prison, which, I know, is going a little bit too far towards the other extreme. I’d learned that Chiang Mai’s women’s prison runs a spa and store to train and employ inmates, with all proceeds going directly to the women after release. And since prisoner rehabilitation is a GOOD thing, I decided I would do my part and selflessly volunteer to receive an hour-long massage.

I guess being massaged by Thai convicts wasn’t too popular among tourists, because the spa project has shut down. But a prison guard informed me of a newly opened spa down the street that hires recently released prisoners. I figured this would be nearly as altruistic, and made an appointment.

So a Thai massage is a different experience than one back home: you don’t listen to soothing nature-sounds CDs, you won’t be ushered into a dimly-lit private room full of candles and scented oils. A massage is seen as a necessary component of maintaining good health and Thais visit their local spas frequently, making the experience a social one, much like an American hair salon. Once I’d changed into my special lightweight massage clothes, my masseuse (a Thai woman who was literally half my height), led me to a long room lined with mats. Several people — three men and two old women — lay on the mats, cheerfully chatting with their masseuse as she massaged them.

What happened next is painful for me to recall. I was pummeled by this woman. I know what you’re thinking: how much pain can such a tiny women really inflict? Well, my friend, once you’ve had that tiny woman crawl up and down the length of your body, digging her elbows into your spine, you can ask me that question. These women are tough and they are sassy and they don’t take FOR THE LOVE OF GOD OW for an answer.

She basically performed yoga on my body. She stretched me into positions no American has previously achieved. At one point, my feet were above my head, my arms outstretched behind me, while the masseuse took hold of my head and shook me violently back and forth. I was grateful only that no one I know could see me in such a state.

By the end of my hour, I was a gelatinous, useless heap of humanity. I have no idea how I managed to crawl home.

It was only after my massage that I consulted the guidebook to learn that what I received is exactly what I should’ve expected from a traditional Thai massage. If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, opt for the “herbal” massage. And whatever you do, don’t get a Thai massage when you’re already sore if you want to retain use of your legs for the next three days.

2. Impromptu Therapy Session/Talking with Monks

“Welcome! Please! Sit down! Would you like a tea?” the bespectacled monk said, leading us towards a small table. He gathered up his saffron-hued robes and sat across from us. “Ask me your questions!” he commanded, enthusiastically.

We’d visited Wat Suan Dok for its evening “Monk Chat.” Visitors are able to converse with monks about Buddhism and Thai life, while the monks appreciate an opportunity to practice their English.

Ben and I were eager to ask some of the lingering questions we’d accumulated over the course of our time in Thailand. We ended up chatting for nearly an hour with a cheerful monk about everything — Buddhist theory, the religious practices of the Thai (although 95% of Thai people call themselves Buddhist, their daily religious practice is more like a fusion of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism), karma, reincarnation, Nirvana, the Buddha, the life of a monk … it was fascinating. Towards the end of our conversation, I asked about meditation, and our monk (yes, we now call him “our monk”) clarified my faulty perception. What I’ve always considered meditation — you know, to sit down and say “ohm” repeatedly — is actually practicing meditation. A Buddhist is always in a state of meditation.

“It is simply to focus the mind on the present,” our monk said. “Not to think about the past, or the future. Think about only what you are doing, Breetahnee. Focus. That is meditation.”

“Well that’s much easier said than done,” I replied, bitterly.

“I am sorry, I do not understand. Can you say again?”

“Sorry, I mean, that’s a hard thing to do.”

“No. It is easy.” our monk said, bluntly.

I was taken aback my his abrupt response. “Ok, well, it is hard for me, I guess.” I said.

“If you think it is hard, it is hard. If you think it is easy, it is easy,” he replied.

I wanted to yell EXCUSE ME but I think that the MILLIONS OF AMERICANS who spend HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS A YEAR ON THERAPY would agree with ME that NOT regretting or worrying is NOT AN EASY THING TO DO, when the joyous simplicity of what he was saying struck me, and I sat there gaping at him, trying to process what he could possibly mean.

“Do not think about the past, it is done, it cannot change,” he continued. “Do not think about the future, it is not born yet. You control your thoughts, your thoughts do not control you. You need to exercise your mind like you exercise your body, so you will have better control of your mind.” He said this all with a bright smile on his face and laughed at our incredulous expressions.

“It… is… easy… isn’t it?” I said, slowly.

Ben, Brittany and the monks
Our monk is the smiley one next to Ben

“Yes!” he said, laughing. “It is easy! Later, will I think ‘Today an American boy and his beautiful girlfriend came to ask questions?’ No, I will not. Because it is in the past. I focus on only what I do. Right now I am talking, talking. Right now you are hearing, hearing. When you are walking, you are only walking, walking. When you are kissing you are only kissing, kissing. That is all! Ha ha! It is easy! To focus. Control you mind. Be happy all the time!”

