Sunrise at Wat Pho and the Chetawon Thai Traditional School of Massage

Current Sunrise in Bangkok: 6:26am

Current Sunset in Bangkok: 6:28pm

This makes for a nearly perfect 12 hour and 2 minute day. It’s nice to be in the subtropics. Nice and Hot!

Last week I was able to take full advantage of these hours. The impetus: a series of yoga and Thai massage classes at the ancient learning center of healing/ famous temple grounds of Wat Pho and the Chetawon School of Traditional Thai Medicine and Massage.

This school requires General Thai Massage as a prerequisite for more advanced courses such as Thai Medical Massage. The general course is 5 consecutive days, 9am-4pm. The medical massage course requires 5 weeks, 200 hours, and a stay in the dormitory at the school, the dorm part of which sounds interesting (kid again? simple monastic life?) and off-putting (I’m done with undergrad and have self discipline) simultaneously. I only have time for the five days course anyway, but I hope to find an advanced teacher and work individually with them in the future. For those of you curious about the experience of going to Thai Massage school in Bangkok, here is a rambling description of my experience here in the next two posts. I couldn’t resist the urge to describe some of the more banal details of life here in Bangkok, so please be easy on me!

SUNRISE in BANGKOK

5am. Groggily stamp out my alarm. Listen to the chorus of pre-dawn swallows and sparrows, and attempt to wake myself with their happy chirping. Mentally check my general phlegm level, which reflects the air quality over the course of the night- often the smog and smoke filters through my window in such a thick haze that I can taste it. Some days I bounce up with energy, and others my head feels like a watermelon stuffed with cotton! and phlegm! Spend 15-20 minutes drinking green tea, water with lime, or Nescafe (the instant coffee of choice here) and expelling said phlegm if necessary.

rising from mud in morning light

5:30am. Search my meager travel wardrobe to find temple-and-school-appropriate attire. This means my clothing should: cover the knees and shoulders, not reveal cleavage, and not be skin tight or a skirt. It must hold up against a good quantity of sweat and general discomfort during yoga outdoors at the temple, but have the added benefit of being warm enough to prevent me from getting cold shock as I receive treatments from classmates in the air-conditioned massage school room. This narrows my options to the advanced combination of t-shirt and traditional Thai fisherman pants, possibly with yoga pants underneath due to some inversion positions allowing the pants to fall UP the leg. I will eventually learn that loose slacks are preferred, since fisherman pants (so popular with foreigners) are a mild no-no in the temple due to their status as a lazy marriage between farmer attire and pajama pants. But they are so comfy! I then pack at least one change of shirt or even a second outfit, since after class I may venture into less holy venues downtown. Rather than go home and then come back through the intense Bangkok traffic to meet friends (easily taking an hour each way), I choose to stay downtown and carry two bulging bags of personal items. They come in handy for pushing my way through mobs of people on the sidewalk, but fare less favorably in nice restaurants or bars.

crowds, mostly polite

6:15am. Plan my transportation route downtown to Wat Pho. I could take a motorcycle taxi to the riverboat express, which would cost about 40 baht for the motorcycle and 10 baht for the riverboat, taking about 30-40 minutes. This option is exciting, and sometimes I’m in the mood for the adrenaline from the motorcycle ride (clinging to the back of a motorcycle taxi driver, with two large bags and long unwieldy foreigner legs that nearly scrape the ground at every turn and lean of the motorcycle which is actually more of a souped-up scooter as it weaves around traffic, onto sidewalks, past street dogs and through pothole-ridden alleys is definitely an adrenaline rush) and the not-so-fresh breeze from the ChaoPhraya Riverboat Express…Most days I instead take one regular taxi to the temple, for a cost of 70 baht and similar time frame. This cuts down on the number of steps involved and hence the number of chances for things to go wrong, which when given a moment’s chance in Bangkok they frequently do. ahem. The risks involved in cab rides are few but common: (1) driver nearly falls asleep at the wheel or has serious attention deficit due to very long working hours, frequently low blood sugar, and constant exposure to intensely nasty exhaust. (2) driver is completely manic or twitchy due to excess of energy drink consumption or use of amphetamines to counteract (1). (3) the cab itself stalls out at a stop light and will not start again, or the driver may need to work for a couple minutes to rev the engine back to life (letting loose a hydrocarboniferous plume of smoke into the cab and exacerbating (1), prompting (2)). (4) the cabbie determines that you are an ignorant foreigner and drives you in circles for a healthy half hour to run down the meter, if they are bored or especially pissed off at foreigners that day (see (2)). Luckily, knock on wood, I’ve only experienced 1-3 at mild levels so far.

