A Travellerspoint blog

Thai Massage with Pichest Boonthumme

* Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps*


At the beginning of each week you bring an offering for the Buddha consisting of fruit, candles, incense and flowers. Lotus flowers, symbolizing the soul achieving enlightenment, are preferred. Before class, you put the offering in a bowl and place it near the alter. This is all explained to me by my friend Matt, who also studies with Pichest, and I am grateful for the introduction, but am nevertheless acutely conscious of being an outsider and first-timer. I feel clumsy and uncertain arranging my items in the bowl – how should it look, does it matter which way the lotus flowers point, do you unwrap the candles and incense from their plastic? I shyly ask Pichest, who happens to be nearby, and he replies: “Why you make headache!” I.e., quit futzing around, this is not a Buddha offering photo shoot, it’s about the underlying intention. Smiling at the rightness of his response, I start to relax.

The classroom, located inside a set of sliding glass doors, has a large temple/altar area and Thai Massage mats arranged around the rest of the space. People drift in and take seats facing the altar, and Pichest sits down in front. An old Caucasian man dressed as a monk, one shoulder bared by his saffron robe, explains that there are only two rules here: First, don’t point your feet towards the altar, and second, the head pillow is for the head, not the bum. Then a student hands around a sheet with the morning prayers written on, Pichest turns to face the temple, it and the class begins chanting in Thai and Sanskrit.

Morning prayers lasts half an hour or so. At one point Pichest gets up, dips a bundle of incense sticks in holy water, and walks around shaking sprays of fragrant droplets onto each student while chanting rhythmic Thai syllables. He gives an extra generous shower to a couple guys in the class, a mischievous glint in his eye. I like this guy’s sense of humor.

After all this is done, he turns from the altar to face the class, wipes his hair back from his forehead, and addresses us in Pichest-English. He does not mention Thai Massage whatsoever. Rather, the message is something like: People make their own problems. Problems in the head become problems in the body. Pain and suffering come from attachment and desire. The five senses and our ideas of “like” and “dislike” constantly mislead us. Likewise technology and social pressures. We are constantly wanting things, but you cannot take things with you when you die. “You look in magazine, think ‘I want this’ and ‘I need that,’ think you need perfect body. Important or not important, eh?!”

After about an hour he says, “Any questions, you have any questions for me?” One girl raises a hand and asks, “Pichest, today is my last day here, and I would like to make an altar when I go home… I was wondering what to put on it?” He cocks his head in consideration for a moment before replying: “Important or not important?!”

Around this time, a woman with very bad rheumatoid arthritis enters. She walks with a laboring, stilted gait, and the disease is gnarling her fingers and toes. He asks her what seems to be the problem. Scoliosis and arthritis, she says. He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Why, why you have?” “I don’t know,” she says.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he mocks almost kindly. “Why? Emotion!”

I wonder if she is angry at being told that this debilitating affliction is a result of problems in her mind. I can’t tell; she just sits there quietly while he delivers more of his usual sermon. I’m not sure how much she even understands, as his English takes a little getting used to. Pichest then invites her to come lie down. I cringe watching her walk over and make her way down to the mat through an awkward kneeling transition. He begins to feel around her body and invites the students to do likewise. Suddenly everyone has hands on her knees, hips, IT band, spine, stomach, neck, armpits, wrists, everywhere. It reminds me of a game we used to play in gym class called “Snakes in the grass,” which begins with everyone putting one finger on the person playing the snake, then you bolt away at the sound of the whistle.

One of her knees is swollen and locked. She cringes when he moves it more than a few degrees. He leaves the leg and begins with her neck and shoulders (unusual for Thai massage), then continues back down to her legs, the muscles of which are simultaneously clenched and atrophied. The class mostly hangs around watching him work, and some people occasionally break away to practice on each other. I watch him the whole time, impressed with the intuitive way he handles her body. An hour later he has unlocked the knee and is getting a healthy range of motion from her hips. She is smiling.

Next we break for lunch. I ask one of the veteran students how long the lunch break is. He shrugs, “No set time, just come back whenever.” I am not very hungry, so I just wander down the road a ways and come back. When I return, the woman with arthritis is gone, and Pichest is sprawled out on his back on a Thai Massage mat, sleeping like a baby. Most students are out at lunch, a few are here either napping or practicing on each other. Someone asks to practice some massage on me, to which I of course say yes. I’m just selfless like that.

