Talking to a Masseuse

September 3, 2001

Although Bangkok is filled with massage establishments, it can be hard to find a truly good masseuse. I was very happy when I found Sunthan. She is a 24-year old woman who now owns a small massage business in my neighbourhood. I have been a regular customer since the doors opened in October.

Sunthan first worked as an employee at her present location along with four other women. When her boss decided to go out of business this May, Sunthan convinced a co-worker to become partners with her and buy the business.

She explained, “We each needed 22,500 baht (500 US dollars). We bought the air conditioner, one sofa, chairs, a telephone, plants, two mattresses, massage oils, pants for clients to wear while they get a massage, two fans, towels, buckets, soap and brushes for cleaning people’s feet. We sewed the curtains, made the signs and built the shelves ourselves.” When asked where the investment money came from, she told me “I borrowed it from my family and friends. I pay030901k1.jpg back about 3,000 baht (66 US dollars) a month.”

A one-hour foot or traditional Thai massage costs 200 baht (4.40 US dollars). When it is not busy, the women usually throw in a half-hour more for ‘free’ hoping for a tip and to keep their customers happy. Sunthan stated, “We work from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. every day and alternate customers between us. On Monday-Friday we usually have three to four customers total per day. On Saturday and Sunday we get up to ten.”

The women pay 5,000 baht (111 US dollars) per month to rent the small business space. Electricity costs about 500 baht (11 US dollars) and the air conditioner stays off until a customer arrives. When asked if she likes her present job, she said, “If I find a job that pays me more money, I will take it. I make 8,000 baht (178 US dollar) a month now if I am lucky.”

When I asked her what she likes to do for fun, she replied without hesitation, “Sleep!” Not only does she have up to an 84-hour work week but she is also030901k2.jpg the single mother of a five-year-old daughter named Lalita. No wonder she is tired.

When asked about her education, she said, “I went to school until the age of nine. Then my family moved to Bangkok to get work. I got a job helping to build condominiums…they paid me 60 baht (1.30 US dollars) a day when I started and 148 baht (3.28 US dollars) when I finished (at age 22). I went back to school for over a year.” She then took an eight-day massage course, a fact that stunned me because she gives one great massage. She has been a masseuse for the last two years.

She lives with her mother, step-father, and daughter in a small tin-roofed house that they built. They pay 700 baht (15.50 US dollars) per month to rent the land they live on, 500 baht (11 US dollars) for electricity, and 200 baht (4.40 US dollars) for water. The four-person family needs 5,600 baht per month for food (1.11 US dollars per person per day). Sunthan spends 570 baht a month on transportation for her and030901k3.jpg her daughter. She is the main financial support of her household.

The family owns a refrigerator and a television and has no phone or stereo. When asked why her electric bill is so high, she responded, “My house does not have a number assigned to it so we cannot have our own electricity meter. We buy electricity from a neighbour. Electricity should be four baht per unit but the neighbour charges us double.”

Her mother is 50 years old and does not work. Her step-father is 68 years old and works as a gardener when possible. She stated, “Sometimes he has a job for the day, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he can’t go because it is raining.” He can earn 180 baht (4 US dollars) per day.

When asked what she would do if hypothetically given 5,000 baht (111 US dollars), she thought long and hard. “I would fix our house,” she said finally. As long as the customers keep coming, Sunthan and her family will keep scraping by.

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