It was a mental breakthrough like I’ve never experienced before. I wanted to reach across the table and hug him tearfully, but checked myself upon remembering that women cannot touch monks.

Instead, we thanked him profusely, clarified a few English words for him, and stood up to go. As we were leaving, he called out after us, “be happy in your travels through Thailand together!” before laughing, turning on his bare feet, and walking back into the monastery.

Right now I am writing, writing… Right now, you are reading, reading…

3. Wok and Rolls (Spring)

Tourists come to Chiang Mai to do two things: they trek and they take a Thai cooking class. Not wanting to miss out, on one of our last days in Chiang Mai, Ben and I signed up for a cooking class on an organic farm a little bit outside of town.

Because on the morning of the trek, we’d woken up late and missed breakfast, which was obviously completely unacceptable, Ben made sure to get up super early before our all-day cooking class to order us two gigantic breakfasts. I know: we didn’t eat before an hours-long trek and we stuffed ourselves before a class in which we were cooking seven courses. Things like this happen if Ben ever misses a meal.

On the way to the farm, we stopped at a local market where our instructor gave us a tour of the various ingredients commonly used in Thai dishes. Did you know that coconut milk is not actually the milk inside of the coconut, but the liquid that comes from juiced coconut shavings? We also saw a variety of delightful fried insects. Bamboo worm! Yum!

After a tour of the farm and sampling (and promptly spitting out) the homegrown bitter/hot herbs used in Thai cuisine, we got down to cooking. It was quite a sight to see me trying to work a very heavy mortar and pestle to grind fresh red curry paste — nearly as hilarious as watching Ben attempt to yield a large wok. In the end, though, we made pad thai, spring rolls, curries, papaya salad, Thai soups, and a couple other stir fried dishes — impressive, huh? Before you moochers back at home get any ideas about having trained chefs prepare authentic Thai food for you, I should let you know that we immediately forgot everything we learned.

our finish productsFor dessert, Ben was making mango with sweetened sticky rice, while I was able to choose between either fried banana or fried pumpkin in coconut milk. Because Ben claims he’s “banana-ed out” and because of his not-so-subtle prodding (“gee, that pumpkin dessert sure would be delicious! I wish I could make that one too!”), I decided to be a good girlfriend and select the pumpkin in coconut milk option.

When I finished cooking, I held up a piece for Ben to try. “That is NOT pumpkin!” he exclaimed, grimacing upon tasting my creation.

“Yes it is. That’s what pumpkin tastes like,” I replied.

“But it doesn’t taste like pumpkin pie at all!”

I paused, thinking that he must be joking. He wasn’t. “Do you mean to tell me that over the past four years we’ve been ordering all these ‘exotic’ pumpkin dishes, none of which we’ve really enjoyed, because you like pumpkin PIE?? That just means you like pie!”

“No… I also like pumpkin bread,” he said, meekly.

“So you like sugar! Great!” I said, huffily making him switch desserts with me.

While we had a great time at the cooking course, and ate lots of delicious food, we realized later that evening that we hadn’t actually learned anything. I couldn’t recreate any of those dishes if I wanted to, and I’d hoped to learn a little bit more about the general techniques used in cooking Asian food. The class did show me that Thai cooking is more accessible than I previously thought and now I definitely want to own a wok, if only to entertain myself by watching Ben use it.

Our beautiful week in Chiang Mai came to an end sooner than either of us wanted. We left the city to experience our first sketchy S.E. Asian border crossing, but our trip into Laos is a story for another day…

NEXT: We sure know how to pick ‘em »



3 responses so far

3 Responses to “Chiang Mai Finale: Three Stories”

  1. Sciencemelon 10 Mar 2008 at 3:55 pm

    B&B- Those are charming and priceless stories. Thank you for sharing them. :-)

    With regards to massages – there are a rare few Thai trained massage ‘therapists’ in the US, and suprisingly, we like to keep their names on the QT as it is actually addictive.

    As for cooking, woks are fantastic… once you grab a basics book you’ll be surprised at how quickly it all comes back to you.

  2. Norris Hallon 23 Mar 2008 at 12:30 pm

    Hi. If you are interested in cooking Thai food try
    It’s got about 30 recipes each one with a cooking video to go along
    Good if you like to try cooking Thai food at home

  3. Kango Suzon 07 Apr 2008 at 11:55 am

    So what I want to know is, did you feel better after the Thai massage? Would you do it again or do you want to go back to the traditional relaxation massage?

    And, btw, does Ben know that pumpkin pie filling has very little pumpkin in it when prepared the traditional way? It’s mostly CAN! And that’s what is used in pumpkin bread too. I’m with you on this one…

    That food does look delicious though!

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply