Massage diary: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

One of the hundreds of massage shops in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

China: Kunming

As my jumping-off point for a four-country Southeast Asia tour, I thought I’d begin with a few words about the massage scene in one of China’s more attractive cities, Kunming, in southwestern Yunnan Province, conveniently located a few hundred kilometers from the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. There is a key point of contrast between massage in China and the rest of Southeast Asia, however. Although it’s big business in both regions, in the former it is largely targeted to domestics, in the latter to foreigners. In your typical Southeast Asian hotspot, massage shops proliferate wherever tourists are to be found, jostling for attention with similarly catchy English-language signs and menus, among all the bars, cafes and restaurants, while in your typical Chinese city, massage shops are scattered uniformly in most neighborhoods, touristy and not, and their shop signs are in Chinese (though the Western word “Spa” is standard code for the full panoply of massage services).

As a longtime China resident, I can speak with some authority on the Mainland massage experience (see for starters “The curious benefits of neurosis” and “Massaging the masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok“). I can attest to some interesting aspects of the profession here. Firstly, there is no clear division between sexual and nonsexual massage services; you cannot tell from the outside of a shop much about the activities inside. But it’s not as if anything goes. In both policy and practice, the vast majority of China’s massage venues are no-nonsense, non-sexual therapeutic services. They function as a needed neighborhood facility. As many women patronize them as men. The phenomenon of the Chinese female massage addict is not uncommon — attested to by those I regularly see at the same shops I frequent as well as those who have confided the predilection to me.

Overt prostitution (i.e. intercourse) is rare at massage venues; it tends rather to gravitate to the KTV bars, “rest & relaxation” businessmen hotels, and house-call and escort services. Prostitution massage parlors can be found in the seedier areas of certain cities, typically in the south (Shenzhen, Dongguan, etc.), but they are far from the norm. The fashionable falsehood pedaled by anti-prostitution activists that Asian massage workers are invariably enslaved and brutalized bears little relation to life on the ground, if my encounters with hundreds of masseuses in almost two decades of living in China is anything to go by. If all masseuses are enslaved, why has not one ever mentioned being so? What explains the high turnover rate at many establishments, not to mention these women’s detailed conversations with me over lunch or dinner about what’s going on in their lives, what they were last doing and what they plan to do next? If they’re all duped, coerced or kidnapped into the sex trade, why do they frequently slip in and out of various professions of their own accord (beauty salon work, nursing, apparel and insurance businesses, etc.)? Why do yet others seem content with their present massage job and unwilling to change employer?

In fact, if we look at the lower echelons of the massage business, probably the largest category are the blind, both male and female, from rural areas, who would not otherwise find any means of employment and are grateful the opportunity to work. Though they are not always adequately trained or suitable for the work, their job is confined to strictly therapeutic massage. These “Blind massage” shops are scattered throughout every city; by all means check one out if you visit the country.

This is not to say massages are never sexualized. But there is a full gamut of possibilities along what I term the “chaste/erotic” continuum (described in “Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya“), from intensely physical nonsexual bodywork to light erotic teasing to the handjob. Anything can and does happen inside doors, in the secret negotiations and personal vibes between massage worker and customer. It is this very drama and suspense that provides the Asian massage venue with its fascination. The astute masseuse knows that each customer has different needs and expectations. The masseuse likewise has her repertoire of techniques, and her limits. It’s a question of a good fit between technician and client. As long as she can satisfy enough customers with her skilled handiwork, she can do good business.

The artist Luo Yi in her Kunming studio.