At some point Pichest wakes up and begins going around helping/correcting people, and the class shifts nebulously back into gear. He drifts our way while my partner is working on my left IT band, and begins to demonstrate a different technique on me. After a few quick palpations of my left hip, he declares: “Very bad, big problem. No on skin, hurt deep inside.” I am struck dumb. I recently found out I have a labral tear in that hip. This was diagnosed via a contrast MRI for which I spent a couple hours in the hospital so they could first numb my hip with an injection, then stick a needle all the way into to the joint space under X-ray (to verify positioning of the needle) and inject a contrast dye, then stick me inside the clicking and whirring MRI machine for an hour or so, all of which carried a hefty tab (thank you Blue Cross Blue Shield)… And Pichest, after feeling around for thirty seconds, knows essentially the same thing. He then digs deep into some very tense muscles around the hip, nearing my pain threshold but never crossing it. When he is done, I feel ready to do a full-length ballet.

Around 4pm, we all sit up and face the front of the room. Pichest asks if there are any questions. One girl asks, “The woman with arthritis, why did you start with the neck and shoulders instead of the feet?” “Her body tell me,” he answers. “Need to listening to the body. If hurt here” (pointing to his shoulder), “cannot relax.” The class nods, the answer perfectly obvious in retrospect, but how many of us would have thought to deviate from the usual legs-first script in Thai Massage? Pichest then recaps his message from this morning, warning about the perils of “I think I think I think, I want I want I want.” Class ends with an abbreviated version of the morning prayers and an abbreviated reiteration of his morning message, and he tells us to go home and relax.

Thus goes a typical day.

Plus, renting a room in ten easy steps...

Pichest’s school is located about a 20 minute motorbike ride from downtown Chiang Mai in a suburb called Hang Dong. Towards the end of the first week, tiring of the commute and ready for a break from city life, I decide to find a place in Hang Dong for following week. This being a purely Thai neighborhood, you cannot just hop online and book a guesthouse, so I use my lunch break to see what I can find the old fashioned way. It goes like this:

1. I ask some people with a little lunch shack down the street if they know of any rooms or guesthouses. I’m not sure they cannot understand me, or perhaps they do but I am a foreigner so they are not sure about the whole thing. In any case, smiles and shakes of the head and thank you’s are exchanged, and I move on.

2. I wander further on and end up following a dirt road which according to a faded sign leads to a ceramic factory. As I approach the factory I am invited to sit by a woman who speaks just enough English to communicate that she will call her boss. Meanwhile she is working on little dolls, putting eyes in heads and heads on bodies. She shows me how she puts the eyes in: She takes the eye on the end of a sharp stick, sticks it up through the neck into the doll’s head, and suddenly where there was an empty socket, an eye pops out. There is something simultaneously so freakish and humorous about it that I laugh, hard. She joins in and it becomes one of those giddy, self-perpetuating fits of laughter. We eventually simmer down, exchanging smiles and occasional giggles as we wait for the boss…

3. About ten minutes later, a trim, middle-aged Thai woman, arrives and asks me in impressively fluent English how she can help. I explain that I would like a to rent a room for the coming week. She says she thinks she heard one of her workers mention something, she’s not sure, but wait a moment…

4. She goes to ask the worker, who does indeed know of a room, but neither of them can take me at the moment, but wait a moment…

5. The boss then calls up her partner, explains to him where I should go. By this time it has been half an hour since I first arrived. I feel bad taking up their time and not at all certain this is leading anywhere. I try to say thank you, it’s alright, I’ll find my way, no need to take me…

6. I am presently sitting on the back of the partner’s bike as we make our way back up the dirt road, back past Pichest’s school, and on to a house which turns out to belong to Pichest’s cousin. This is slightly embarrassing for me because Pichest actually rents rooms at the massage school. No doubt this will get back around to him and he will wonder why I ignored his rooms and went poking around the neighborhood. If I could call the whole thing off I would, but that is no longer possible.

