16.11.2010 - 25.11.2010 32 °C
Bangkok - Take 2
After my very quick hop through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, I returned to Bangkok with the goal of taking a thai massage course. Where better to take it than in Bangkok at the renowned Wat Po massage school?
But before getting on the topic of my massage school at Wat Po, a few more things about Bangkok.
While in Bangkok during my first stay I took two cooking classes. I learned to make both green and panang curries, papaya salads, kum yam goong soup, fried rice and a variety of deserts. The nice thing with Thai cooking is the balance of the flavours where aromas, though well blended, are not meant to be discreet. Most dishes are heavily perfumed in a good way. For example, the typical aromas you find in some dishes are the combination of chilies, kefir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal. Add to this fish sauce, palm sugar, coconut cream or milk as well as fresh basil leaves and the perfume seems to me to be pretty close to perfection. Then you can add vegetables, meat or fish and you are ready to go.
Of course, the ratio of these flavours - hot, sweet, sour, salted - varies depending on the dish, such that with the kun yam goong - spicy shrimp soup, the heat of the chilies typically dominates, but you still get the kefir lime leave flavours, the lemongrass, galangal etc… In this case, it is heat first, then sour then salted then sweet. In the green papaya salads, the chilies also dominate (even in the pied farang variety (spiced for a foreigner or textually spiced for the French)) but then you will likely have sweetness before sourness. And so on… After two weeks on Thai food, I got a little sick of it, but at this point, after my second two week stay, I'm just crazy about it and look forward to reproducing some of these recipes back home!
Some of the dishes I prepared (pictures taken with an iPhone...):
So one morning, I took the Skytrain to the Sathorn Chao Phraya ferry stop, then took the 30 minute or so scenic ferry ride up the Chao Phraya to Ratakanosin, the neighbourhood containing the Grand Palace, and several Wats (temples) including Wat Po where my massage course was to be taken. I inquired about the course and decided that I would start it one of the two next days, but would try to find a room at Khao San road so I wouldn't have to deal with a total transit time of 45-60 minutes every morning and evening.
Well… Khao San road is not for me! I'm so glad that upon my first arrival in Bangkok I went to Silom (the business district) instead. Khao San road is chaotic, noisy and even a little dirty. It is also overcrowded with backpackers. Now I may be a backpacker as well (though I think flashpacker applies to me more readily with a quarter of the weight of my travel gear being computer and photo gear…) but after a while, you get a little tired of the younger generation of backpackers bragging about where they've been, how long they have been traveling, how drunk they got and how cheaply they got everything. Also, and this may be particular to me, but you get a little tired of meeting new people incessantly, where the relationship goes through the "where are you from?" "Where have you been?" "Where are you going?" "How much did you pay for xyz?" "… I drank soooo much when I was in ABC…" There is nothing wrong with the typical backpacker, but it is also nice to have some more involved discussions on occasion. I was fortunate to meet some nice people with whom to have some interesting discussions in and around Silom. Anyhow, I visited two rooms that were a reasonable rate at Khao San road and they were pretty bad. It might have been bad luck or I may simply have been spoiled from spending too much time at Lub D on Decho road, which is really a wonderful hostel.
So I decided to stay in Silom and deal with the transit. Not knowing which day I would start, I was debating on starting the next day depending on what time I got up. (Very!…) Fortuitously, the next morning, I got up early enough to make it on time to class. There were 7 of us; a guy from the UK who'd been living in Asia for several years, a girl from Korea who was hoping to open a massage or wellness centre in Korea, a girl from France who worked seasonally in spas, another girl from France who has her own plans of what to do with the massage certification, a woman from Seattle who was already a massage therapist and a thai woman living in Japan. We were led to a room where we watched a brief movie about the history of Wat Po massage and the school. We then got a brief explanation of how the course would be conducted. We would start by getting a demonstration of the whole massage followed by practicing step 1 for the first day, then the next day, steps 1, 2 and 3, then the following day, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 and then a little under two days to practice the whole 80-90 or so postures in order and learn them by heart for the exam.
Now the whole concept of the course is hands on (pun intended). On day one, I became the model for the first section where they drew lines on my arms and legs with a marker (I must have looked funny on the ferry back to Silom). They basically demonstrate the sequence on a student while you are imitating them on another student. And so on swapping turns at giving and receiving massage. It is a pretty sweet deal when you think of it because you spend 3 hours a day giving a massage, but also about 3 hours a day receiving a massage. This can be a mixed blessing though, as when you are beginning you don't know how much pressure to apply. On day 2 some of us had bruises and by day 4, before starting a sequence we'd typically ask our partner to not press hard. You also learn that some parts of the body are more sensitive to pressure than others, for example, calves tend to be the one spot that is markedly sensitive on everybody and requires proper dosing of pressure.
It was also a little stressful because just before learning a sequence properly, a new section would be added. In my case, the last massage I gave before the exam the day of the exam, I left out 6 steps in section 5 and had to pop open the manual to figure it out. Fortunately, it all snapped into place during the exam. Apparently, to not forget, you have to practice the 2 hour sequence at least once daily. I'm afraid the next time I give the massage, I'll have to pop out the manual to make sure I haven't forgotten too much...
On the positive side, thai massage can be great for many things from relieving stress to improving flexibility. To my general surprise, at the end of the 3rd day of the course, I sat in a perfect (for me) full lotus pose and was able to do it on both sides. Even during my yoga teacher's training course, I could only do the lotus on one side and then with considerable discomfort in my left knee. No more. No pain, no tension, it just worked even though I hadn't been doing much yoga in recent days. The next morning, I couldn't do the full lotus, but by the end of the day I could again. Guess I need a thai massage every morning ;-)
We were a good group and would enjoy lunch together in local restaurants.
Siam Square and Chinatown
Bangkok has several very different neighbourhoods such that you can find a bit of everything in this city. That is why when people tell me they don't like Bangkok, I'm a little surprised.
One evening after class I accompanied one of my classmates to visit Siam Square and get food there. I really wasn't expecting to find a really nice modern and rich shopping centre (Siam Paragon) with a wonderful huge food court with great food as well as a gourmet grocery store with luxury products from all over the world including gruyere cheese (at 60$/kg though…), Frey chocolate (I didn't even realize they exported that stuff…). They also have an indoor BMW and Bentley dealership and a cinema including an IMAX. I really enjoyed seeing (and tasting) the selection of asian food products for sale. A foodie? Who me? :-) We had some good sashimi and I had a great time.
A couple of days later, we also visited Chinatown. As you'd expect of a Chinatown, fairly chaotic with all kinds of exotic products for sale in cramped back-alleys as well as shops selling both in bulk and detail. Also, some of the streets seemed to have themes, with a street with hordes of gold jewellery shops.
Loi Krathong Festival
That same evening was the Loi Krathong festival. It takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month or typically November in the western calendar. Loi means to float and a Krathong is a float made of a section of banana tree trunk that has been decorated with elaborately folded banana leaf, flowers and includes incense and candles. The idea being to light the incense and candle, make a wish and release the Krathong into the Chao Phraya or other rivers, lakes and ponds. This is quite a celebration for the Thais and there were many well lit boats on the Chao Phraya as well as fireworks. Loi Krathong also coincides with the Yi Peng festival where lots of khom loi or floating (flying in this case) lanterns are launched into the sky. A magical evening!