It was a very nondescript parlor tucked away in one of the many dark alleys off the bustling main street. It seemed as good as any. In the heat of the night I checked my watch: half past nine. Well, I wasn’t sleepy yet, and the city never sleeps. A good time for a massage.

The Vietnamese traditional New Year and all its dragon dances, feasts and kinship was close at hand, and I had planned and chosen to observe it from the great city of… Bangkok, Thailand. I was forced to leave the country to renew my visa, so here I walked amid the smells, sex, humidity and food stalls of this tropical metropolis. My second time there, actually.

But, back to the massage parlor.

I walked through the doors and was immediately greeted by a couple of women in possibly traditional Thai garb; the one who worked the desk was very possibly a ladyboy. They urged me to sit on a bench and peruse through a laminated menu of services, different types of massages for different parts of the body. After deliberating, I pointed my finger at one: an hour-long Thai massage for 300 baht, or about $10.

Up, up narrow flights of stairs where the dingy red carpet had worn down to the concrete. I was led through what felt like the dark inner recesses of the mind, ducking my head while the bosomy woman stepped through shadowy doorways and disorienting turns and twists. Everything screamed to my mind that this was a decadent castle of seediness, but my mind said: Whatever. Bring on the sleaze.

Finally, I was shown a cubicle-like area that held an aged, covered mattress, and I immediately pondered the countless amount of comfort-seeking bodies it had received throughout its servile life in this dim world.

“Put on the clothes,” the woman said in broken English, motioning to the loose, white garments laid out on the mattress. Then she stepped out of the room, where it was only me.

When the masseuse returned, I was in the clothes, and so she began.

Oof! She was kind enough as she dug her elbow into my foot, and then my leg. Thai massages are known to be painful. I wore a smile to show that I was enjoying it, that I wanted her to keep doing what she was doing. One can choose to be scientific and observe how their own flesh responds to such pressure; how the muscles give way while the nerves are stimulated. One can also try to imagine how much training and knowledge goes into each placement of the hands in order to release that muscular tension. However, my troubled mind soon began to wander…

Am I a good person? I’ve never been totally comfortable with the whole business of massaging. The physical feeling is fine, but something about paying someone money by the hour to touch and bend your body—too transactional. I felt the masseuse work her magic under the soft light and thought: I have no idea who this woman is, but here she is, prodding into the deepest levels of my body.

She asked me where I was from, then said that she was from Issan, the northeastern region of Thailand. Some town I couldn’t remember. Maybe she was a mother. She seemed somehow motherly.

There is also the nagging feeling of sloth. I don’t really have an active lifestyle to begin with, and my life is rather unstressful at the moment, so I don’t feel that I have any good reasons for getting a massage. It was purely for pleasure, pleasure without pain. I hadn’t done anything to “deserve” this treat, yet still I lied on that mattress while the matronly woman—who actually was doing manual labor— worked on me. For mere dollars, no less. Something inside wasn’t at ease. Was I a good person?

The dark, quiet, almost pitiful-feeling atmosphere of that anonymous room contrasted sharply with the nightlife that blazed somewhere outside in the grimy streets of the city.

The other question in my mind was if the masseuse would offer any “extra services” at the end, the stuff for which Bangkok is infamous. Not that I would say yes (you know me better than that, dear readers), but how would I react to such a proposition? I had rarely ever ventured into the realms of the underworld before.

Then she was finished. One hour up. Nothing “additional” offered. The woman smiled and left me to change back into my civilian clothes. I felt… how did I feel, exactly?

Back downstairs, after the cup of warm tea that I was offered, I paid the masculine gal at the desk and gave a handsome tip to the masseuse, who pressed her palms together in the traditional Thai greeting/thanking gesture. Then I stepped back out into the dark alley and the sultry Bangkok evening heat.

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