7. The partner from the ceramic factory explains to Pichest’s cousin in Thai that I wish to rent a room, so he takes us to see it The building is a long single storey structure containing several studio style apartments. The room is simple and clean with a large bed, smooth cool tiles on the floor, a cold water shower and a Thai toilet. I like the look and feel of it, and it is a few minutes’ walk from the massage school - perfect. I say I’ll take it.

8. Mission accomplished, the man from the ceramic factory now goes back to work. I am left to negotiate with Pichest’s cousin, who speaks as much English as I do Thai. I refer to the “Language” section of my Lonely Planet book, but my Thai pronunciation is apparently so poor as to render my attempts incomprehensible. I try pointing to the words I want to use, but he cannot read the tiny writing without his glasses. This is starting to feel like a comedy of errors. Happily, we eventually arrive at an understanding, I think, that I will pay 80 baht per night and start on Monday.

9. When my friend Matt learns I have rented a room five minutes’ walk away, he is interested. We go back to Pichest’s cousin, arrange for Matt to rent a second room, and everything seems set. Except that Pichest’s cousin kept saying something about fishing which neither Matt nor I can figure out. We shrug, nod and smile.

10. We show up on Monday to pick up the keys. Pichest’s cousin again says something about fishing. All we can understand is that he wants us follow him, so we do. He leads us down a dirt path, through a gate with an unlocked padlock, and around a small lake to a little wood shack with a large open air porch. Apparently this is his fishing spot. And apparently he is offering it up as a place to hang out. This place is my new definition of tranquility. Lush green foliage, blue sky reflected in the pond, and only the sounds of dogs, roosters and the occasional distant motorbike. Moreover, in a most welcome contrast to Chiang Mai, the air smells fresh. Pichest’s cousin turns the radio on to some melodic Thai music, opens the fridge and holds up a bottle of some sort of moonshine. He seems pleased when we join him in a drink. Having little common lexicon with which to converse, the three of us just sit looking out appreciatively at the scenery. The rest of the week, this shack by the fishing pond, an utterly unexpected amenity of renting these rooms, is where we come to practice Thai Massage and relax in the evenings. “Nice job talking to Thai people,” Matt says as we watch the sky change colors.


Posted by sbw2109 22:00 Archived in Thailand

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Hi Sharon
Thank you, thank you, thank you ....... As I read your posts, I'm enjoying the lavish descriptions, again I leave my reality, "don't think", and feel your journey.
Please post again soon! Much love to you, Shari

by Shari

I really enjoyed reading this post and felt very inspired to go up to Hang Dong and study with Pichest. Although, I can't find any info on prices for the courses/classes and I'm trying to work out my budget. How much is he charging?

Having studied Chinese medicine for 4 years, I found that the "formulas" and strict ways of teaching don't work out for me, the body and mind changes all the time, therefore, our approach should always take that in consideration.

Thank you for this post, I will probably search for a room up there as well and avoid the waste of energy of commuting everyday.

by yarabahia

Sharon, how much does Pichest charge for his classes/course?

by yarabahia

Hi "yarabahia"
When I was there one year ago, it was 4000 Thai Baht (about $130USD) per week.
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your studies and travels!

by sbw2109

Thank you for the reply Sharon!

(Sorry about the 2 comments, but every time I tried to reply to your blog, I got a message saying both my replies ended up deleted as spam... Seems like they got published, hehe)

I'm planing on doing the 4 week, level 1 to 4 at the old medicine hospital, to get a bit of the theory and... unfortunately, here in the west, we need a diploma in order to practice and prove we studied a certain amount of time.

I think Pichest method of teaching is the "real traditional", which is flexible and always changing.
Besides he seems to be a great human being.

Thank you once more!

by yarabahia

Hi Yara,
No worries about multiple comments - I never know how these things really work anyway...
I think that by studying both at the old medicine hospital and with Pichest you will get a very good, broad set of tools. I agree with you that there is an unfortunate gap between the Western approach (levels and diplomas) and the traditional approach (just trust your teacher and learn whatever (s)he has to give).
Again, best of luck, and I'd love to know how it goes for you!

by sbw2109

Thank you Sharon, I'll keep you updated!

I'll be heading to Chiang Mai in March, hopefully the classes will be smaller and I'll bring tons of skills with me.


by yarabahia

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