Published in Lifestyle + Travel Magazine, March/April 2007

Lost in Spas

Has anyone else noticed the plethora of spas out there these days? Not only are they contributing to global warming, spas may even be contributing to the warming of global hearts: more and more, people need to feel kneaded.
I was right there at the birth of the spa explosion, you see – as landscape designer during the project phase of the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay, Bali, in 1990 – when the first spa consultants arrived in the Orient, bringing gifts from the new world (Texas to be exact) of somnolent music, whispered wisdoms and nice smelly things. We, the project design team, who had only known the coarse hands of octogenarian Javanese dominatrix, slab mats and curtains pinned shut with bobby pins gently released from faded tunics, were all ears.
Quicker than you could say “spray foam” the young Australian design team were conjuring up spacious spa suites with concealed nozzles and garden courtyards. Relaxation rooms, retail corners, oxygen tents, helipads and ‘His and His’ black vinyl massage beds with holes for manly cheeks quickly followed.


Today, 15 years later, there is a spa of sorts on almost every city block, next to the Javanese restoration furniture and Moroccan doo-dah shop. Indian Ocean islands are full of the children of Balinese rice-farmers pretending to be Javanese princesses from the courts of Solo. In Java, ‘Mandi Lulur’ (the immersing of large white people in bath-tubs of sacred flowers for money) is now bigger than ‘Mandi Kuching’ (the sucking of ones own or other peoples thumbs, for free).
But before I get carried away I want to describe my own personal spa growth experience… from a knead-less sunburnt youth in Australia, to Pacific rim spokesperson for AVAGOLUV SPAS – the tension release solutions people.

* * *

In 1973, I sailed to Java from Western Australia after a childhood as a redhead in Sydney’s Eastern suburbs. I was born the day after the Waverly Council closed Bondi’s Turkish baths. I knew not steam or anti-oxidants, just sunburn, and a longing for the soothing touch of someone else’s hands. My last memory of the land of my birth was that of Anthony Sharp (his real name) being dragged from the dormitory of Cranbrook school by his neurosurgeon father who was screaming: “If any man ever touched my crack I’d smash him to a pulp!” A horrible memory for a 17-year-old to carry across the Arafura Sea.
By December of that year I was in Surabaya, the massage capital of East Java, teaching English at the Bamboo Den losmen (homestay). One night, my good friend Budi Lasmono, the bastard son of an escort lady, threw me on my back on a bed in a friend’s house, in Kedong Doro kampong, and started to massage me. It was my first massage. He had magic hands. I was like a born-again sensualist, whimpering, as soup-vendors carts clattered outside. For the finale the little monster whipped off my sarong exposing a limp ginger acorn – to the horror of the gathered Muslim crowd. I was traumatised – from that day on I have always worn tight board shorts at massage time. [Yeah right, Ed.]

A decade passed during which I experienced traditional Thai massage in Chiang Mai (the best), a number of less-traditional Thai massages in Bangkok (best forgotten), a series of fabulous Ayurvedic massages at the Somatheeram in Kerala, and the healing hands of a mystic masseur in Peliatan, Bali. I had my regular balian (village) masseur Made Tabanan who came on his motorbike, twice a week, to Sanur where I lived, and a regular stream of Californian herbal-suffragette friends who extolled the virtues of the crystal ball or the hot stone or the mud wrap.
It was during the 1990s, after the success of the Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay, that I noticed that all the elements of Southeast Asian massage were being combined with elements of Southeast Asian resort architecture: the outdoor bathrooms; the garden pavilions; the teak floors, and elements of New Asian/New Age Legian-speak to become one product, called the Bali Spa. It was holistic, and you had to concentrate.
Care was taken in the wrapping of the modesty towel to studiously avoid all of one’s 456 erogenous zones. One got to choose ‘Balinese music featuring dragon gongs played under the banyan tree’. It was all getting a bit too much, I thought – but the paying-for-laying public adored it.
Bali, it must be said, was never known for its great masseuses. When President Reagan needed a rub at the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel in 1994, it was Madurese (an ethnic group who mainly live on Java) master masseuse Ibu Kasur ‘Madame Mattress’ (86 years old) who was dispatched by the Governor, in consultation with the abovementioned herbal-suffragettes. Thailand was always the acknowledged home of great massage.

Anyway, by the 21 st century, the Bali Spa phenomenon had expanded to every corner of the world. Aromatherapy was the new shopping therapy. The spa-tsars brokered a tie-in with Buddhism and ‘Zen massage’ was born. Major cosmetics brands released Spa product and services: I was once led into Guerlain and Aveda Spas in Mauritius luxury hotels that were like presidential suites in luxury resorts. I soon developed an aversion to the word “Ayurveda”, so loosely was it being used, and took offence at the number of ‘scatter-Buddhas’ being littered about in the name of spa commerce.
I also got fat – I went from Generation X to generation XXL in five easy meals – and started to be afraid of being flipped over on my tummy where I’d wobble, defying gravity, with my face bobbing in and out of the love donut – that annular face-hole that is at the head end of every professional massage bed.