Shanghai tends to have the best of everything, both in range and quality of services. At midrange shops a sixty-minute oil massage runs between 200-300 yuan (USD $28-$43); the more New Agey the decor, the higher the price. One chain, Yu Massage, specializes in the delightful “Double Rejoicing” (four hands) massage, performed by two masseuses who synchronize their stroking (420 yuan). The venue is popular among Caucasian couples. Yet single males might be massaged a bit more erotically, as I was when one masseuse reached between my legs and stroked my perineum — the huiyin of traditional Chinese acupressure. It’s not that she was necessarily crossing the line of respectability or legitimacy. Such lines are notional constructs, more fluid and permeable in cultures outside the Puritanical Anglo-American West. I say “might”; that was the only masseuse at this chain to caress me so, which would otherwise wish to maintain its reputation for politeness among its largely Anglo-American clientele. The chain is also located in the upscale French Concession area and is one of the few to break new ground and cater to foreigners.

A painting by Luo Yi.

Elsewhere, the massage industry can vary considerably from city to city due to periodic police crackdowns and clean-up campaigns, with legitimate establishments unfairly caught up in the sweeps and thrown out of business. This appeared to be the case in Kunming on my stay there on this trip in late 2016. Two days of scouring the city turned up nothing except a single shop specializing in muscle ailments. I would certainly have found more shops had I more time, but given the plethora of quality massage venues in Beijing, where I live, I had no pressing need, and chose to save my money for Southeast Asia. I have other interests as well, coffeehouses and cafes, reading and writing, and my artist friend, Luo Yi, to visit. A feminist in the most meaningful sense of the term, not in denunciations of men but in the uncompromising independence and freedom which guides her life as a female painter, which among other things has involved spontaneous nude performances with fellow artists at a Shanghai teahouse. Luo Yi herein epitomizes to my mind another important aspect of the social erotic: the aesthetic.

Laos: Luang Prabang and Vientiane

North Americans (namely US citizens, less so Canadians and Mexicans) are the most likely to reject the idea out of hand that it could be a human right to be naked outside one’s residential confines. On the contrary, such Americans commonly affirm their right to be free from the sight of naked bodies, by definition ugly unless young and of fine physique. The naked body in this parochial view is either highly sexualized and frightening or decrepit and offensive; there is no middle ground. The social power of these negative attitudes is such that even breastfeeding mothers are reluctant to expose their nipple in relatively enlightened New York City, where not just the breasts but public nudity is actually legal — though only performance artists dare go naked. It is indeed telling as much as it is incomprehensible that no other developed country in the world is as intolerant of public breastfeeding as the United States.

On the bus from Kunming through the Laos countryside to my first destination, Luang Prabang, we were passing through one of innumerable mountain villages when I saw a woman standing by the roadside in a makeshift shower with nothing on but her sinh (the Lao sarong), as she poured water over her magnificent naked breasts and casually looked up at us in the bus (I wasn’t able to snap a picture in time). Laos is a traditional society and hardly expected to be sexually progressive. Yet in this one respect they are freer than the rest of us in the developed world.

A mountain village in Laos, much like the one where I saw a woman bathing herself by the road.

Public nudity is allowed and socially accepted in some developed countries, where it has an apparently ulterior, progressive purpose, that of short-circuiting the cultural sexualization of the body which other societies rely on to confine, control and repress sexuality. Northern Europeans thus uphold the freedom to be naked in public, the Germans in particular, but also the Scandinavians and Finns, who entertain family and friends of both sexes naked in the sauna, including children and adolescents. Many families go naked in the house. Nudity is taken for granted as a completely natural mode of social interaction. When I lived in Germany in the 1970s, I was invited to go skinny-dipping with my male and female high school classmates, a routine pastime. TV series directed at teenagers contained full-frontal nudity. Unbelievable as it may seem, women went braless in gaping shirts that fully exposed the breasts along the sides (and which Tacitus notably described as a dress feature of Germanic women 2,000 years ago). This was not to seduce males but to allow the breasts to be unbound and unencumbered. It was simultaneously an act of sexual equality, giving girls the same right to show off their chest as boys (on proudly displaying the breasts: “The breast etiquette project“).