Quick digression: The most recent cab driver I encountered on my morning ride to Wat Pho was a completely wonderful anomaly. The driver was A) female. My friends who live here say that they have encountered maybe two female cab drivers their whole life, but I have seen three in the past three weeks. Maybe I’m lucky (since the female cabbies have been nicer or calmer than their male counterparts so far), and maybe I just seem like I won’t hassle them for being female drivers. And although I am able to navigate by the skin of my teeth using rudimentary Thai, I am always thankful when the cab driver can B) speak very good English. I often initiate conversations in Thai, just saying hello and trying to be polite, and most taxi drivers just smile vaguely or give me a neutral business face. Occasionally they hold a halting conversation with me, mixed between Thai and English. Rarely they may ask questions in English and surprise me with a welcoming dialogue about Bangkok in general. The driver this morning spit a relative blue streak, and I now know that she is 45 years old, doesn’t have kids, has seven siblings, enjoys the country life but has to work in Bangkok, and that she C) HAS A PET SQUIRREL which was the first thing I saw as I entered the cab. It clutched onto her leg as she drove, in a calm yet alert squirrely manner. She purchased her pet squirrel when it was only one month old, at the famous, rambling Jatujak Market. She always has her ‘friend’ squirrel with her. It has bells attached to it somehow. I wanted to take a picture but I didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie that had developed over the half hour drive with a cheap touristy activity. ::end digression, and bulleted paragraphs::

Housed in Wat Pho: gigantic reclining Buddha head. The largest reclining Buddha statue in the world.

Wat Pho Temple Grounds, courtesy Photodharma.net

One of many gorgeous details of the temple grounds, in the courtyard of the Thai Massage pavilion at Wat Pho

7:30 am. Arrive at Wat Pho, a glorious temple with one of the largest temple grounds in Bangkok, and the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world. An article from the Thai-ASEAN News Network describes its importance in preserving knowledge such as traditional Thai medicine and poetry. It was the first university center in Thailand and was recognized by UNESCO in 2008 as a Memory of the World site. I am here to attempt yoga postures in a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by elegant carved figures of beautiful Thai people performing accurate poses for health and wisdom.

Apparently some poses call for a lesson in "sass" (see deer yogi)

Cat: disdain; Statue: eternal acceptance; Me: sweaty and awkward (not pictured)

8am. After soaking up the beauty and calm of the temple grounds, I am prepared to feel this glorious calm pervade my body in the form of yoga. The Thai Massage practitioners at the Wat Pho massage center lead a free yoga class every morning of the week. For half an hour, the heat and intensity of the temple’s reflective surfaces create a cleansing in the way accomplished by’hot yoga’ or a sauna. I alternate between focus, despair, physical pain, and occasional calm.

between 10-20 students every morning

not too shabby here

Oh this looks a little nicer

To the tune of “Sam, Song, Neung” (three, two, one) we hold various postures while early tourists pass by and sometimes join in, to our delight as they share in our discomfort. By the end of the half hour, we are all giggling and happy for the most part- others look washed out and tipsy from the heat- but we are all hugely thankful to this woman who brings ice-cold tea to revive us!

thank you!

8:30am. Totter back to the Chetawan School, through the back alley of the temple and past a gallery of street food vendors. Drink copious amounts of water and relax on the roof before class.

tourist vans getting ready to find their tourists.

morning corn!

view of Wat Pho from the roof of the massage school. the spires of the main four Cheda are striking.

9:00am. Class begins with a chanted prayer for the blessings of Jivaka Komarabhacca, “Father Doctor”, or Shivago. Not as in the Russian Doctor Shivago, but as in the personal physician of the Buddha who became famous throughout India, Tibet, China, and eventually Thailand, where he is recognized as having transmitted original knowledge of herbalism, of “Sen” or energy lines in the body, of therapeutic massage and more. He was a famous surgeon in his time, around 540 BCE. Legend in China tells that Dr. Jivaka was born with acupuncture needles in his hands, but acupuncture itself didn’t make it into the canon of Thai medical knowledge in the same way as energy pathways and therapeutic pressure massage.

