Thursday, 5 May 2011

Massage in a Hill Tribe Village

On holiday in 2010 I received a wonderful Thai Massage from an Italian called Andreas. I couldn’t speak for a while afterwards, I was so blissed out. I already knew I wanted to learn Thai Massage, so asked about his training, and he told me about the Sunshine Network. So when I went to South East Asia, I booked onto one of their courses.
The Sunshine Network was founded by a German man who took the name Asokananda. He studied Northern style Thai Massage extensively for many years and developed the practice which he taught through the network. He died a few years ago, but the network continues as his students pass on his teachings.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai MassageAsokananda married a member of the Lahu tribe. The Lahu are believed to originate in Tibet, and now live in Hill Villages in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. Asokananda built a school in the village where he lived with his family, and the Sunshine network continues to teach there.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai Massage

The village is on a steep slope in a beautiful area of jungle. Things appear very basic, with bamboo and wood huts crowded together, with pigs, dogs and chickens foraging beneath them. However, things are changing, with mobile phones commonplace and rumours of an internet café opening.

Lucinda Cracknell Thai MassageThe Lahu were very welcoming. Some students stayed in houses with families, and everyone seemed very pleased to have us around. Some locals took advantage of the school in their midst more than others - one man would turn up regularly, and lie down in front of one of us to be massaged.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai MassageMy home for the two weeks was a bamboo hut. It was perfectly located close (but not too close) to the school’s wash facilities, with 3 squat toilets and 2 hot showers. It did however take a few nights to get used to the sounds from the pig pen behind, and the cockerels that would crow underneath it at 3.30am!
Classes were held on a purpose built open platform. We were a large group, so after a demonstration we would split and work in different areas, practising on each other with support from our tutors and several assistants.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai Massage
Nicki, our tutor, demonstrates a side stretch
We worked through the body over 10 days or so, from feet to head, in the four positions – lying on the back, the side, the front and sitting. The legs are a great focus in Thai massage, especially Northern Style, as it developed to treat farmers and labourers doing manual work, rather than people who sit down all day. At the end of the course we put it all together, performing a full body massage. We had a practice, and then an assessed massage, where a tutor provided feedback and suggestions to enable us to take our skills forward.
The course is approached very much as a retreat, for the participants to learn about themselves, away from distractions, not just a massage class. We had meditation and yoga each morning, and prayers and chanting at the start and end of each day’s teaching.
For me, it was definitely much more than a class. I have travelled extensively in basic conditions, bush camping in Africa and Australia, so I thought I would be prepared for life in the village. However, it was a lot more challenging for me than I expected. It was partly due to the passing of years since I bush camped – now I’m a little older, I like a few more home comforts in my life. More than that though, I found it difficult to be living in such close proximity – to the group, the villagers, and several types of animal. I found it a little claustrophobic, and it was hard for me to retain a sense of self. However, in that experience I did learn about myself (I need space!) and I was forced to more actively manage my emotions and reactions for the first time on my journey, to make sure I made the most I could of my time there. After all, this too would end.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai Massage
Classes continued in the cold, with a lot of blankets
In our second week, storms rolled in and the temperature dropped to freezing with non-stop rain. To cope with the lack of heating, or even insulation, most of us wore all our clothes at once, plus a few blankets for good measure! It was hard work, and physically fairly miserable. However, as is often the case, hardship brought the group together, figuratively and literally. We all contributed to keeping group spirits high with stories and encouragement, and when necessary huddled together for warmth.
And of course, after a few days, the weather lifted and we woke one morning to blue skies. I immediately went for a walk away from the village through the hills, to enjoy the sun on my skin and to find a little of the space I’d been hankering for.
And now I look back on the experience, how do I feel about it? I have to say I won’t be heading back to the village in a hurry; it was a little bit too challenging for me, although I think it would be easier, knowing what to expect. But I loved the course; the massage we learnt was beautiful, a flowing, dynamic movement, truly the dance of Thai Massage and the way I now practise. I met a range of people living very different lives (one group had just spent 4 months in Antarctica) and through them found out about a lot of possibilities I hadn’t previously considered. A number of people practised acro-yoga, for which Thai Massage is a prerequisite to teaching, and there is in France a group teaching Osteo-Thai, which I plan to visit as soon as I can. I can’t deny that my time in the Lahu Village has given my some great stories to tell. It didn’t take long for the memories of the discomfort to fade, and what remains is a rare experience of another way of life shared with warm and giving people, and reminiscing about it makes me smile.
Lucinda Cracknell Thai Massage


  1. I'm off to Chiang Mai in a couple of weeks to do yoga, looking forward to massage after practice.

    1. Lucky you, it's such a wonderful city. There are plenty of options for massage - try Nerve Touch, by the Tha Pae gate. Have fun!