Some of these practices have been ground away under the corrosive influence of puritanical Hollywood and the broader media-disseminated US culture (already the cheesy TV series Dallas was enthralling the Germans when I was there), along with the infantilization of the adult female body by shaving the erotic body hair off the legs, underarms and pubes. Thankfully, the respect among the Germans for social nudity is still largely entrenched. Not just in public beaches but many parks in cities, including for instance the famous English Garden in central Munich, nudity is enthusiastically partaken of the masses. If foreign visitors are offended by this, it’s they, the gawking clothed, who are offensive.

There is no argument against public nudity. There is only the futile question as to why it’s not universal. However, while Germany is perhaps the most enlightened country in this respect, it’s not necessarily enlightened sexually. It can’t beat Thailand on massage, despite the Germans beings most curious and industrious students of all things exotic, including Tantric sex massage. Indeed, I would point out the paradox that the taboo against any show of sexuality is never stronger than in the domain of public nudity. Until we evolve to a more enlightened society, the two are simply too volatile to co-occur anywhere. This is emphatically the case where nudity is allowed in the US — the handful of naked beaches (carefully cordoned off from the clothed sections) and private nudist resorts scattered about the country in those states where it’s permitted: in no other space is sexual expression in any guise more threatening.

I have long believed that many more people would go naked than is normally supposed — for the sake of the simple freedom of it, or the sheer pleasure of showing off their body — if only they had the chance. Nudity is an expression of honesty, and that’s why it should be vigorously defended, supported and advocated. There is a wonderful openness of character to people who invite you to be naked with them. We all expect nakedness of the face. Who feels comfortable with someone you’re meeting for the first time who refuses to take off their sunglasses? Similarly, we want to see the “face” of the body. The most diehard American nudophobics would probably not be scandalized at the sudden appearance of a hot and sexy naked body (as long as the kids aren’t around). The challenge is to extend and democratize this acceptance to everyone, including the unshapely and bodies ravaged by age. Aren’t old people’s bodies reassuring in their own way? They’re telling you, “You’ll arrive at this point in due time, and when that comes you’ll be happy to know you will still be going strong like us!”

Laos, like most countries, has its contradictions. The relaxed approach to female nudity in the hinterland stands in stark contrast to sexual mores in the tourist areas, particularly the massage business. It seems in no other country is there such a contradictory attitude toward the practice; or to be more precise, the government’s contradictory attitude. Massage — along with guest houses, restaurants, and nature tourism — is a cash cow in the rapidly expanding tourism industry and must be allowed to develop, yet at the same time rigidly controlled. Burma, which I visited in 2014 (“Coffee and massage in Burma“) makes for a useful comparison here. In that country the massage arts had a long tradition until virtually stamped out under the military regime. It’s only now slowly making a comeback, again to satisfy the proclivities of Western tourists. Perhaps things have changed over the past three years; there wasn’t much when I was there. In Laos by contrast, there’s a lot of massage in the country’s prime tourist haunt of Luang Prabang. It’s just not very good. The trappings are there, not the genuine article.

Luang Prabang is a lovely little city, with tourist guesthouses, restaurants and massage shops spread out along the Mekong for a mile. On the main boulevard parallel to the river a few blocks up, Sakkaline Road, Buddhist temples with stacked roofs commingle with historic homes built by the French. The colonial tradition is still evident in the high quality of the coffee, wine and bread, and not a few French restaurant proprietors. If you’re a writer or a romantic, you’ll find it an idyllic Asian haunt to hide away in, even without the prospect of a partner — or a decent massage. I spent four days there and could easily have spent more, even as I grew increasingly flustered in my massage research.

I started off with a few shops on Khem Khong Road along the river. They all had open fronts. The masseuses sitting in the entrance at the first place I stepped into acknowledged me without evincing any hospitality. I was led upstairs to a small shabby room on the second floor by a young woman in her twenties with hair dyed blond. She gave me an indifferent and wholly chaste massage with one hand while she played with her cellphone with the other; at one point she interrupted the massage to leave the room and take a call, returning a full five minutes later. At the next venue I took a chance on, the young lady massaging me was so inept that I was compelled to do something I rarely do, quit halfway through. I paid part of the fee and left immediately before any further dispute arose (in China they’d demand I pay for the full hour, but I can handle them with my ability in the language).