Dr. Jivaka altar at the Thai Traditional Medicine Research Institute

Class schedule for the day consists of training from 9am-4pm, with two 10 minute breaks at 10:30 and 2:30, and an hour for lunch at noon. We are broken into groups based on which day we began class, since the school starts fresh courses for general massage every day of the week, in addition to several specialized courses such as Thai Medical Massage, Thai Herbal Medicine, and Pediatric Massage. My class consisted of myself and four other women, with two teachers at any time and sometimes three teachers. All the students of different levels work in the same giant room on the third floor, which is thankfully air conditioned. We are able to cram about 50-60 students and 20-30 teachers into this space every day.

White shirts are mainly teachers. They were a fun bunch!

Instruction style is completely hands-on. The teacher (or “Ajarn”) demonstrates a routine on the student while the other four work on each other and mirror the teacher. We all have a chance to mirror the teacher, and then we’re on our own, working from our notes and memory, prompted by the teachers to use correct stance and pressure.

Studying and practicing diligently

Details of treatment being explained

We pick up the general ‘routine’ quickly, since we practice it over and over, re-practicing the previous parts each time we add a new section. The whole Thai massage routine is one to two hours long, depending on speed and elaboration of some sections. We are taught contraindications and modifications for many aspects of the massage, based on the patient and the best technique for the practitioner’s body type. For my large “farang” (foreigner) body I have to modify some positions in order to put my body weight into the right place. Because of the huge range of body types of classmates and teachers, we get to practice changing the routine to fit the needs of the patient. I am impressed by the diversity of countries represented in classes as well- Japanese, Greek, Australian, South Korean, American, Spanish, many Thai, and a mixture of men and women (although more women than men).

parts of Thai massage involve perching like a bird or a large cat

The calendar in the background shows King Bhumibol of Thailand, who although was not proficient in Thai massage, did become a Buddhist priest.

Respectful teacher demonstrating correct technique

Our teachers have the most interesting attitude- while being respectful and making us feel completely safe and secure, they also have a jocular and relaxed, informal attitude born of many years of teaching a broad variety of people. Many have taught Thai massage for over two decades. They have a disarming and slightly discomfiting way of saying “eeeung” in a guttural and sometimes joyous low tone when we do something correctly, since it is the informal version of “ok, yes” in Thai. Other times, if our form is wrong they will say from afar, “aaaaah, ah ah mai?” (ack, no) until we correct ourselves or look at them in dismay and confusion. Then they take our offending limb or body part and move or push it to the correct place, firmly, sometimes gently patting, saying, “eeeung!” This applies to not only hands and feet, but also to thighs, backs and buttocks (which due to some posture alignment issues may be out of place)- so consequently there occurs a surprising yet oddly non-offensive version of butt and thigh smacking on the female teachers’ part. The males never touch the female students in that way, and maintain very clear boundaries, but the female teachers remind us to move our leg back with a pat to the thigh for example.

This is something that goes against all my professional training and would never be acceptable in the US, a detail like that, but it seems oddly effective in this setting, somehow prompting the nervous foreigners (many of whom had never given a massage before) to relax and remember that a body is a body, to be humble, and to paradoxically de-sexualize the experience by adding humor. The teacher is stating (in a kind rather than mean-spirited way) that the student must be humble and good-humored enough to realize that the safety and comfort of the patient is the most important thing, and to move quickly to change an incorrect posture. Because of the language barrier, this physical response is often necessary. Several teachers are physically there with us the whole time, ready to pounce the minute our form is wrong, providing not only a visual but also a tactile and audio reminder of where the correct movement should be. This also contributes to the fast learning necessary to be able to accurately perform an hour-long sequence of massage and stretching after 35 hours of instruction.

12pm. LUNCH! We are all dehydrated and very hungry by this point. I will end this particular post with some of the lunch spots near the school, and the next article will cover the conclusion of the course!

delicious cheesecake and pad thai

fantastic classmates!

a mom and pop noodle shop

more great classmates, hungry!

