Wednesday, 17 April 2013

A Different Kind of Happy Finish

So, after being beaten up in groups, on aone-to-one basis and completely without outside intervention, our bodies werein need of some repair. And that is where Thai Massage comes in handy

Rather like Starbucks on the UK high street,massage parlours are everywhere in Thailand. Every third building will houseone (the other two buildings will be a laundry and a minimart, with food and bike services tacked on the side).  Thegoing rate for a one-hour thai massage is around 250TB (£6) which is less thanit probably costs you to say hello to a therapist in the UK.

There are some crucial differences betweenthe British and South East Asian versions however, and it’s worth knowing thesein advance, to save on awkward cultural clashes (if you’re a fan of ‘Carry On’style hilarity, feel free to skip to the next post).

First up, the parlour itself.  Put any white robe and dolphin music spa idylls to the back of your mind, this is most likely going to look like someone’s front room.  In fact there’s a good chance that it is literally that, and you might have to wake someone up from where they are napping to serve you (Thais don’t have too much embarrassment when it comes to sleeping in the workplace).  

The massage“bed’ is likely to be a foam mat with a sarong type scarf laid over it, and theroom will probably house quite a few mats and other customers.

Before you baulk at the idea of stripping inpublic, let’s talk about the next point. Thai Massage is clothed. The masseusemight leave you alone for a minute to settle in, but she won’t be chuffed toreturn and find you sporting a hand towel and a smile. 

In terms of what to wear, something loose ispretty much the only sartorial consideration. Occasionally a massage place mightprovide some Thai fisherman’s trousers (one size fits all wraparound affairs)but in general baggy shorts, track pants and t shirts/vests are all good, tightbooty riders, lycra running gear (too slippery) or anything that gapes open andexposes your crotch easily are all bad.

The looseness isn’t just a comfort issue.What many people don’t know is that Thai Massage is quite an active procedure.The concepts behind it combine manual stimulation with energy channels and thelike, but the reality is that you will be doing second-hand yoga, with thetherapist twisting you into various positions and using her hands, feet, legs,knees and elbows to hold you there. Those various limbs will also be used toprod and knead regions you might not know you had, and at times during themassage would probably wish you could forget. 

Cracking noises are not uncommon,sighs and whimpering are also acceptable, and in the right circumstances caneven be taken as a compliment by the masseuse.  

There might be limited English depending on the massage parlour, but thewords “strong” and “pain” are pretty universally understood, and can be usedboth at the beginning of the massage to signal how deep and hard you want totake it or in emergency “I’m about to start crying” situations.

Some masseuses will tailor their trade to amore Farang-friendly gentle level as a matter of course, so if you fancysomething extreme it’s worth mentioning at the beginning of the session, andmaking diving style “A-Ok” gestures when they go to walk on your back.  And for the masochists/martial artspractitioners amongst us, bypass the pretty slender therapists and headstraight for the older, chunkier models, chances are they’ve had a lifetime ofsadism and will know what they’re doing.

So, in the Chalong area, Intana was my parlourof choice, and I was lucky enough to find this woman, who looks harmless buttook finding the far reaches of my pain threshold as some kind of personalchallenge.  It wasn’t pretty but my bodycertainly thanked her for it (although not necessarily the next day, a bit of falloutbruising is, I like to think, a good sign).

There are no proverbial “happy finishes” inthis establishment (be aware that most of these kinds of massage parlours don’toffer “extras” and some even print that on the menu) but there was the standardpost-massage cup of herbal tea, and a range of exotically labelled and colouredbiscuits.

They even gave me a jar of Tiger Balm as a going away present.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A Very Geeky Private At Dragon

So, as mentioned back here, midway through my Tiger experience, I was feeling a bit frustrated. The hefty conditioning:technique ratio was killing my attendance, and leaving my questions about form unanswered.  Overall progress was slow, to say the least.

By the last week, Andy had been promoted to the Advanced class, and in all fairness reported back that the technical content was more focussed in those sessions.

The intensity had once again stepped up a level (20 minute clinch rounds for example) but there was a much smaller attendance, and a definite shift from “just do something fast” to “make sure it’s right as well”.  So it may well be that Tiger training really kicks in at the higher levels (there is also a Fighter class) and they just go through the motions with the beginners.

I didn’t actually do any Muay Thai at Tiger in those last three days, so we’ll never know if I would have got bumped up too. When I asked Andy how he thinks I would have got on in the Advanced sessions, the consensus is that technically I would have been fine, but sparring might have been a bit hairy (I’m well out of the sparring side of things, and still prone to eye-shutting, back-turning and the like).  Anyway, given a few more weeks, maybe it might have sorted itself out. But as I tend to lack confidence in my ability anyway, and being simultaneously clobbered by a pro fighter might not have helped that, I decided to take a different tack.

