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THE GENTLE ART OF THAI MASSAGE

Congested Bangkok can be a difficult place to conduct business. So what better way to relieve the tension than by seeking a traditional Thai massage? For hundreds of years, Thailand has refined the art of massage, adding in techniques from Chinese acupressure and Indian yoga. There's no better place for this relaxation therapy than the spa at the posh Oriental hotel.

Located in a one-story building a short ferry ride across the Chao Phraya River from the hotel, the spa is designed to ensure that visitors decompress. As soon as I enter, I take off my shoes and am led to a teak-paneled room, with lights dimmed and minimalist music playing. The masseur is 29-year-old master Sutichai Tameesak, nicknamed Piak. A wiry 119-pounder, Piak treats his profession as if it were a spiritual experience. ''I meditate when I work,'' he says, claiming this makes the massage more effective.

Before he begins the massage, Piak recommends an herbal body wrap. In olden days, women mixed kaolin, a very fine clay, with herbs such as cumin to help beautify their skin. Heated and applied in the steamy tropics of Thailand, the potion supposedly extracts impurities. Thais still believe cumin has curative powers and use it when treating diaper rash and other skin infections.

LOTS OF GOOP. The spa has modernized the procedure. I shower and cover myself in a plastic-coated heating pad on a thin mattress. Piak then covers me from the neck down with a hot, gravelly, light-yellow goop. Next I am wrapped in the heating pad again, and with lights off, relax for 15 minutes alone. ''Think about beautiful things,'' Piak tells me, ''and your skin will be even more beautiful.'' I try to do that, but I also can't help but dream of turning up the air conditioning.

After I rinse off, it's time for an herbal facial. He first applies cleansers and creams, while giving me a gentle face massage, and then covers my skin with a brown mask made of mashed flowers. Again, I am allowed to chill out in the darkened room by myself. A quarter hour later, he returns and removes the hardened mix from my face. In the end, my husband thought my skin looked whiter, while others commented on my glowing tan.

Finally, it's time for the massage. I change into a white muslin shirt and shorts, and lie down on a mat on the floor. Thai masseurs prefer this to the tables used in Swedish massages because they can use their full weight when applying pressure with their hands. Before he starts, Piak says a prayer. Then he works his way up from my feet to my scalp. ''Thais like gentle massages,'' he says. ''I start gentle and add more and more pressure.''

Thai massage developed into a highly refined skill about 500 years ago when the Thais created an official massage division of the government. Some Thai massages are aimed at healing ailments, from colds to migraines, and others are designed for relaxation. As Piak explains it, during a massage, blood flows to stiff muscles, helping to release secretions. Piak urges that I drink plenty of water to wash out the impurities loosened up by his firm touch.

''LAZY MAN'S YOGA.'' For 90 minutes, Piak constantly stretches my muscles, pulling my legs in one direction, hips in another. At one point, he arches my back over his knees--and I think my spine lengthens. ''This is lazy man's yoga,'' he confides. The most painful part is not the pretzel shapes he twists me into. It's when he digs into my shoulder muscles, sending a pain to my head that doesn't let up until he releases. I feel the tension disappear, until he repeats the move. For pressure almost deeper than I can bear, he uses his elbows, feet, and knees.

With the Thai baht depreciating against the U.S. dollar, even the Oriental's prices seem reasonable. The 90-minute massage costs a little more than $50, the herbal body wrap a little less than that, and the facial $57. But plenty of other places offer massages for much less. At Wat Po temple, the national headquarters for teaching Thai medicine and massage, a massage costs just over $6 for an hour. You lie on a bed in a small pavilion on the grounds, and if you want a clean sheet, you pay 65 cents. Wat Po also is the home of the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand--150 feet long, at least 200 years old, and covered in gold leaf.

Whatever the setting, the results of a Thai massage are remarkable. When I left the spa, I felt more energetic, more relaxed--and even taller.

By Joyce Barnathan


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Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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