At the far end of the town and around the bend where the Nam Khan River flows into the Mekong, the quality of the housing suddenly improves and the massage shops were larger and more upscale, some with a coveted TripAdvisor placard. Many occupied the traditional A-frame teakwood housing you can also see in Thailand. I chose one. A variety of massage essences were offered, and the shower was elegant and immaculate, with fluffy towels. A competent and thoroughly unmemorable massage followed in the steep-raftered room by an attractive young lady adorned in a sinh. I suppose if I had not had such high standards and it was my first time, the experience would have been thrilling and stamped indelibly in my memory of the country. But when you’ve had hundreds of massages in a variety of countries under your belt (I’m approaching two thousand), you become picky. Hers was a one-size-fits-all service, exactly the same massage she must have given to all of her customers. In the massage arts, however, the usual notion of quality control — maintaining identical standards in a product line — doesn’t and shouldn’t apply. She lacked, as all but the best masseuses do, the ability to read the customer and grasp what he wants. We are not the product; her performance is.

I tried several more shops over the next few days. The massages were all noted for their sameness, down to they way they always start working upward from the calves (what state-run massage training school was teaching them that?). I’ve long found that the older and less attractive the masseuse the better, and finally at one teak establishment a middle-aged woman gave me something approaching a satisfying treatment. She got her fingers firmly into the ridges of my groin and me solidly hard, while refraining from any direct genital contact — delicious enough for me to request another half hour. With her nonexistent English, a comical scene ensued. I tried everything — pointing to the clock, writing down the times — but failed to convey my request. If an Asian masseuse knows any English at all, it’s the words “sixty” and “ninety,” “half hour” and “hour and a half.” The Lao are not yet all experienced enough in the business to anticipate and expect customers’ common desire to extend their massage. We had to interrupt the session while the woman went off in search of the boss, who was momentarily out. Fifteen minutes later she arrived and successfully got my message across to the masseuse.

The first few hours south out of Luang Prabang toward the capital consists of winding mountain roads. I had my camera at the ready this time to catch a bathing babe, but none presented herself. No matter, the scenery was spectacular enough. Hours later, most of the foreign passengers got off at the popular backpacker town of Vang Vieng, with its hiking and kayaking. Your massage researcher was the only foreigner left on the bus for the remaining stretch. We pulled into Vientiane after dark. I had a tuktuk driver to take me to the city center, and he dropped me off at a hotel with a lively front restaurant, the Mixok Guesthouse. A few kilometers back, however, we had passed by a very curious sight, again before I had time to take it all in or snap a picture: a shop with the word “Massage” and another word before it beginning with the letter “E.” I could have sworn it said “Erotic.” At that very moment, a shapely woman emerged out of the shop wearing a sheer net dress, her breasts and panties (or lack of them — it all happened in a flash) starkly illumined by the streetlight. If this quasi-communist state forbade the entire massage industry from crossing the line into sexy no-no land on pain of some dreadful punishment, which appeared to be the case, this brief vision, if it was indeed real, was startling.

As with many authoritarian states, much of Vientiane’s city center is swallowed up by broad boulevards, monuments, and billboards adorned with the country’s leader. My guesthouse was located in the compact international nightlife area, a group of crisscrossing streets several blocks in scope. There were plenty of massage shops around, but I did not partake. I was tired of wasting money on disappointing massage. In retrospect, I should have stayed a few more nights to let the town soak in and things to pop out of the woodwork, a few locals to meet and perhaps a woman to get lucky with. Like China of the 1980s, the Laos Government, I’ve heard, forbids women from consorting with foreign men. Still, I saw several chatting up foreign guys in the guesthouse restaurant. In any case, I was too impatient to cross the Mekong to the other side, where the action was.