Fern House is just around the corner from Dragon Muay Thai and as a consequence we normally walked past their gym a couple of times a day.

It’s much smaller, but seemed way more personal. With a bit of spare cash left over, I decided to splurge 500TBH (about £11) on a private.

As it happened, it turned out to be 600TBH (about £13) but it was probably the best money I could have spent at the time. The woman in the office issued me a coupon and told me to come back on Sunday at 4pm for a session with Rolex.

Rolex has been training Muay Thai since about the age of six, and has, by his own admission, had something like 500 fights.  Given my demeanour at this point was about as threatening as a week-old kitten, his experience was about to be put to the test.

What we worked on will sound deathly dull to most of you. There were no spinning, jumping, stunt-style moves here. It was basic, basic stuff – walking backwards and forwards, jabs, cross, single elbows, kicks etc – but analysed and corrected every single time. And weirdly, it was exactly what I wanted.

Anyone listening (thankfully being Sunday, few people were around) would have heard something along the lines of:


“Stop leaning back”


“Don’t jump into it”


“Move your hips”

…and the like, for 60 minutes (interspersed with some water and massages, which, having the inhibited nature of the British, I found mildly awkward).

I discovered a multitude of tiny flaws which I have doubtless had for years, and which I now know to focus on.  Stuff like stepping and then punching, rather than bundling it all up together. 

By the end of it (right after 100 situps) I felt like I had worked, but in a smarter way.

I had things to go away and practice, I knew what I was doing wrong, and at least theoretically how to put them right. Plus I’d really enjoyed myself.

We were leaving for Cambodia a couple of days later, so I couldn’t stack up any extra sessions at Dragon, but we’re hopefully returning to Thailand in March, and I’m definitely factoring more privates into the training equation.

The Long Road To Nibbana

The other (well, as well as all the other ones and the general “chuck it all in and go on holiday for six months” thing) foolish thing we did in Chalong was walk to Big Buddha.

Before you write us off as cultural heathen, I’ll explain. It wasn’t Buddha that was the problem, it was the fact we decided to trek 10km, on foot, in shorts and Vans trainers, to get there.

Quite often, Andy and I will have an idea about a place, that flies in the face of conventional sense or transportation setup. In California, it was the idea that we could ride heavy steel beach cruisers up and down canyons to get to class.  On this occasion it was ignoring the fact that everyone else was going by scooter or taxi, and embracing an “invigorating amble” in the countryside.

And so Thursday morning we set off, equipped with long skirt/scarf affair (me, temples frown on lady legs and shoulders), mosquito repellent (to stop us being bitten) antihistamine (in case we were and Andy started going into anaphylactic shock, he’s a bit body sensitive), suntan lotion (it was pretty much high noon), six large bottles of water (obvious) and some flipflops (me again, I just don’t like having hot feet).  It was like an Xtreme Churchgoing Expedition.

Before we could reach spiritual nirvana, we had to walk along the motorway. The first 4km of the journey were spent on the hard shoulder (no pavements in these parts), dodging lorries and drain holes, and accompanied by continuous horn honking and calls of “Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk?” (pretty much any time Thai people see Farangs walking they assume they have only ventured out in order to find transport).  Even this waterbuffalo looked at us like we were mad.

Around 2km in, I decided that what would really help a 10km trek in crazy arse heat would be a face like thunder and a mild case of “woe is me-itis”.  In case you have any doubt (unlikely) it didn’t make things easier.

After 4km, we got to turn off the motorway, onto a smaller road up the mountain. Handily, this point is stocked with stalls selling tourist tat, offerings for the statues and coconut water.

Remarkably, given my love of tat, I chose the most refreshing option.

Just past this delightful sausage display (doesn’t everyone hang their meat by the main road?) we found the bottom of the hill.

What followed next involved another 4km, some “look at the amazing view” comments from Andy, quite a lot of groaning and puffing on my part, and some elephants (sadly chained up as a tourist attraction, so we didn’t stop to take photos with them).

Inspired perhaps by the idea of “Sandwishes”, about three quarters of the way up we stopped for a coffee and to slip off our shoes.

Post coffee, I couldn’t get mine on again, so I switched to flip flops. Logically this seems crazy, and we all know I love a whinge, but they served me well for the rest of the day.

After around 2 hours, we finally made it to the top. I swathed myself in additional layers until all flesh was covered (it wasn’t a sartorial high point, I’ll admit) and we went sightseeing.

The Big Buddha is indeed very, very large, 45 metres/147 feet tall. Sadly at the moment, he’s wearing a bit of scaffolding (they’re developing the site into a large-scale tourist attraction and spiritual hub) but it was still impressive.
There was also a little golden Buddha (12 metres/40 feet) and plenty of monk effigies where you could think nice thoughts and zen out a bit.  

