The lights are dimmed and the temperature is comfortable. The small room, painted in calming earth tones, smells like an oriental version of lavender oil mixed with tigerbalm, exactly the way Payao Khantikunanan likes it. Before starting his massaging routine, Mr Khantikunanan, 52, walks around the massage table to the dark wooden dresser and changes the music to something relaxing. Suddenly, a flock of birds chirp over the rhythm of a waterfall in the distance.
With the mood set, he stretches his arms and fingers, removes his slippers and steps towards the table. With his elbows, he starts the search for his client's pressure points in his quest to relieve bottled up stress. "When I first came here," soft-spoken Mr Khantikunanan remembers, "my English was very poor. I tried to learn from the dictionary, but sometimes picked the wrong word to use. One day, a client came and I told them 'where is the problem? I will repair'.
"The man started laughing and laughing. Then he told me it's not repair because that is with cars; it's relief. I relieve problems." In fact, when Mr Khantikunanan was 22, he was studying car mechanics as well as massage therapy. Had it not been for his older sister's push and his talented hands, he likely would have become a mechanic in a Bangkok garage. Fortunately for people in need of stress relief in Abu Dhabi, Mr Khantikunanan is currently the senior Thai masseur with Eden Spa & Health Club at Le Méridien in the capital. He's been there nearly 17 years and expects to carry on for at least another three.
"I live near my work, have friends here and feel safe," he says." If I go home I cannot make the same money I make here. In my country, if I don't have guests, there's no money. Here, if I don't have clients I still have income." And that's not something to be taken lightly, especially not if you were raised in a family of 10 and the rice farm crops weren't always sufficient. Mr Khantikunanan was born in a small village near Korat City (Nakhon Ratchasima) in north-eastern Thailand. He was the sixth child among three brothers and five sisters.
"It wasn't always easy with so many," he says. "I went to school only for four years when I was little and then started working." After a range of small jobs in his village, Mr Khantikunanan managed to secure a position as gold smith in Bangkok at the age of 12. He was an apprentice in a big company that made necklaces. It was his first time in the big city and he loved it. So when he returned to his family to help out on the rice farm, he knew he was destined to work in the city. Ten years later, he made the move to Thailand's capital in search of an education and a better future.
"I didn't have chance to learn when I was young," he remembers. "I wanted to improve my language because it was very poor. "The second time I went to Bangkok it was for study." His older sister was working as a masseuse at the time and was able to support him financially. He studied technical engineering and electronics for almost two years, at the same time learning the art of massage at the Thai Association for Massage, an alternative medicine clinic.
At the time, a one-year course cost 600 baht (Dh60) but now, Mr Khantikunanan says, 3,000 baht will buy only one month of training. "Before, you needed to train a long time and have a lot of knowledge. Not only practical [training]," he says. "In the morning I'd learn three hours for the cars and then in the afternoon for massage. My sister paid for it all. I did not like massage very much, but she said, 'continue' and because she paid I could not say no. I am indebted to my older sister in many ways."
Mr Khantikunanan remembers how he would make 1,000 baht a month in the garage and triple that amount by massaging at the weekends. "I'd only work eight days a month in the clinic and make more than 2,000 baht. I chose to follow the money and drop the car engines," he explains. "After years with a Master, my income became better and better. Sometimes I would make 7000 baht a month." Over the years Mr Khantikunanan became famous in Bangkok for his strong hands and rigorous massaging style. He continued to
work at the alternative medicine clinic and built up a loyal client base, just as he has done in Abu Dhabi over the past 17 years. The only thing was that he had no steady salary. The clinic took only a 30 per cent commission and he could schedule his own time, but when he started a family he wanted a stable income. "There were over 40 masseurs at the clinic," he says. "It was always a struggle to find a free table and most masseurs had a professional life besides it. During the week they would be teachers or police officers and in the weekend massage for a little extra cash."
As fate would have it, a French chef working for Le Méridien in Abu Dhabi was visiting Thailand in search of experienced masseurs. Mr Khantikunanan's reputation had surpassed him and the chef asked him to apply for the job. "My application said: English poor, reading poor, writing poor, listening poor, but experience excellent. They chose me because they were looking for experience." At Le Méridien there is great scope to save money. The hotel has several buildings reserved for staff in the Tourist Club area near the hotel, where he and the seven other massage therapists live.
Meals are provided for in the restaurant three times a day and the medical insurance is taken care of. "It was a good chance for someone without a high school diploma, no?" His family remained in Thailand when he came to Abu Dhabi. "I try to go home for a month or two each year, but it's still difficult," he says. "When I send money back, it is so strong, I have so much more. They have a better life like this." He is now the proud father of three - two boys and one girl.
"Five years, five years, five years," he laughs. "That was the plan. This way the older ones can help the younger ones." Mr Khantikunanan finds it very difficult to be away from his wife and children, and says he couldn't have maintained his long distance marriage without his second true love - squash. "That's why I can stay here more than 10 years," he says. "You need to focus on something. When I finish from massage, I go to the court immediately."
Mr Khantikunanan works six days a week, from noon to 9pm, depending on demand for his services. On his day off, usually a Wednesday, he'll clean his apartment, do his laundry and then head for the squash courts. One day, Mr Khantikunanan would like to return to Bangkok, but with his children getting ready for high school and college, he is not sure when this will be. Meanwhile, he is philosophical - not least about the fact that female masseuses are much more in demand than male.
His woman colleagues bring in about Dh40.000 a month for the hotel, with a one-hour relaxing massage costing up to Dh320. Mr Khantikunanan makes only half of that in a good month. "That's the business," he says. "Ladies bring more money." To start on his own here is not an option with the exorbitant housing prices and unstable income. "Also, I am spoiled with first class equipment," he nods. "This is a hospital table. Very good, very comfortable and adjustable to everyone. They are at least Dh4000 if you want one for yourself."
In Thailand, however, things are a little bit cheaper. His wife is currently renting a three-story house in Bangkok for 6000 baht. She rents out the top floor to a family and the ground floor is still empty. "I told her keep it, keep it," he says. "Maybe I will start up shop in the house. That's my plan if I'm finished here." firstname.lastname@example.org