Hands-On In Cambodia
By: Ann Creevey. Picture by : Jon Bugge. ( Jul - Aug, 2001 Volume 1 No.3 )

In the large airy room on Norodom Boulevard which houses one of Phnom Penh's most innovative therapeutic massage centers, Tath Nigah is limbering up for another day at work. New age music pipes softly in the background. She has already donned her white coat and now she feels her way to the waiting client. "What would you like me to concentrate on? Your back? Shoulders?" she asks her client, and soon begins to work with strong, confident strokes.
Nigah is one of the blind masseurs who manage the independent business, Seeing Hands, as a co-operative one of a growing number of professional therapeutic massage centers visitors can now enjoy in Cambodia. Her office is in the NCDP Center, near Wat Phnom on Norodom Boulevard. More and more visitors to the Kingdom want comfort and relaxation during their stay. Along with luxury restaurants, sports facilities and gyms and five-star hotels, leisure pursuits like massage and beauty therapy have become booming business here.

Seeing Hands was the first, and is totally Cambodian-owned and managed. It began life as a Non-Government Organization (NGO) funded project to give visually impaired and blind Khmers a chance to live and work self-sufficiently in a country that traditionally regards the blind as dependents who must be supported by their families. They are widely considered uneducable and unemployable. Seeing Hands was born out of fortunate chance, when Father John Barth, Project Director for Catholic Foreign Missionary Society of America's Cambodian branch, Maryknoll, met a blind Khmer called Sous Sothi who ran a massage business in Montreal, Canada. Sous Sothi had returned to Cambodia to visit his family. Maryknoll's mission is to help the blind in Cambodia. Father Barth made him an offer to stay on longer than he had planned and train staff for a blind massage centre. He accepted. It was 1996. Tath Nigah, then 20, was a member of that first class. Seeing Hands, as the project became known, was a chance to live independently that she never thought she would have. "When the people from Maryknoll came to my village and found me, I had never been to school. I did not think I could do anything with my life. I was like a frog in a well."

Today she is a member of a thriving business, one of several quality massage establishments springing up in Cambodia and perhaps the most successful. Seeing Hands now has three branches, has been financially independent for nearly three years, and is currently looking to expand again. The 13 masseurs at Seeing Hands' three Phnom Penh branches are kept very busy with a constant stream of expatriate, Khmer and tourist clients, enjoying an hour of firm massage in the Shiatsu and Anma styles for US$4 for foreigners and 10,000 riel for Khmers. The masseurs believe they are positive role models for other blind and visually impaired Khmers. Regular customers of Seeing Hands, and there are many, swear by them as great masseurs with a very special touch. "We are blind. We feel the world. I believe that makes us good masseurs," Nigah agreed. But if the strong strokes of Shiatsu are not what you are looking for, there are other choices. Across town, Indonesian Endang Hasthowati and her half dozen Khmer staff are also preparing for the day. The massage treatment Endang's In Style spa offers is unique and luxuriant _ US$15 will buy an hour-long full-body massage and scrub, followed by a steam and herbal bath using traditional herbal ingredients to a recipe she learned from her grandmother. Milk-and-honey scrubs, foot massages and facials are among the treatments where clients can luxuriate in various traditional, homemade Indonesian blends of aromatic herbs _ as exotic and relaxing as any massage and beauty treatment available anywhere in the world.
Endang, 37, painstakingly prepares and grinds the natural ingredients that go into her therapies herself. The essential massage oils come from Bali. "I practice a sort of massage called Pijat Urat. Indonesia is very famous for its massage and Pijat Urat is a deep muscle massage which is at the same time very gentle _ not like Thai or Shiatsu," she explained. "It is very soothing. My customers often want me to tell them how to do it but it takes a special touch and time to train properly." Call In Style on 023 211 173. Today tourism is booming in Cambodia and massage therapy is a thriving industry, to the delight of visitors wishing to unwind while enjoying their tropical Asian holiday. Whatever style of massage visitors wish is available in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, from Ayuvedic to aroma-therapeutic, Swedish to Thai.

Sapor's, (023 217 581) famous for many years as Cambodia's leading modeling agency, has branched out in recent years. Sapor herself offers courses in make-up, hairstyling and communications, but also employs Australian masseur and aroma therapist Maggie Counihan by appointment only. Ms Counihan, 53, works her magic with her own style of massage _ a hybrid of the various styles she including Swedish, reflexology and Reiki techniques. The key ingredient is her range of healing, aromatic oils. Treatments cost around US$20 for an initial individual assessment, an hour and a half of massage, and aromatherapy involving fragrant, healing oils selected according to each client's needs. "I suppose I've been in massage therapy for 10 years now, and aromatherapy for about six of those," Ms Counihan said. "I'm a firm believer in what I do. Aromatherapy is incredibly powerful and I can make a long list of the benefits of massage it improves sleep, replaces vital energy, improves circulation, releases nervous tension, its an important tool in preventative medicine the list is endless." Ms Counihan said she has already attracted a loyal following and as well as continuing to work with Sapor is launching her own business, Living Health (012 985 175), which will also offer massage and aromatherapy as well as sell essential oils including lavender, rosemary and genuine Cambodian lemon grass.. But Phnom Penh is not the only centre for healing massage therapy in Cambodia.

"I am almost certainly opening a center in Siem Reap within a year," In Style’s Endang revealed. "We will offer the full package of massage and beauty treatments, and accommodation in Balinese and Khmer style luxury bungalows will be included. It won't be too expensive. The aim is to keep it affordable," she said. But if top end is what you are after, you don't have to wait. The luxurious Angkor Spa at the Sofitel Angkor Royal in Siem Reap and The Spa at the Grand at the Grand Hotel D'Angkor are both five star massage and spa facilities. The Spa at the Grand, for instance, offers scrubs, body wraps, balneo therapy and thalasso therapy as well as six styles of massage, including Shiatsu and Swedish, and classifies itself as a spa resort. Angkor Spa specializes in Thai-style massage and the masseurs there have been brought in from Thailand to ensure that authentic touch. So when the hectic pace of Phnom Penh gets too much, or a hard day touring the temples of Angkor has left your muscles aching, Cambodia has plenty of help on hand. Relax.