As you may have noticed, this is the first blog I’ve written in a while. It’s not really about Ashtanga or Angels because, well, I haven’t really been experiencing much of either lately. So I thought I’d fill you in on the time I spent in Chiang Mai instead.
When I first started the 5-week “150-Hour i5 Professional Thai Massage Course” at TMC School I had only just left the safe cosy bubble of Mysore behind, before spending 10 days in silence on an intense Vipassana meditation retreat, then travelling up to Delhi where I was struck down with a violent bout of food poisoning a few hours before having to fly to Bangkok then get straight on an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. So I was feeling a little discombobulated to say the least. It took me a good week to get used to doing totally new activities in a totally new city, let alone a new country.
Chiang Mai, and Thailand in general, seemed vastly different to India and much more Westernised – and therefore expensive – than I remember or than I was expecting. There are still local food stalls and 7 Elevens everywhere but now there are also “Tesco Lotus Express”s everywhere, as well as countless outlets of McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, even Boots, Marks & Spencer and The Body Shop. I was struck by the bright lights, brand new shopping malls, countless shops, bars and restaurants, and the construction of fancy new condominium buildings strewn across the city. The old part of Chiang Mai still has a much more laid back feel to it and exploring the small lanes and alleyways usually resulted in finding a few little gems (Tea Tree Cafe and Birds Nest Cafe to name just two), but I was amazed at the amount of traffic hurtling along the inner and outer roads of the moat that runs around the old city in a very neat and easily navigable square.
On the first day of school the “school buses” drove around collecting everyone from their respective hotels and guesthouses. When I say school bus I actually mean a songthaew aka a “red cab” which is basically a big tuk tuk that can carry up to about 10 people on benches in the back. Arriving at the school I was amazed to discover how super organised it all was. Every morning the teachers would be ready to greet us with “Sawadee Kaaaa!” and one of them would take our temperature. Then we signed ourselves in, put our valuables in our named lockers, helped ourselves to the free bananas and herbal tea (using our individually numbered mugs) and changed into our clean practice clothes, which of course had a fresh name tag stuck to them each day. There was free drinking water, a fridge to keep food in, crockery and cutlery available to use at lunchtime, and even tupperware boxes we could use to collect food from the market over the road to save on the endless plastic bags and elastic bands they wrap everything in.
Each week we changed classrooms, teachers and groups so we’d check the board and head off to our respective rooms. After the daily ritual of morning prayers, yogi exercises and feet cleaning we’d get stuck in to the massage. There was a strict schedule to follow and we’d always know what our objectives were for each day. The teaching usually consisted of the teacher demonstrating on a willing volunteer, then the students taking time to practice on each other. So we were able to practice on lots of different body types, we received lots of massage ourselves and we got to know our fellow students pretty intimately by the end of the course!
Most of the teachers were very friendly, supportive and absolutely hilarious! There was always lots of laughing and giggling as we exchanged snippets of Thai and English, picked up on their cute noises and expressions (“Ok mai?”, “Na-ha”, “Sexy back”, “Urrrrr”) and generally made each other laugh. Each classroom had an assortment of mattresses, blankets, cushions and pillows and at the end of each session we’d all help to change the covers, clean them and make them beautiful. “Beautiful pillows” quickly became a commonly used expression, which soon expanded to “beautiful hair”, “beautiful trousers”, “beautiful massage”, “beautiful bananas”, in fact just about anything could be deemed beautiful in the context of TMC!
The highlights of the course came in the last couple of weeks when we went on three field trips. One of these was a visit to a temple in Lamphun where we were taught Tok Sen massage using a wooden hammer and experienced the ancient art of Yam Khang fire massage where the priest would dip his foot alternately into sesame oil and plai oil, then onto a fire, then onto our bodies. It was surprisingly pleasant, but the most amazing thing was the way he was able to give such a strong massage just by using the strength of his toes.
On the two other field trips we gave massages to Thai seniors at a day care centre and to children with special needs at a children’s home. The seniors generally seemed to like it very strong so my thumbs were really feeling it after almost four hours of massage in a day! The children were absolutely adorable and I think we all fell in love with our respective “clients”. I nicknamed my first child “The Drawing Boy” because all he wanted to do was draw. He wasn’t interested in massage, or playing, or even in dancing to the live music afterwards. He just wanted to draw and draw and draw. And for me to draw too. We only had one piece of paper (the back of the “massage plan” we were supposed to be using!) so we filled it from corner to corner in doodles, houses, boats, people and animals. One of his favourite games was pointing to each animal and hearing me make the relevant animal noise. Hours of fun! My heart just kept melting over and over again.
On the final day of the course we were due to take our practical exam where we’d be observed performing a two-hour massage on one of our fellow students. We’d had a practice two days before and I was feeling fairly confident that I could remember the sequence and give a good massage within the allotted time. However, when we arrived at school that morning, we were called in to a meeting of all the teachers and students. Thailand was in the middle of a military coup, a 10pm curfew had been enforced throughout the country and all schools had to be closed for at least the next three days. The manager of the school offered for us to come back at a later date to take the exam, but as most of us were leaving Chiang Mai that weekend, this wasn’t really an option. So what they decided to do was grade us based on our practice exams two days earlier, as well as ongoing observations they’d been making.
How often does that happen eh? You turn up for an exam and get told it’s been cancelled but that you’ll basically pass anyway! We were dumbfounded, delighted and relieved at the same time. But it also meant we had to have our graduation ceremony there and then before going home. It was all a bit sudden but the diploma certificates had been prepared in advance so we lined up to receive them, took plenty of photos, said goodbye to all the teachers and headed to the pool! Well what else is there to do on an unexpected day off?!
So, despite the rather sudden and odd ending, it was a fascinating 5 weeks. I learnt so much, met so many lovely people, had lots of fun socialising at the weekends and received so many textbooks – which I had to post home along with my certificate, herbal balls, wooden thumb, and souvenir photo CD. Despite a few criticisms about some aspects of the school and their teaching methods, overall I think it was an excellent course and worth every penny. I hope I’ll be able to use what I’ve learnt in my professional life as I navigate my way through some life changes, but first I need lots of practice. So, who’s for a massage…?!