Donnerstag, 5. Mai 2011

The Travelogue, Part XV - Thailand: How to Make the Most of It

When people come to Thailand, two of the first things they do is eat Thai food and get a Thai massage. Sadly though, many never actually experience either, despite belief. Tourist demand has caused innumerable amounts of "Thai Restaurants" and "Thai Massage" parlors to spring up along streets in any major tourist destination, handing tourists a watered down experience, only vaguely resembling the actual thing. This is a little guide on how to actually get a good Thai massage, and on how to find authentic Thai food.

How to Get a Good Thai Massage

This is a collection of both two talks I had with Thai massage therapists and my own experience.

This is how it not looks.
Most people take this hump, but frequently enough I hear people go: "...and then she patted me on the back a few times and was looking like she was waiting for me to say something, and then I realize; this is actually a whorehouse!"
Brothels and massage parlours are actually easy to tell apart: If the girls wear makeup and tight dresses, it's a brothel. If they wear shirts and are in their thirties, then it's a massage business. Any signs that hint to personalized service, such as "special massage" or advertising rooms to rent for cheap in the same building are dead giveaways.
It also pays well to stray from the main tourist areas, often a better (and cheaper) local place is hiding just minutes away. Simple looking exterior usually means good massage.

Massage or Rub
Assuming that you are now not in a whorehouse, the quality of your massage if probably your next concern. To establish that, you must first decide what you actually want: someone giving you a relaxing petting session (to which I will refer to as a 'rub') or an actual massage, which are actually two quite separate things. There's nothing wrong with getting a rub, if that's what you are looking for, but in case you are looking for an actual massage, here is how you can spot it:

The Masseur
Traditional massage is a method to cure a problem, such as back pain, stomach ache or chronic illness. It was used by specialist doctors as a means (among many, such as herbal medicines) of medical treatment. Now you wouldn't go to a doctor without a good reason, right? If you walk into a massage parlor and get "just a Thai massage" is a bit like going to a western doctor and saying you want "just some pills". A good traditional massage therapist will first ask you about or, in most cases, diagnose your problem first, usually using classical methods such as pulse and tongue diagnosis and only then administer any treatment. They are usually surprisingly accurate and will tailor massage treatment specifically to your condition.
Certificates on the wall are no guarantee for a qualified masseur (A forged Harvard diploma in Unicorn Taming is just 10$ in Thailand), and neither are the ubiquitous posters of acupressure points or foot reflexology. The majority of masseurs will have no clue about them, but if you fancy some loss of face in action, ask them about it.
A clean place and a non-spa ambience is usually a good sign for a quality masseur, who just wants to get a job done. Rub places usually have more furnishings, glitter and music.

The Massage
Getting a Thai massage should make you feel relaxed and energized afterwards, but contrary to many peoples perception, the actual treatment is far from relaxing. In fact, it will hurt plentiful. Loosening the blockages in your body requires significant amount of force, and the fact that the worse the respective condition is the more the Sen lines (similar to the meridians in Chinese medicine) will hurt upon being massaged. It will be a "good" pain though, and you should trust your body and endure. If you feel like a mixture between a demonstration puppet for a Yoga class and a half empty tube of toothpaste to be squeezed out, then you've got right. Cracking and popping of bones is common on the better ones, and use of feet as a massage tool is also frequent.
If it's a foot massage, the difference between a massage and a rub is easy to find out: if certain spots get  repeated, strong pressure from the masseur and that hurts, it's a massage. If there are lots of of flat, long strokes, she (or he) is just doing whatever.

Price and Aftermath
A proper Thai massage should set you back by about 300 Baht per hour, unless it comes with additional treatment, such as herbal medicine or nutrition counseling, which can make it up to 600 Baht. The Thai price is about half of that, and if you get along well with the staff you might pay less. Often you are asked to return the next day to see if your condition has improved, which should be free. Well versed practitioners often give dietary recommendations based on Chinese medicine, or other additional lifestyle advice. I cannot say much about whether they are efficient, but they certainly don't seem harmful.
I find that after a good massage it feels like I'm stoned for another hour or so, but that might be up to the individual.

How To Get Good Thai Food

Kao Soi

Unless for some reason you are really, really lucky, you will not get Thai food in any resort or in any beachside restaurant in a tourist spot. It's simply a bad deal for the owners. To quote the chef of a beach bar in Ko Tao: "Farang don't like Thai herb, farang don't like Thai vegetable, farang don't like spicy. You serve once, they not come again. So not keeping fresh food, better go to street." Or in other words: Since many foreigners who come to the main tourist areas have little or no experience with Thai food, they are reluctant to order it, and if they do, they will shun anything short of bland. This obviously means that there is no point for the cook to keep high quality ingredients and thusly you won't get good food even if you ask for it.The rule of thumb is: the more it looks like a "nice" place, the worse the food is going to be. The place you want to go to looks like a tiled garage with lots of plastic chairs. Some guidebooks will tell you to go where it's packed with locals, but some places are popular at certain times, and as a non-working tourist you just might be around when it's quiet, so don't rely on that. Also some places are more geared towards take away, so if you think it might be good, give it a try even if it's empty.
Another good option are the various food stalls, especially at night markets. They may not look particularly clean, but most people acquire their traveler's diarrhea from contaminated Western food (less throughput, longer sitting times for perishables), not from hawkers. Most of these do only one or two dishes, and have no menus (see below).
Never order Thai food in a "Serves Western and Thai food" place. It is never any good, so you might as well go for the Western food, which you know and where you can judge quality.


Now if you have found a promising place, you might find that the staff speaks no English. Most of the time you might be handed an English menu. The problem with it is that it will list only a few all-time favourites, such a Phat Thai, which you'll have seen a hundred times and which the (usually quite specialized) restaurants will not be good at preparing. Try asking: "Thaan ('a' as in 'car') arai dee?" so they recommend you something. If they are unsure, try "Mee arai peesaat ('a' as in 'care')?" asking for their specialty. Just say yes to whatever they recommend, it usually is good and chances that it will be something weird, such as chicken feet are very very slim. Knowing the basic words Gai (chicken), Koong (Prawn), Muu (Pork) and Plaa (Fish) does help.
Food stalls usually serve only one or two dishes, so if you look interested enough and nod, they will just give you whatever they serve. If it requires choices on your behalf, they will usually pick the most common options for you, so just trust them. At markets you can order from several places and sit down anywhere, there are no seats allocated to stalls.

If you like it spicy (and by that, I actually mean moderately), make sure that you say: "Pet OK." when you order, otherwise you will get the minimum amount of spice as a precaution. Remember that what makes Thai food spicy also gives it flavour, and staying clear of all things peppery will significantly dilute your food experience. You'll almost always find some chili in your dish, but they are not all spicy: the big green ones are more like bell peppers, and it's the little ones you gotta watch out for. Your body gets used to spiciness quite quickly within a week or so, after which you should be able to eat most things, so train yourself a bit, it's worth it. Eating rice or milk products will reduce the burn, all else (including water) will make it worse.

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