In Search of the Perfect MassageMay 16, 2010
One could be forgiven for thinking that Bali’s economy is driven by massages. This most pervasive of industries flourishes in every niche environment, from sand-swept noisy beaches to purpose-built monuments to sybaritic indulgence, where catatonic voluptuaries lie blissfully de-stressing for an hour or two.
The beach end of the market suits many, but is not really my style. I like shade. I like clean oil, unadulterated with the gritty sand that insinuates itself into my personal crevices and, when combined with the rhinoceros-like palms of the beach vendors, provides an unwanted and painful exfoliation which is less than relaxing. I like a modicum of privacy – and it’s hard to get this when the typical beach massage is in public, and involves a tag-team of manicurists, pedicurists and purveyors of sarongs, watches, sunglasses and time-share deals, all nattering non-stop. And I like to get what I pay for, which is supposed to be sixty minutes of sensual pleasure, but is invariably thirty minutes of getting lightly smeared with industrial-strength oil which is impossible to remove without ten litres of bulk detergent and an angle grinder.
So having rejected the idea of touristy beach-front massages, what remained for me was to explore the variety of offerings from the thousands of providers who operate typical massage venues here. This is a task that I have undertaken with great gusto – and what a journey of discovery it has been.
The most basic are those curtained alcoves behind shops – mere afterthoughts grafted on to market stalls for those times when T-shirt sales are slow. They are invariably hot, cramped and lacking in even the most basic standards – like a clean sheet or sarong, or sometimes even a massage table. These are often not big on privacy, with friends and relatives of the masseuse frequently dropping in unannounced to stare at my quivering bulk and comment loudly about my physical shortcomings. It’s not all bad – these blow-ins seem to be kindly types who offer to take my clothes away and ‘fold’ them, or check my pockets for unwanted insects. Or they volunteer to take my wallet to ensure that my rupiah notes are put away in denominational sequence and my credit cards in alphabetical order. Such convenience! Some of these visitors must be qualified healers themselves, because after laying their uninvited hands on me for several seconds during my massage, they each seem to expect to be paid fifty thousand rupiah at its conclusion.
But the biggest give-away that you are in the wrong place is the quality of the practitioner patter. An occasional “Are you OK?” is barely acceptable. Why do they ask that? Have they just done something tricky that is about to leave you paralysed? A constant stream of invasive personal questions, or complaints about their boyfriend’s personal habits is not OK. But the absolute worst is that whining litany that commences two minutes into the service: “You give me tip? Yes? You give me tip, OK?” and is repeated non-stop for the entire massage. A massage is supposed to leave you relaxed, not homicidal. After such several experiences a decade or so back, I stopped going to places like that and went upmarket.
So began my brief flirtation with ‘top-end’ spas. In these, the decor and ambiance is all. The price is certainly top-end as well, with published rates often swelling to majestic proportions after previously unnoticed tax and service charges are added. Even without the blokey services like sliced cucumber on my eyes (which they wouldn’t even let me eat), the prices were too high. And unfortunately, like some bottom-of-the-heap places, I often found that the massage experience itself was somewhat ordinary, consisting of a wimpy effleurage with little deep tissue work. In some ways, being short-changed with a fifty minute session instead of the promised hour (de rigeur for many up-market places, it seems) was almost a relief.
Where I go now is to what I call the the magic mid-range places – a wide selection of simple, clean salons which are home to some of the most brilliant masseuses in Bali. I don’t know whether it is the in-salon training they get, or whether astute management chooses good staff – but for me, it is a winning formula. My favourite practitioners are those who are trained, but intuitive. They may have their own basic style, but because a good massage is a conversation between their hands and my body – and because my body changes from day to day – I want someone who speaks the tactile dialect fluently, adapting their style to what my muscles tell them I need at the time. I now regularly visit perhaps two or three great little salons, meaning that I have a choice of five or six of the best masseuses in Bali.
So am I going to tell you where these wonderful places are? And who the ‘best’ masseuses are in Bali? Sorry, no. It would be like my trying to tell you what is the ‘best’ work of art, or ‘best’ clothes designer. Massage, like art, is intimate, personal and utterly subjective. If you are a massage aficionado, you don’t need my help to find your perfect practitioner. If you aren’t, then it doesn’t matter anyway.