Thailand: Nong Khai and Udon Thani

A short bus ride across the bridge, an hour’s slog through a crowded customs, and I was in Nong Khai, my second visit to Thailand in three years and my first to Isan, the country’s least-developed region. What made me intensely curious about the northeast was that almost all of my masseuses on my previous stay in Bangkok had told me they hailed from Isan. Isaners were commonly described as scrawny, dark-complexioned and impoverished. Their migration into the sex trade is not in dispute, but I had envisioned swaths of arid farmland and the population living in huts and dressed in rags. I wanted to witness the place for myself. Rural Asians — in China as well — are routinely stereotyped in their own countries as dark-skinned and the well-bred as fair-skinned. Laos has long been an insular culture and due to national inbreeding the people often resemble one another. In fact northeast Thais are ethnically Lao and you can see a resemblance in some. But you can also see in the northeast the same wide range of hues and facial features as in the rest of Thailand. And when it comes to the bodily pleasures, Thailand is a very different universe from Laos.

I had no idea where to stay in the small city and hadn’t reserved anything. A tuktuk dropped me off in the center several kilometers away. I had a map showing a concentration of guesthouses along the river but had no cellphone signal. A coffeehouse nearby got me back online, and the GPS map suggested I was reasonably close to the river. The staff pointed me in the right direction, yet I saw nothing but dusty streets in the distance. I stepped into a convenience store to ask for help again. An attractive and well-dressed customer at the checkout invited me into her car and conveyed me right to where she knew I was headed. I was grateful for the act of kindness and would very much have liked to get better acquainted, but as she spoke nary a word of English I didn’t know how to break the ice.

The foreigner enclave amounted to a single narrow street along the river stretching for a block, with a handful of guesthouses and open-air restaurants. I could see that Nong Khai would be too small for me. Still, things got off to a brisk start. The first guesthouse I stepped into had placed at the reception desk a large poster advertising 400 Bhat/hr ($12) massage room calls. I got settled in my room and there she was a few minutes later, in her forties, hefty with huge hips, possibly pretty when she was younger but no longer. On top of having very good technique, she quickly drove things into erotic territory (it’s remarkable how often the two co-occur). She had covered my midriff with a towel, but as she pushed my legs up higher and higher with one hand while massaging my ass with the other, my erect shaft was soon fully exposed. Now, a massage doesn’t have to collapse halfway through. I prefer it brought right to the edge and held there in a state of arrested sexual tension for sixty minutes, not to mention that fucking tends to mean a higher outlay of funds. Things collapsed into fucking anyway. She clearly enjoyed it and didn’t ask for a tip. The house call was so outrageously cheap I gave her one anyway.

I wandered out of the foreigner enclave and tried out several more massage shops. One place had a placard in the window for “oil massage” but it looked more like a beauty salon. An attractive woman in her thirties was working on a customer and told me to come back at six o’clock. I backtracked down the street to a tiny coffeehouse where I waited out the hour. When I returned, she was ready, the shop to herself. She led me to a back room with a row of tables. She wasn’t very good at massage but offered to fuck for an extra fee. She had a marvelous body and I gave her a massage instead.

Massage lady in Nong Khai.

An hour’s ride south brought me to the largest city in Isan, Udon Thani. The US military had a base there during the Vietnam War for staging operations in the secret war in Laos. I have no idea what the city was like back then, but the main drag with all the Western pubs and go-go bars remains quite lively today, while the composition of the expat community has shifted to retired Brits. It’s much larger than Nong Khai and the selection and quality of Western restaurants impressive. During my two days in the city, I visited quite a few massage shops. They ran the usual gamut from no-nonsense chaste to the erotic. And as in China, it didn’t matter what the shop looked like on the outside or where it was; shops of both types sat next to each other, on Prajak Sillapakom and Samphan Thamit streets as well, the heart of expat activity. Sometimes it all seemed to come down to whether a masseuse took a fancy to you. But rather exhausted by massage at this point, I preferred to spend my time with the lovable middle-aged waitresses at the Smiling Frog restaurant pub, who looked like they might have been sex workers during the war days, except they weren’t quite old enough for that. The pub served the best Margherita pizza I’ve had since Otto Pizzeria at the Venetian in Las Vegas in 2012.

