Help, my masseur is on fire – lit­er­ally!

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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-gar­, 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 (137pil­larschi­ang­, 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 (dharad­, 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

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