A visit to Thailand is not complete without getting a Thai massage. Traditional Thai massage is known worldwide for its therapeutic deep muscle work, acupressure and stretching. Lucky me–there is a Thai massage shop on the lower level of the nearby Tops Market. They offer foot or full-body massage. “What does an hour cost?” I ask.” Foot or body?” a smiling Thai woman replies. “Body,” I say. An hour of full-body massage is 200 baht. That’s about $6. I pay ten times that for an hour of massage in Houghton.
She leads me back to a line of mattresses, separated by thin cloth curtains. The massage is done with shoes off but clothes on, which makes sense since there is essentially no privacy, and the mattresses closest to the front of the shop are in full view of shoppers passing by.
A large woman kneels on the mattress at my feet and starts massaging them, working the acupressure points, sending shivers of pleasure throughout my body. Then she moves up to my legs. knees, hands, arms, back and shoulders. Her hands are incredibly strong, as are her elbows, which she also uses. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s a good hurt, with a noticeable easing of tension immediately following the pain. She also stretches various body parts: legs bent at the knee and pressed down to the mattress, arms yanked sideways and up over my head. I had heard that Thai massage sometimes includes the masseuse walking on her victim–I mean client. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen; that woman had to weigh 250 pounds.
The hour passes swiftly. I put my shoes back on, feeling light, stretched out and invigorated. I pay my 200 baht and give my masseuse 50 baht as a tip. That’s about $1.50, but she looks surprised and extremely grateful, bowing several times as she murmurs “kob kuhn kaa” (thank you).
It is nearing the end of my time in Thailand. Intiraporn, my host and director of the International Undergraduate Program at Kasetsart University, takes me and her office staff to a farewell dinner. We make our way through narrow, winding alleys to a tiny restaurant tucked into a courtyard. ”This is Thai home cooking,” they tell me.” This is what we cook and eat at home.”
They order in rapid-fire Thai. First up is mee grob, a delectable mound of sweet-and-sour crispy fried threads of noodles. Crunchy and yummy. Dish after dish after dish follow: braised beef ribs with cabbage, a tart and spicy seafood medley, fried chicken chunks with green beans, cellophane noodles, a whole fried river fish, fried chicken wings and, of course, heaping servings of rice. Wichai Siwakosit brought his 8-yeaar-old son along, and little Woramet Siwakosit polishes off most of the chicken wings. Fried chicken, apparently, is a children’s favorite around the world.
The food just keeps coming, and when I am too full to even think of taking another bite, it’s time for dessert. To be polite, I say I’ll share something.
Intiraporn orders a spectacular gelled confection cut into four little cubes. Made with layers of coconut milk and pandan leaf, served in a small glass bowl, the green and white marvel is almost too pretty to eat. But I manage. The coconut layers are creamy, white and sweet. The pandan leaf layers are a brilliant green with a fresh, delicate flavor that doesn’t compare to anything I’ve ever tasted.
The next day–my last in Bangkok–is Thanksgiving in the US. It’s just a normal work day in Thailand, of course, but I leave the office early because I’ve been invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of the cultural affairs attache of the US Embassy in Bangkok. The attache, Mike Honnold, and his Thai wife host this dinner every year for the Fulbright scholars, specialists and teaching assistants in Thailand. The largest group of guests are the English teaching assistants, who are placed in schools throughout Thailand for a year. They tend to be young adults, recent college graduates, and most of them are serving in towns and rural regions far from Bangkok. So the trip to Bangkok for Thanksgiving dinner is a major treat.
Getting to the Honnolds’ condominium, in downtown Bangkok a couple of blocks from the US Embassy, is another taxi adventure. My hosts have provided me with their address and a map, written in Thai, and that gets the taxi driver on the right street. But finding the actual condo building, called Peng Seng Mansion, is another story. “Peng Seng, Peng Seng, Peng Seng.” the driver mutters as he crawls along in the curb lane, causing other drivers to shake their fists and honk at us. Finally he stops so long in front of a Marriott that the security guard comes out to move us along. They discuss Peng Seng Mansion in Thai, but the Marriott guard doesn’t know where it is either. Finally I call a Thai woman from the Fulbright office who gave me her cell phone number when I visited her office last week, insurance against just such an occurrence as this. Thank goodness she answers, and I hand the phone to my bewildered driver. She gives him directions, and two blocks later, we pull into the driveway of Peng Seng Mansion. “The name is Chinese, not Thai,” she explains to me later. “That confuses Thai people.”
After turkey with all the trimmings, pecan pie and fascinating conversation with the English teaching assistants, who are working hard to prepare Thai children to function in a global world where English is the lingua franca of business, I venture back down to try a taxi ride back to the university. Luckily, the driver I get knows where Kasetsart is. He turns onto the campus through huge gilded gates and and points left and right to ask which way to go. This time I’ve done my homework. ”Khwah,” I say. It means “right.” A big grin spreads across the driver’s face. “Khwah,” says. ”Thai.” I tell him, “I’m trying,” which I don’t think he understands. But he certainly seems pleased with my drastically limited command of Thai. “Kob kuhn kaa” (thank you), I say as we stop in front of KU Home, the hotel on the university campus. His face lights up as he grins again.
And now it’s time to go home. My new friends in the International Undergraduate Program office hug me and bow and hug me again. Puy has tears in her eyes. “You come visit me at Michigan Tech,” I tell her. “Yes, yes, yes, I come,” she says. ”Meanwhile, practice your English,” I urge. “I practice,” she promises.
As promised, promptly at 4 a.m. a university van picks me up in front of KU Home. The airport is at least 45 minutes away, and I am supposed to check in no later than 5 a.m. for my 7 a.m. flight, since I have to go through immigration as well as security. The driver speaks no English, but he knows where we are going. Traffic is blessedly light at that time of the morning, and we are at the airport well before 5. I give him a 500 baht tip–about $15–which widens his eyes and produces a series of bows.
I whip through immigration and customs and find my gate. Thus begins a four-leg, 30-hour trip home, leaving a lot of new friends behind, but taking with me memories that will last a lifetime.