Waitress at the Smiling Frog Bar & Restaurant, Udon Thani.
And their divine Margherita pizza.

Thailand: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai

Commercial massage is more relaxed and liberal in some countries than in others, and Thailand is where the art of massage has been permitted to flourish more than anywhere else. All cities in this country have an endless supply of massage services, but Pattaya and Chiang Mai stand out. Pattaya is notorious as Thailand’s most swinging “sin city” (open-air bars, go-go bars, soapy massage), to be compared not with Bangkok but something raunchier, like Angeles in the Philippines. Chiang Mai, by contrast, is not known as a sex mecca. On the contrary, it tends to draw tourists who come to the country for all the other reasons, the “culture” and laid-back atmosphere, the golden conical pagodas and orange-robed Buddhists strolling the streets, the food. Yet the city crawls with massage. So much so that there almost seems something funny going on, as if every time you think you’ve finally found a street free of any massage shops, yet another peeks out with a “Hi there!”

To newbies, these shops can go from family friendly to frightening within the space of a few meters. They generally have open fronts, where you see couples and even their children getting their feet massaged in reclinable chairs as you pass by. In the room behind or the floor above, floor mattresses are at the ready for Thai-style massage, performed by a girl who uses her body weight and her knees, elbows and feet to elasticize you. You are clothed so there is no pressing need for privacy here either, but curtains partition each space to assuage the skittish Anglo customer.

And then in private back rooms or cubicles there is oil massage, performed on a dedicated massage table with a face rest. You strip naked and lie prone (no fussy disposable shorts mandatory here as in other Asian countries). When the masseuse enters she’ll drape you with the towel provided, if you haven’t already done so. Once the massage begins the towel may come off (unless you insist on keeping it on). In the presence of the Thai masseuse, we’re dealing with a special form of intimate social nudity. Male and female customers alike can expect a massage over the entire body, normally but not necessarily excluding the genitals. Some masseuses keep things chaste; others are happy to deliver more to those who want it. For men, this may mean a laxer draping procedure, the inner thighs worked closer to the groin, exposing your scrotum or letting your erection pop out. From there on it’s a dance of re-draping or sloughing off the towel altogether; the towel functions less as a veil than an instrument of wordless dialogue, a gentle matador’s cape. Your erection may be folded into the treatment and brought to orgasm — or not. She may ask for a tip beforehand or afterwards, or not at all.

In the window of one Chiang Mai shop near my guesthouse, a sign in English warned foreign men: “We only offer proper massage here. Please do not ask for anything else.” I was led to a back room, and a masseuse began to work my legs and buttocks. Not quite sure why, but a few minutes later, another showed up and took over (my theory is she was a prized masseuse and on call until they found her a customer). In her thirties, Dang was an Asian version of Judy Garland, fair-complexioned with wide-set eyes, dressed in a tight black shirt and blue sarong. Guided by the supreme technique, that of thoroughness, she proceeded to deliver one of the most explosive massages I’ve ever had. The usual massage worker is given to fast stroking. I always have to tell them to slow down. Conserve your energy! Dang was a master of the slow massage. It took her only several hundred strokes to use up the hour. If that sounds like a lot, the usual masseuse expends several thousand strokes. She had dispensed with the towel early on, and I was naked when I turned over. She worked from my limbs toward my solar plexus, from the legs upward and the chest downward, deeply, strongly and purposefully, as if plowing the soil, before terminating the hour with a precise number of upward strokes along my erect member, stopping just short of ejaculation. She was that rare poet of the hands: the way she built up erotic tension in layers and suspended it there without relief. It made all my other massages in Chiang Mai pale by comparison.

A massage shop viewed from my guesthouse window in Chiang Mai.

