I met a woman called Li in Bangkok. She was working in a massage parlour opposite the hotel I was staying in. A "proper" massage parlour. “Some people think girl working in a massage parlour is bad,” she told me. “But for me is not just money. Want fix people.”
She’d been recommended to me by a friend, and she was as good as he said. Two other people told me she’d identified surgery and injuries with no prior mention of either. Having said that, I was surprised to hear a couple of other people ask their therapists to avoid parts of their bodies or treat them very gently. I wondered what they were protecting.
She could feel pain in the bodies of others. When I winced she laughed or smiled, “Pain, yes?” she said, and carried on getting to the root of the problem. For me the pain was uncomfortable, but it felt terrific to have it worked on. “No pain now. Is normal,” as Li put it.
By day three we were familiar with each other, and she began to chat with me. I already knew from my friend that she was a single parent of an 11 year old girl and that she supported her parents. This is very common in Asia.
Li lives in Bangkok with her sister, her sister’s husband, and her nephew. They have two rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Her daughter lives “in the village” with Li’s parents. Her husband left 12 years ago, and she hasn’t seen her daughter for two years.
Her working week is seven days long and her working day begins at 9 AM and ends at 11 PM. She buys food from the cafes around the parlour. There’s no time for anything else.
She earns between 400 and 500 Baht a week, around $16 US, and pays for her daughter’s education monthly. “Day off only when I sick,” she told me. “It’s hard for me.”
She used to work as a care assistant, looking after the elderly, but they often didn’t appreciate what was done for them. Her massage is appreciated, and she gets to keep the tips she receives from her clients. She’d been in the parlour for 18 months after being encouraged to train in massage by her friend. “I could not do it. Kept fail. Then I tell myself. Must study. Can do this.”
We spoke about massage parlours. “There are two kinds,” I offered. “One like here and the other offering prostitution.”
“Sometime they say can have a happy ending,” she told me. “Make me so angry. Why you ask that so say? You must go far away from here!”
For Europeans and Westerners like me, I explained, Bangkok is known for its sex tourism. I can’t be sure, but the phrase "happy ending" could have been coined in Bangkok. Male tourists arrive, see the massage parlours—there were three directly outside our hotel—and think they’ve hit the jackpot!
“You could make a lot of money if you chose it,” I said “but it’s not an easy life. The men want young women, and as the women get older they’ve got used to the money, but it becomes more difficult to earn it.”
“Maybe 1000 Baht ($64) for a happy ending. 2000 Baht ($128) for more,” she said. “Some people spend the money on good things, but some just spend it on themselves.” It was interesting to me that it was the selfishness she most objected to.
At one point she waved her hands around her head, “Thinking, thinking, thinking!” she sighed. I can see thinking doesn’t do much good. There’s no safety net in Thailand. You’ll see tuk-tuks bearing the legend No Money, No Honey. No job, no home, no food, no life. There were many people living on the streets with little more than a cup to their names.
It can be difficult for visitors to estimate the age of Asian women. I asked my friends how old one “girl” I’d met was. “26” said the first one. “She looked about 15 to me!” laughed the second. She said she was 37.
I reckon Li was in her late 30s. She was quite thick set with a broad face, big shoulders, and the physical strength to strangle a snake.
“Pain, yes?” Absolutely, and no wonder.