The Lao Foot Massage

Shop front near Luang Prabang airport
This restaurant even helpfully tells you it is opposite the airport, in case you missed that big building to the left.

Today was a travel day, moving from Laos to Malaysia, on my way to Myanmar, so nothing much to tell you, except that exchange rates at Luang Prabang airport are excellent. I had 200,000 kip left, which is worth $24, and they happily gave me $23 there. Unusual. Brilliant. There are restaurants directly opposite the airport, but having walked there I was happy to pay slightly inflated prices inside to use up the other £3 worth of kip I had left.

Luang Prabang's new airport
Luang Prabang’s new airport.

Tuesday, then, my last full day in Laos, and I was reminded, as I walked past a place offering them, that one of my favourite things here is a massage. Foot and leg, please. I decided to walk a bit further, down to the main tourist strip, which has at least two massage shops next to each other, from which the cry of “Hello, massage?” rings out often enough that anyone called massage would feel very popular indeed. I’d shared a laugh about hello massage which a  passing Lao man on my first day in Luang Prabang, and that memory was enough to take me back there.

I arrived, and answered “hello, massage?” with a firm “yes!”, sending small Lao ladies scurrying, as if they couldn’t quite decide what to do now someone had said yes. Eventually they decided that downstairs was the right place for me, I sat down, and a young lady, braces on her teeth, washed my feet and got started on the foot and leg massage. Even that lower limb massage is quite an intimate thing, and I spent the first few minutes working out whether looking at her was rude or the very opposite. We did the ‘where you from?’ bit and I settled back, podcasts in my ear. A minute or two later she tickled both feet to get my attention, then seemed to be asking whether that was good or not, but I think she was actually checking whether I was going to squirm. No squirming here. I settled back again, and she got firm thumbs into the base of my feet. A little while later she gently slapped my leg to get my attention and gave me an ego boost.

“You handsome!”

Well, thank you very much. I had *just* washed my hair for the first time in days, and clearly that had had an effect. It is slightly awkward being paid a compliment like that when the giver could be your daughter, but never mind. Thanks!

About half way through, Sia told me her name and found out mine. One other gentleman had come down from upstairs but otherwise the place was empty – just me and the massage ladies, some outside keeping up the ‘hello, massage?’ siren song, others walking through to take selfies or plug their phones in. Now the owner, or at least the lady who takes the money, came and sat next to me. She paused for a minute, to let me concentrate, then said;

“You handsome!”

Again, thank you very much.

“You are… 30?”

Well, no. Or yes, but also add a decade or so. The other girl on the room, lying down on a couch, chimed in with

“40-handsome!” and rolled over to go to sleep, her bon mot for the day delivered.

As Viang (by now we’d swapped names) started her spiel, I remembered the words of my Lao neighbour in Vientiane, who had several times joked (I think) that I was not allowed to go to the night market on my own, because I would be stolen. She had taken us to a local ‘sauna’ (more like a torture house – plastic rollers up and down your back, as you lie under a heated blanket, then retire to the next room for even more heat), and there at one point 5 ladies had been stood round my bed. Nothing I said was quite able to put them off. “You not so fat!” was the high point of the praise, but compared to the other middle-aged men they see, that was indeed unusual. I mentioned my big nose, but that just led to “you give me big nose baby!”.

I was getting a distinct echo of that here as Viang asked if I had a girlfriend. It didn’t matter what I said, she pointed to the empty chairs either side of me to make the point that there was no girlfriend here.

“I’ll be your girlfriend” (with a lot of laughter). “Can I have your number?” I pulled the ‘no phone’ excuse. I couldn’t tell whether Sia was amused or put out by all this, but she carried on squeezing and priming my feet and calves, so all was good.

“After you finish, I massage you? With oil?” suggested Viang. “When you leave?” asked Sia, “come back tomorrow?”

I felt ever so popular. I paid, tipped, and left. I did not go back the next day.

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