Females too should have the experience, though of course few women go for commercial erotic massage, an unfortunate consequence of universal sexism. In Thailand (as opposed to say, the US, where stringent laws prohibit any form of sexual touching) it is indeed a problem of the imagination and openmindedness, but mostly on the part of customers. Since so few women ever request erotic massage, no masseuse (or masseur) dare venture there and risk causing a serious misunderstanding. I suggest that any female desirous of being massaged sexually could start with a breast massage — Thai masseuses have no problem with that and the practice is common in China as well — and if she intuited the vibes were right, request more. Some masseuses might balk; others not.

Chiang Rai, a three-hour drive north of Chiang Mai, is a miniature version of the latter, with a smattering of famous temples, a handful of impressive cafes and restaurants, and an expat-backpacker enclave a few streets in extent and as expected, chock full of massage parlors. Chiang Rai is also home to the extraordinary White Temple, built by the eccentric architect and artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who continues to add wild structures and futuristic ornaments to the temple complex. For reasons that aren’t clear, it’s extremely popular with Chinese tourists, though Chiang Mai is also deluged with Chinese tourists; they now seem to outnumber tourists from all other countries combined. A few years ago the temple got in the news after Chinese tourists’ messy toilet habits angered the temple and in response a separate Chinese-only WC was set up (bad press soon reversed this move). As if to make a point, the temple then built an elaborate and bizarrely ornate WC right in the center of the complex; it’s now one of the main attractions for the Chinese tourists. The temple and Kositpipat’s gallery of paintings are worth a trip to Chiang Rai alone. As for the massage scene, it’s a mere extension of Chiang Mai’s, which is to say there’s a lot, enough to keep you busy for a few days. Some strips closer to the main drag cater to single men or couples, those further back to men only. By this point, on this massage research tour, I was too exhausted and jaded to try a single one.

Masseuses at a Bangkok massage shop celebrating their TripAdvisor promotion.

Cambodia: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh

I was presently due for a change of scenery and after a brief stay in Bangkok to see a friend, I grabbed a bus to Cambodia and my first visit to Angkor Wat, the world-famous, sprawling ruined temple complex. It was certainly worth it and thoroughly fascinating, but with volumes written about it this is not the space to add any more verbiage. The nearby city for accommodation, Siem Reap, I had expected to be a dusty outpost in impoverished and devastated Cambodia. It turned out to be one of the liveliest small-scale cities I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia, a bustling, disorienting congeries of chic restaurants, nightclubs, bars, cafes and massage parlors in every direction. I gather some expats like the place enough to buy property and retire there.

The several massage joints I sampled there were quite similar to their Thai counterparts in services and price but rather underwhelming, with the exception of the room call service at my upscale guesthouse. The central patio housed a swimming pool surrounded by palm trees, crowded with tanned Western couples throughout the day and evening. The atmosphere was polite, and I did not expect anything less than the primmest of massages. My masseuse was middle-aged and ordinary looking. She had no problem massaging me fully naked, brought me off and discreetly departed without asking for a tip (I made sure she got one down at reception when I checked out).

A lovely cafe in Siem Reap.

Phnom Penh was a different scene, considerably larger and more populated, also with an established expat crowd and a lively nightlife scene along the Mekong riverfront. It has a gritty, old-world atmosphere, with bar names like Olala, Pussy Cat, and Dirty Old Sailor. There was a “Spa Bar” with liquor and massage on the menu, a novel combination, but it seemed rather predictable at this point. The timing was off. I was all massaged out from Thailand and wasn’t much in the mood. As well, I was still intoxicated by Dang’s powerful massage back in Chiang Mai and enveloped in its lingering glow. I tried out a shop next to my hotel with thin New Agey trappings but the massage was fussy. I’ll have to do the whole trip again one day in reverse, beginning with Vietnam and Cambodia, starting out massage-deprived and with a spirit of adventure.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the high school used as Security Prison 21 by the Khmer Rouge, made a strong impression on me. The horrible photos revealed the connection between sex and terror. With remarkable consistency, such regimes in their torture routines strip political prisoners naked and bind them to tables, or iron bed frames as in this prison, male and female victims alike reduced to bloodied blobs of flesh at the hands of their male torturers. When terror is applied to individuals, it becomes perversely intimate. It’s the sadomasochistic relationship with the playacting removed. It’s sex at its most humorless. If rape is sex enraged, torture is the tragic corollary of massage. That’s why massage is so frightening for many neophytes: to mount a table naked and surrender your genitals to potential attack.

