Category: Massage

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 Southeast Asia and massage in China, however. Although it’s big business in both regions, in the former it is largely targeted to foreigners, in the latter to domestics. 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).


Massage and the Writer: Essays on Asian Massage

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00023]There is no more schizophrenic pastime than the application of oil to flesh. Whether as bodily relief and relaxation, a means of seduction, or a form of prostitution, massage has long both fascinated and repelled. But what if these contradictory aspects of the practice—the therapeutic and the erotic—were seen as inseparable and integral to it?

Spiced up by travels in the East in search of the ideal massage, bristling with trenchant, provocative essays, Massage and the Writer will appeal to littérateurs and aficionados of radical sexuality, while infuriating the “polite” massage business of New Age spas, aroma oils, and how-to coffee table books—all those with a stake in the strict separation of massage and sex.

Massage and the Writer’s salacious narrative, suffuse with dangerously honest erotic musings, is certain to garner Cook a cult following among libertine expats.”—City Weekend

“[A] fascinating portrait of a man who has ventured into the titillating establishments the world has to offer.”—Kirkus Reviews


Chapter 1     A Massage School
Chapter 2     The Old Chinese Bathhouse, Circa 2000
Chapter 3     Men Massaging Men: Three Countries
Chapter 4     Icon, Index, Symbol, Semen
Chapter 5     The Curious Benefits of Neurosis (from The Exact Unknown)
Chapter 6     The Taiwan Massage Scene
Chapter 7     Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya
Chapter 8     Massaging the Masseuse in Beijing and Bangkok
Chapter 9     Japanese Voyeur Massage
Chapter 10   In Search of Malaysian Massage
Chapter 11   Coffee and Massage in Burma
Chapter 12   Why All Sex Should Be Paid For

A Massage School (from Massage and the Writer, ch. 1)

One summer day I notice an ad for a massage therapy training school. A massage school. The idea enthralls me. What an antidote to the cerebral mortification of the University of Chicago! I can scarcely afford the $3,000 tuition for the yearlong course, much less the time I will need to carve out of my busy study schedule, but sign up I must, and I explode with excitement anticipating the course’s start in the fall. It completely eclipses my fading enthusiasm for academic work, and in the final days before the school’s orientation, I toss and turn with rut-swollen, limb-splayed dreams. Of course I am aware that we will be learning strictly nonsexual massage, but let’s also realize that there is no such thing as strictly nonsexual massage. Massage is always already erotic.

Coffee and massage in Burma


Walk in any direction in many Asian cities and you will run into a house of massage. My bloodhound’s nose could sniff out the sparse offerings on hand in dour Ulan Bator, Seoul, and New Delhi. India frowns on the practice but relies on its traditional Ayurvedic treatments (e.g. streaming warmed oil over the forehead) as a foreign-tourist draw, though it’s usually performed on you by a person of the same sex. The elderly man who gave me a body massage in Agra seemed more interested in the hard-on he had incited by inching his fingers under the netted briefs I was required to wear. In Seoul they had me don a hospital gown-like contraption with flaps opening up the respective body parts. Korean barbershops used to be available for all manner of massage and you’d think the city would have quite a selection today, but even the Itaewon nightlife area, now considerably cleaned up since my previous visit two decades ago, turned up only a single shop with a “No sex massage” sign in the entrance.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, they take you there. A hot woman in Hanoi came up on a motorcycle. “Marijuana? Massage?” she asked, inviting me to jump on. Traveling with a Chinese girlfriend at the time who was walking a few paces behind, I wasn’t at liberty but was dying of curiosity, even at the possibility of being ferried somewhere to be beaten up and robbed.

It is so ubiquitous in Asia that it practically stands for Asia. Finding a massage service there is normally as easy as finding a church in any city in my home country, the US. In Rangoon, however, I wasn’t having much luck.

When poets speak of death: 100 aphorisms and epigrams on massage

“When poets speak of death, they call it the place without breasts.”
Ramon Gomez de la Serna, 1917

The most eloquent means of seduction is the direct and forthright sexual proposal, though it rarely works in practice. The conventional romantic approach of dating or wooing is a better bet yet time-consuming, expensive and often insincere as well. Midpoint between these two approaches is massage, the ideal space for sexual negotiation, whereby one can get right down to business or pretend not to as the occasion demands.

Men massaging men: Three countries

John Singer Sergant, Massage in a Bath House, 1891 (with permission of Harvard Art Museums)
John Singer Sargent, Massage in a Bath House, 1891 (Harvard Art Museums)

Istanbul, Turkey. The attendant flushes me with soapy water on the marble octagon in the center of the hot area, whose domed chamber has holes cut out in the shape of moons and stars to let in sunlight. In other countries, there would be a bathing pool where the platform is. There is no actual bath in the Turkish bath. Despite knowing this, it is still a bit of a letdown when I confirm it with my own eyes, perhaps because it’s the famous Cagaloglu Hamami, built in 1741 near the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet. The Turkish bath devolved from the great Roman baths, which accommodated up to 3,000 bathers (the Diocletian baths’ swimming pool was the size of a football field), down through the paltrier affairs of the Byzantine era, until the Muslims banned communal immersion in water altogether as unsanitary and capped over the pools. Thereafter, the marble octagon kept on in the Turkish bathhouse as a vestigial relic.

In search of Malaysian massage


To the east of Jalan Sultan Ismail Road and the Bukit Bintang monorail station is generic modernity—office buildings, a grand Tous Les Jours bakery whose wifi doesn’t work, an Espressamente café at the swank Pavilion shopping mall whose does. A better indication of old Kuala Lumpur lies to the west of the monorail in a bustling rectangular-shaped neighborhood bounded along the sides by Jalan Bukit Bintang and Tengkat Tong Shin streets and Changkat Bukit Bintang and Jalan Tong Shin at the eastern and western ends. Drab and formless in the sweltering daytime, the area jumps colorfully to life in the evening with its cacophony of people and cuisines, and could be described as a microcosm of Malaysian society itself.