My Teacher's teacher
February of this year I traveled with a friend and fellow thai massage practitioner to Chiang Mai, Thailand to study with Pichet Boonthume and Homprang Chaleekanha. Pichet was my teacher's (Michael Sitzer's) teacher and Homprang was suggested to me weeks before my departure by a friend.
Since we flew into Bangkok, we decided to stay there for two nights before going to Chiang Mai. We stayed blocks away from Khoa San Road and traveled to temples by tuk-tuk and ferried through the Chao Phraya River. The temples were ornate and packed with people, but I found such serenity, stillness, beauty and awe around every corner. I'm so grateful for my short time there.
The journey to find Pichet's class was really an adventure. With very few directions, I set out to find him. I was told to go to the South Chiang Mai gate and catch a yellow bus (called a songthaw) from there. I knew the bus was heading to Hang Dong, and that Pichet's street had a small street sign, that might or might not be obstructed! Many told me not to worry, that often passengers will tell you when it's time for you to get off the bus. I guess if you are a foreigner on this bus, you must be going to Pichet's!
Before catching the songthaw, I went to the market and bought offerings for Pichet's class: a bundle of flowers, candles, incense and fruit. Every Monday, all of the students make their offerings to Pichet and to the altar with their payment enclosed. I chose a big bouquet of yellow mums at a window at the end of the market, and while I waited to pay, someone said to me "Pichet?". A Japanese woman named Manna was also looking for Pichet, and she had less information that I did. A friend told her to go to this market and look for other foreigners holding flowers. I wasn't the only one there. Luckily, there was a Russian woman who knew the way. We both jumped into the back of the song thaw and followed her.
At the entrance of Pichet's classroom, many paper blessings were hanging from the ceiling. I was the first to arrive, so I took my offerings and placed them in a bowl and made myself comfortable at the front of the room. Every morning Pichet offers a dharma talk and begins the day with chanting and a bit of instruction on self care, then organically moves into whatever he feels like teaching. Commonly he'll choose someone in the class to start working on, and then everyone else gathers around him. His teaching is "Thai Style". He does not lead you through a formal type of demonstration, with verbal instructions on what he is doing. Instead he encourages you to figure it out yourself, by palpating client tissue, and calling upon your own body knowledge and intuition. If you ask him to tell you what he's doing, he will instruct you to lie down so that you can feel the technique. It reminded me of the style of teaching between a master and an apprentice, and Pichet is most certainly a master of Thai massage. Many of his students were established Thai Massage therapists, some of ten to even twenty years of practice.
For my second week, I attended the Baan Hom Samuphrai School for an advanced class with Homprang Chaleekanha. It's a live-in school providing private and shared bungalows, three meals a day, and an herbal steam every evening at 6 o'clock.. I arrived in the evening, greeted again at the entrance by prayer flags, and just in time for my first steam. I quickly changed into my bathing suit and walked down to the wooden stairs to the steam room. I could hear people talking when I entered, but could see nothing but fog and a small window on the back wall. For at least twenty minutes I got to know my new friends without ever seeing anyone's face. After the hot steam there was a cold plunge outside to finish the treatment and warm ginger tea. Then I got dressed and made my way to an amazing family style dinner, where we all talked and shared our stories by the fire.
The study with Homprang was very different than the study with Pichet. Instead of the organic flow teaching style that Pichet intuitivly led, Homprang had a scheduled curriculum for the entire week. Every morning at 7 AM we began with a beautiful chant to Dr. Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, the ancient founder of Thai healing (and the same chant that all of the thai massage schools used) and then we would exercise, using a traditional Thai exercise routine deciphered from ancient paintings at Wat Po Temple, called Rasidaton. Then breakfast at 8 AM and class promptly at 9 AM. The first day was focused on anatomy and assessment. The assessment was verbal and then palpatory, beginning massage treatment during assessment. Then we worked on sen (energy) lines and practiced three different protocols that are good for women's health. We finished on the last two days with herbalism, collecting all of the roots and plants ourselves from spots around the school. Of the plants we used Wild Turmeric, Japanese Turmeric, Camphor leaves, Plai, Poison Bulb (surprisingly not poisonous), and Castor Oil Plant. After harvesting we used a mortar and pestle to grind some of the roots and made heated herbal "medicine balls" out of cloth. The grapefruit sized "medicine balls" are used during massage to sooth with heat, and treat with the herbs inside.
On the last day, we did an intense heat treatment called the "Grilling Bed". We used a slatted bamboo bed and place branches of Camphor, Castor Oil plant and covered them in Poison Bulb. Then we placed a blanket on top and a bed of lit charcoals underneath. The "Grilling Bed" was aptly named, I felt like I was being grilled and it was VERY intense, but afterwards I felt incredible. There wasn't a tight muscle in my body!
I'm so extremely grateful for my experiences in Thailand, for my teachers and my friends. I look forward to my continued efforts to return and bring other students with me. I'm so eternally grateful for this ancient healing art, it's history and heritage and all the wisdom it has gathered along the way. Pictured below are, from left to right: Manna, Pichet, and Homprang.