136 Street in Phnom Penh.

Vietnam: Saigon

My first stop in Saigon was the War Remnants Museum, and more horrendous photos of mutilated bodies, this time at the hands of the US military. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the massive disparity in deaths between the two countries from the war: two to three million Vietnamese (some estimates run higher), more than half of whom were civilians, versus a mere sixty thousand US personnel. Fifty Vietnamese for every American. Most Americans have never fully processed or are even aware of the profound moral aspects of this problem, the ease with which we can march into distant countries with our big military toys to teach them a lesson, blithely oblivious of the consequences and scale of the slaughter and destruction.

This was my second trip to Vietnam in ten years; I had previously been to Hanoi, a crumbling but charming city, with a fledgling massage scene. I had heard Saigon was a crowded, chaotic urban mess. I found it to be nicely laid out and pedestrian friendly (at least by Asian standards). The nightlife street associated with US troops back in the war, Đồng Khởi, is now lined with five-star hotels and exclusive boutiques. On that street I sampled an “Oriental”-themed massage parlor next to an artisan coffeehouse. While I was waiting for a free room, a pair of male and female police walked in and politely went over the store’s account books at a table next to me. They paid me no attention. As expected, the massage was competent and chaste, and affordable for an upscale venue, more expensive than Thailand but cheaper than China.

A massage lady in Saigon.

I tried out three other places over the next two days. Bùi Viện Street is the main nightlife drag, packed with people-watching restaurants, fire eaters, and massage shops in the labyrinth of inner lanes. In one such shop, oddly only dry massage was on the menu — until the masseuse pulled out a bottle of baby oil in the last few minutes and offered more for an extra fee. Generally I turn down happy endings if the massage itself is lackluster. Apart from the Bùi Viện area and probably a few other red-light haunts I didn’t have time to discover, massage venues are relatively few and far between in Saigon, at least compared to Southeast Asian hot spots generally. I did find one on a street near my hotel a few kilometers away, and it turned out to be the best. A jeans-clad woman with shapely hips by the name of Thao led me up a narrow staircase to an upper room with a dedicated massage table, put on a Rachmaninoff concerto and delivered a satisfying oil massage. She spoke only a smattering of English but was into me and the massage was good enough that I allowed her to release my erection, at double the session’s price. Even that wasn’t enough. Her boss, an older woman with straight bangs, confronted her outside the door and they had a testy exchange in whispers; I was nonetheless spared further fees. We exchanged contact information. I still get emails from Thao asking me when I’ll be back in Saigon.

I need a city large enough that It can never be exhausted. Between Bangkok and Saigon, I would choose Saigon to retire in. The Thai are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality, but a wall stands between. They are very good at making tourists feel at home, but outside the foreigner enclaves all signs of the West disappear. I also gather from those with considerable experience in the country that Thailand is riven by class prejudices, and the well-bred are less enthusiastic about mixing with foreigners. My experience in Vietnam is also limited, but the place just feels more familiar. This is presumably due to extensive contact with the West going back generations (the French were there long before the Americans). Whatever the case, walking on the street, the locals look you in the eye more spontaneously than in other Asian countries.

Bùi Viện Street, Saigon.

On my last day in Saigon near the Bến Thành Market, I passed by a hot woman in her thirties in a tasteful gray dress. “Massage?” she said with a winning smile. That never happens in Thailand except when passing by a massage shop. It rarely happens in China, and they never say it with a smile but more of a taunt. Unfortunately, I had a plane to catch and not enough time, or I would have immediately gone with her.

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