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6 responses to “Sunrise at Wat Pho and the Chetawon Thai Traditional School of Massage

  1. Wow!…my name is ivy claire.and im planning to study therew as a massage therapist coz i want to be more mature in learning in massage professionally and personally…im very passionate.i just want to ask if how much does it cost to study there?

    Thank u and God bless

  2. HI! Just came across your blog. I am trying to pick a Thai massage school and was looking into Wat po. From the website, it seems it hasn’t been updated in at least a year, do you have any idea if it is still open? Also, did you have to register in advance? Thank you!

    • Hello Debbie,

      Well, the school has been in operation for many years and it was going strong when I was there last year, so I would surmise that it is still up and running. Wat Po is definitely not going anywhere, and the temple itself has always been a center of education in Thai medicine. Regarding the website updating, there is still not as strong of a focus on web presence in some medical industries in Thailand, especially the English language component. (That may be an understatement 🙂 If you go to this page, you can see they have posted the 2013 dates: http://www.watpomassage.com/2009/index.php?page=course&title=&lang=EN&cid=89

      That said, where will you be spending the majority of your time? If you would like to enjoy the international-big-city aspect, Bangkok is amazing. You can choose to stay for a month long certification in detailed Thai Massage, or you can do the General Thai Massage course of 5 days duration. I believe they will provide a room for you if you choose the month-long option, since they want you to avoid partying and maintain focus for that month, but I only did the 5 day option. It was fantastic and plenty of time to learn a basic routine in great detail. The whole school, from teachers to students, generally exudes a respectful, serious, focused demeanor. As it is allied with a temple, the respectful attire and behavior of temple grounds applies at the school, although in a little less formal way.

      If you want a slightly slower pace and possibly more traveler-friendly city, Chiang Mai is the city of choice. Several Thai Massage and Chi Nei Tsang (abdominal massage) schools are operating in Chiang Mai with a long history of teaching. The International Training Massage School, Old Medicine Hospital Thai Massage School, and the Loi Kroh School of Massage all provide great education in Thai Massage with a slightly different focus.

      If you have longer than a month to be there, I would recommend checking out a few places in person before deciding. But if you don’t have that luxury, registering in advance is a great idea. The classes do get full, especially at top travel times. Both professionals learning a new massage modality and tourists wanting to try something fun learn a lot from these classes.

      I hope this helps… you may also try to contact the Thai Traditional Medicine Research Institute – see a video about it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ruZCv-eDkM

  3. Hi Beth,
    Amazing post! I am thinking of taking a 5 day course at wat po, but haven’t figured out where to stay during the course. Do you have any recommendations? Or have you seen the condition of the rooms in wat po itself… I will arrive bangkok around 7pm, not sure if I can just ‘check in’ to their accommodation that late anyways.
    Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Amber,

      Thanks! I haven’t seen the on-site accommodations so unfortunately can’t help you there. I would recommend staying in the Khao San area, but a couple streets off of Khao San itself, since taxis will easily be able to take you to and from the Wat Pho area- just make sure to demand the “meter” rate and prepare to have many taxis turn you down- just keep asking the next one. If you get a place closer to the temple but in a different part of town than Khao San, sometimes the taxis are unfamiliar (or can’t understand farang mash-ups of pronunciations). Plus the walking route from Wat Pho to Khao San is not too bad, especially at a cooler time of year.

      It’s difficult to recommend a specific place since price ranges and comfort levels are so different for each person. For a slightly nicer hotel, I can recommend Lamphu TreeHouse http://www.lamphutreehotel.com/ and for a classic Khao San hotel I would recommend the Dang Derm Hotel. The BTS (skytrain) doesn’t go to the old temple district where Wat Pho is, so most of the places in the heart of downtown BKK may be difficult to travel from during rush hour.

      As for “checking in” at a late hour, at the school, I would say not likely. Find a place to stay where you can print out directions for the taxi driver prior to landing, then just go straight to your hotel and get your bearings. I would recommend taking one or two days to figure out whether you want to stay at the Chetawon school or your own lodging- in my opinion it always pays to create a small time buffer if you have the time. I hope this helps!
      Have an excellent trip!!

      Best,
      Beth

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