Perhaps it’s because of the large numbers of tourists marauding around (some of whom were upsettingly sitting on the laps of statues) or the fact that I’m not a practising Buddhist, but I didn’t get the hit of karmic calm I was expecting. It was however a good time to reflect on our travels and family and friends back home, and buy a bit of marble in their honor to be included in the renovations.

Then it was time to laugh at some monkeys (one of whom was drinking pop that had been left out for the gods) and sample some coconut ice cream.

We’d obviously run out of steam or camera batteries (we did take a lot of photos of those monkeys) by the return journey, as we’re completely bereft of imagery. Suffice to say, Andy was valiantly attempting to ignore two big blisters and we made it about 6km of the 10km downward trek before finding a taxi for the last bit.

So that was our “rest day”. Time to head back to training again…

All You Can Eat

But first there were some tourist matters to attend to. And, true to our normal glutinous form, we started with the food based ones.

A quick aside – the area around the gym houses numerous restaurants, most of which serve variants of the same menu.

If you go to one of the cafes attached to a swish hotel, Signature for example, the kitchen will probably look more ‘westernised’ (read “cleaner”) and it’ll set you back about £6 for two main courses with rice and a couple of soft drinks.

At the other end of the scale lie Tony and JaJas.

Do a quick “where to eat near Tiger/Dragon” google search, and you’ll find endless posts about these two venues.

To be fair, they’re fairly indistinguishable, Tony’s is maybe a bit bigger, but both look like someone’s garage (probably best not to snoop in the kitchen here).  Tony will also arrange scooters, accommodation, visa runs and massage for you, whilst JaJas advertises trips to the gun range.

But the main draw is the price. For that same £6 you’ll probably get a starter, three mains with rice and some beer*. It’s no mystery why both places are packed to the brim with fight types every every evening.

*skip the wine. Unless it’s in one of the swish hotels, and costing about £25 a bottle, it’ll taste like communion vino.

Anyway, bar the offerings of the local minimart (and no-one can knock seaweed Pringles and almond Magnums) that’s pretty much it in terms of the street’s culinary range. And so the first night we ventured out, we checked out Chalong night market.

Night markets are pretty common fare in South East Asia (well, in the places I’ve been so far anyway) and house a peculiar melange of edible treats and counterfeit retail.

As the traffic in Chalong appeared nothing short of chaotic to our untrained eyes (general protocol is for everyone to keep driving at each other, with no discernible right of way for certain vehicle types or access points) we wimped out on the scooter option and took a taxi, which came in at about £16 for the round trip.

And since we were enjoying a rare period where neither of us were ravenously hungry, we opted to take on the clothing side of the market first.

Lady Gaga might have landed herself in governmental hot water when she tweeted "I wanna get lost in a lady market and buy fake Rolex," but she knew what she was talking about. 

From A to Z, or Armani to Zenith as the case may be, every manufacturer is out on display. Vans, Nike, Ray Ban, North Face, Yves San Laurent, Mac, Louis Vuitton, all piled uber-high and ready for the bartering (ignore the first quote entirely, a “oh, get you, that’s hilarious” chuckle to yourself will bring about an immediate 50% discount, after which you can start negotiations). The level of fakery is quite diverse, with some items bearing little to no resemblance to the brand at all (unless Chanel have branched out into glitter-laden, multi-colour lettered t-shirts recently).

The market is also stuffed to groaning point with Chang Beer and Redbull type vests (or “singlets” as they are referred to in these parts). Andy had quickly realised that his armpits needed to be liberated in such temperatures, and invested in a couple of local favourites, whilst I indulged my Southern nature and picked up a Jack Daniels one.

Roughly £6 in, we’d snagged ourselves a summer wardrobe and were ready to cross over to the eating side.

You know when you go to an All You Can Eat buffet, a certain degree of logic and planning comes into its own? It’s a similar case here. The night market is huge, and is packed back to back with meat, sweets, snacks, fruits…and fried insects. 

With stalls charging anything from 10TBH upwards (20p), it’s unlikely that you’ll run out of wonga, but entirely probable you’ll morph into a crazed, overstuffed and stimulated stupor before you’ve eaten everything you fancy.

Here’s how it panned out for us:

Dish 1: Fried Shrimp

Dish 2: Fish Cakes

Dish 3: Two Tone Donut

Dish 4: Chicken Pastry

Dish 5: Banana And Coconut Sweet Thing

After this point, it all becomes blurry. 

Rather like the waking up scene in 'The Hangover 2,' I believe it involved some spiral potato crisps, something Andy had but I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole and a mix and match bag of vegetable stuff. Maybe some dimsum. 

Anyway, by this point we were both too hyper and sticky to properly keep any kind of notes.

Sensing some kind of insulin-based meltdown was imminent (witness our inability to even focus the iphone) we ducked into our taxi and headed home. With a couple of armfuls of snacking swag for later of course. 

Who says we're not grown up about these things?