Help, my masseur is on fire – literally!
guide translates that Master Sanguan is 55 years old and learned yam kang from his grandparents, who, in turn, learned from their grandparents. But, he adds, “Young people aren’t interested in learning fire massage any more; they want to find jobs with more money,” – making Master Sanguan the last of his kind, which I will find out is a travesty.
As my masseur performs a short ritual, chanting prayers and offering a bowl of flowers skywards, I nervously eye up the cauldron. The coals inside are now glowing furious red. Alongside are two saucers of liquid, one containing the root of a local ginger tree, the other bright orange sesame oil. In a literal flash, Master Sanguan dips his foot in one bowl and then the other and – crack! hiss! – his sole crosses the coals, combusts into flames and presses down on to my left foot. I’m expecting some degree of pain but instead there’s a pleasing flare of heat followed by a warm gingerscented afterglow. I melt. Dip, flash, press, repeat, he works his way over my calves and thighs before flipping me over to iron out my back. His smooth, platelike feet feel more like large hands and his toes dig into my knots with the dexterity of Mozart’s fingers. To the sound of crackling fire and birdsong, I’m soon lulled to sleep.
The price of the treatment – 1,000 Thai baht (about £22) for a one-hour massage – is considered expensive in gratefully pay up the stupidly cheap 400 baht (£9) fee.
Upping the extreme spa ante even further is Tao Garden Health Spa and Resort (tao-garden.com), a huge compound of tai chi gardens, yoga pavilions, saltwater pools, meditation halls and medical clinics, which specialises in Taoist healing practices. Wellness practitioners visit from all over the world to train as teachers of qi gong (similar to tai chi) and learn chi nei tsang, an intense abdominal massage used to release emotional stress (and encourage bowel movements).
With trepidation, I try the treatment at the beautiful 137 Pillars House (137pillarschiangmai.com), where I’ve been staying, putting my trust in a Tao Garden-trained practitioner. From my colonialinspired room, I am swept through peaceful gardens and upstairs to a shadowy spa suite. The treatment focuses solely on the stomach and begins with gentle circular rubs, which steadily increase in intensity until it feels like my masseuse is digging for gold. It’s not painful, but it isn’t exactly pleasant either. Afterwards, though, I do feel lighter and that night sleep like a baby.
In the same neighbourhood and unconventional in its own way is the vocational training centre of the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. All of its therapists are inmates participating in the prison’s rehabilitation programme. Set in an old, Lanna-style house surrounded by banyan trees, it has made a name for itself as offering one of the best traditional Thai massages in town – but with a one-hour rubdown costing just 200 baht (£4.50), and appointments on a first come first served basis, it can be tricky to get a slot.
I arrive for opening time at 8am and am given one of the first appointments by a guard wearing khakis, red lipstick and slippers. Inside, smiling therapists in silk pyjamas wait alongside two rows of wooden beds. For the next hour I am pressed, pulled, pummeled, twisted and squeezed in precise fashion until I yield like a wilted flower. It’s as good as any massage I’ve experienced in a five-star hotel, and one I’ll definitely come back to try again.
By far the most enchanting spot I visited was the Dheva Spa at the Dhara Dhevi hotel (dharadhevi.com), a mini-Mandalay Palace of goldtrimmed spires, mythical animal sculptures and ornately carved teak pavilions, set within tropical gardens redolent with the scent of jasmine, frangipani and ylang-ylang. Trained by the hotel’s previous owners, Mandarin Oriental, the therapists are some of the best in the business.
Treatment suites are palatial and facilities include everything from a hammam to heated marble scrub tables, Vichy showers and a watsu pool. Treatments range from the sublime two-hour-long shironasya, involving a coma-inducing black sesame oil head massage, a coconut cream facial and a hyperpersonalised body massage, to the ridiculous energy field imaging, which is meant to read electromagnetic biofields (whatever they are) – I’m unconvinced by it.
I end my trip obscenely relaxed with petal-soft skin and the added bonus of a bunch of memorable experiences to reflect upon. While Thailand’s southern spas may get all the attention, for my money it is Chiang Mai that’s the real deal.
137 Pillars House has spa treatments and gourmet food