“Are you comfortable?” the masseurs, now called ‘therapists’ to de-emphasise the actual kneading, would croon.
“Of course I’m not comfortable you blousy wench”, I would scream, “Get on with it!”

In October 2006, I flew on the inaugural Emirates flight from Bangalore to Dubai, to do a story on the spa at the Park Hyatt. I had specified ‘Nubian with large hands’ on the email enrolment form as I am tired of Thai girls poking around down there when all one wants is a good massage.
The trip to the Park Hyatt was horrific: Dubai is the ultimate plastic paradise; there’s a fake palm tree for every three Filipino buggy boys (don’t get me wrong, I love the hard-working Filipinos. They guard the temperature controls on the air-conditioners of the Arab emirates… if they ever left their post everyone would die!). There are buildings in Dubai that are ugly 20 years ahead of their time, and Emar, the state’s urban redevelopment authority, are busy building a replica of Romania every five minutes.
So I arrived at the Park Hyatt desperate for some old world charm. The spa assistant director greeted me in the spa lobby – a power blonde in a power suit. I felt as if I’d stumbled Citibank’s private banking reception. A tropical ‘Zen’ garden beckoned beyond. Zanex music played softly.

This is your therapist, Peng, she explained… a pretty Thai girl floated out from the wings and fixed me with a smile. My valve slammed shut.

Made Wijaya is the nom de plume of Bali-based Australian writer and landscape designer Michael White.

Peng lead me down a colonnade, past a stunning ‘New Asian-arid’ courtyard patio to a huge spa suite that was like a car wash designed by Giorgio of Beverly Hills. I was offered some disposable diapers (Dior Homme) but chose to stay wrapped in my coronation purple Harjonegoro batik, my luxury spa mufti.
Then came the foot-bathing ritual. She was like a hypnotist trying to co-erce life back into two large pink feet. Her strong hands massaged my gnarled legs, now more coral reef than calve, thanks to a youth of summers spent on the clay tennis courts of Sydney’s outer western suburbs.

“You velly stlong” purred Peng.
I admired her weapons-grade Yul Brenner-style bun.

Next she held up a towel the size of Africa and I was ordered to lie naked, face up, parallel to the sound system. The towel was ceremonially draped: I looked like the lost continent of Sheridan Fluffy. Then, suddenly, with one deft flick of the towel’s corner a leg was exposed and my crotch tucked into the towel fold line with surgical precision
I closed my eyes and thought of England.
It was 30 minutes of bliss.
The preliminaries over I was instructed, lovingly, to lie face down with my head in the love donut. Now, this is the bit I always dread : I have often suggested to spa operators that they should have television monitors imbedded in the floor --- playing Harlem Ballet tapes or similar -- because staring at the grooves in the inevitable teak flooring can lead to seniors’ disress syndrome. At hotelier Priya Paul’s brilliant signature AURA spa at the Park Hotel in Chennai, for example, each of the nine treatment suites are coloured after the Hindu Navaratna ring, with its matrix of nine semi-precious stones; and each suite has a different floor sculpture to admire when face down. IN Peng’s Kasbah I was delighted to find an Omani brass bowl of shells in my view hole with a crystal ball at its centre. As Peng sprang onto my back – in a nice not a nasty way – the crystal ball slowly changed colour, as if by magic. I was entranced and stretched and felt kneaded. Peng seized on the moment to make here move:

“ You go shopping for your wife in Dubai …… we have sensual oil”.

It was the moment I had always dreaded .. even more than being forced into a Karaoke session with a Chinese developer … here I was, finally, pinned under a Thai girl, defenceless.
I gathered all my inner strength and answered honestly: “ I have a husband, Peng…. I am a lady-boy.”
Silence ensued.
The rythym of the expert kneading didn’t break.
Emboldened, I ventured forward, now on the offence: “ Do you have children, Peng”
“ Not found husband yet” she replied sweetly, “ but looking for ladyboy”
With Thai masseuses you really can’t win.

* * *

It really was one of the best massages ever and I had achieved a climax in personal honesty .
At the front desk Jason, the Spa’s boyish manager --- a fifteen year veteran of the luxury spa industry -- was ready to debrief me. We chatted about our mutual Dubai friend Nozer Sofa-biter-wallah, the world’s pushiest Parsee, and our favorites spas in the region. Before too long we were swapping spa stories like a couple of old pros .
Spas today are becoming like the arab world’s hammam I mused, a sort of attractive communal bathhouse when men can gossip to the therapists just like women gossip to their hairdressers.

Made Wijaya is the nom de plume of Bali-based Australian writer and landscape designer Michael White.


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