|Mor Ta, master torturer|
Crudely hand-painted signs in Thai lead us increasingly further from the outskirts of Chiang Mai to rustic villages where, just as the houses run out and the rice fields begin, we arrive at what can best be described as a shack.
Ta and his assistant amble out to greet us, more inquisitively than welcomingly. A couple of mutts try and bark us away. Ta is a plump, square headed-chap with thick-lensed glasses, a Thai Yai (ethnic minority) doctor who studied in Burma, and has practiced massage for 30 years. He treats many of the battered and bruised Muay Thai boxers in Chiang Mai. And proudly tells us about one Danish customer who came to him unable to walk. After four months of treatments, he was walking all over this neighbourhood.
Ta has lived in this place for five years amid banana trees, bamboo groves, and rice fields which are currently undergoing the end of season burnoff.
Pleasantries out of the way, we are told that as this is our first visit we must offer 39 baht as an gift to Buddha to ask us to make the pain go away. Oh, does this mean we don't need the actual message then?
Ta sizes me up, presses my bicep and says: 'Soft. Farangs eat bread when they are young, not like Thais who eat rice.' He should talk, pudgy little guy that he is; raised on cupcakes by the look of it. He then over-estimates my age by 4 years. Well I never!
He pulls out some oversized canary yellow football shorts, sharading that I need to strip off everything and change into these. (There are no change rooms after all, just an open-sided shed where his steam rooms are.) I feel decidedly uncomfortable when he holds the towel around me so I can change.
We're then ordered into the steam room, a primitive affair with a green drape over the front trapping the camphor-smelling steam in. Cough, choke, splutter, wheeze. This is more like an interrogation chamber. We sit in pitch darkness on the low bench in the box which is no more than 2 metres x 2 metres.
'Come out when you're hot,' is the instruction from Mor to his assistant to my companion to me, a lengthy but necessary chain of command given he speaks some weird dialect which is then translated into Thai then into English.
We soon burst from the room sweating and gasping. We're seated and given a cup of reddish liquid from a thermos. 'Yaa dong?' I jokingly ask, referring to the illicit Thai alchohol popular in the north. No, it's just herbal tea which tastes of sandalwood. Or maybe just sandals, jing jing. It's rank.
We're ordered back into the steam room for a second round of interrogation. Cough, splutter, choke. Ok, Ok, I'll talk. I'll give you all the state secrets you want ... just let me out.
We're taken to the adjoining shed, another open-sided breeze-block-asbestos roofed affair. A few thin mattresses adorn the floor. Forget the usual chimes and piped new-age music ... a 14" TV blasts out some American war movie. Mor Ta kindly tilts the set so I can see it more clearly.
Then he goes to work ...
… with his nail-clippers.
Seriously! He hoists my toes up and starts clipping my toe-nails, which were admittedly overdue for a trim. That out of the way, he starts roughly jabbing his thumbs into my lower calf. Aaaaargh! Oh God stop! Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeitttt! He calmly pronounces my kidneys to be in very good order.
And so it went for ... actually I don't know how long. You see, he doesn't work to a set time frame. He works on you till all your ailments are fixed. (Or, I suspect, you have a full set of new ailments inflicted by him.) He jabs and pokes and prods and rubs, flopping me around like a rag doll. A little bit of oil on the knees then ,,, Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaargghohmygodstopthatyou'regonnakillme!!!
He declares my knees to be not very good.
No shit Sherlock, what was your first clue?
Then he declares my heart and liver to be healthy, but too much stress in the intestine. Less coffee and relax more I'm told. Am I stressed? Well I was doing perfectly fine until I arrived here, thank you.
Around two hours later, the carnage and humiliation suddenly ceases. 'Steam.'
I hobble into solitary confinement in the steam room again. Everywhere hurts. I emerge for some fresh air, checking that the coast is clear lest I get summoned for another session with the master torturer. Luckily he's nowhere to be seen and I savour this time the taste of sandals in the tea.
Omo, a pin-cushion-sized pug-like thing which may be a dog, has a little yap at me. Shhh! Shhh! He's going to ruin my escape plan. I see the assistant coming so duck for cover into the steam room again. Cough, choke, splutter, wheeze.
When I emerge I come face to face with Doctor Pain. But this time he's beaming. 'Yaa dong?' he says conspiratorially. He motions with a cupped hand for me to follow him down the back of the shed. There he reveals a glass jar full of congealed red liquid. He lifts the lid and the pungent musky odour nearly exfoliates my skin. He ladles out a little portion. More? he asks rhetorically before tipping the rest of the ladle out. He adds some honey.
"Good for calm nerve and .... PING!" he says excitedly, graphically pointing to his groin with a sudden erect finger. "Haha, yes, ..." He holds a finger to his mouth -- the secret of his mystery potion must not be leaked to the womenfolk lurking just out of earshot.
I sip it. Whisky, albeit it not fine 12 year old single malt Scotch, has obviously played a large part in its creation. But it's red and earthy. I feel my heart either skip a beat or beat twice, the details are not clear. A feeling of extreme well-being washes over me.
We pay, 500 baht ($18) each for the approximately 2-hour session, hop into the car and promptly get lost trying to retrace our steps. Damn, that yaa dong is strong stuff.
I can undoubtedly say it was the best massage I've ever had. It was the real thing, and one of the most authentic experiences I've ever had. But not the most enjoyable. But if I have a serious ache or pain I know where to go. For more.