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Masseurs in Demand

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Nation (Thailand), January 2, 2002.

Is the opportunity to "go inter" - a "Thinglish" (Thai-English hybrid) expression meaning going abroad to work - limited to Thais who are proficient in a second language, particularly English, with some experience working at an internationally recognized company?

Not any more, if the example of three blind traditional Thai massage therapists is anything to go by. At the end of January they will be going to work in Italy after signing a three-year contract with an Italian doctor. Keenly interested in Thai massage, the doctor plans to open a massage parlour as part of an alternative-medicine clinic in his home town. The doctor is one of numerous foreign friends who convinced Father Charles J Velardo to supply them with graduates of the Skills Development Centre for the Blind, a training clinic for blind masseurs located in Nonthaburi's Pak Kret district.

Father Charles, the manager of the centre, initiated the use of blind specialists in the practice of traditional Thai massage.

"It's time to introduce blind Thai masseurs to the world labour market," said Father Charles, who added he had only recently made the decision to oblige foreign customers who had visited the clinic and fallen in love with the local form of massage therapy.

At first he was reluctant to send his students to work abroad, he said, despite the high demand from overseas customers, because he wanted to make sure the foreigners did not regard blind Thai masseurs merely as exotic Asian "souvenirs".

Nothing could be further from the truth. Foreign customers realized they had been treated to an exceptional traditional massage therapy that was only made possible by the unique course taught at the school for the blind. Furthermore, it is common knowledge that the blind have an exceptional sense of touch.

The intensive 1,500-hour course, specially designed for blind students, takes about two years to complete. By way of comparison, the Public Health Ministry's massage training course for sighted people is an 800-hour one.

Certified by the ministry, graduates are accredited massage therapists. But it is a long haul and not easy to complete. Not every blind student who attends the school has achieved the goal.

"Our massage therapy is a blend of art and science. It is that delicate. With their patience and unique sense of touch, only blind students can endure this kind of intensive training," said Father Charles.

Unlike other massage schools, students at the Skills Development Centre are required to complete a Principal Anatomy course, which is adapted from a similar course taught in nursing schools. They are taught that pressing on or massaging various parts of the body has a healing effect on individual parts and organs.

While about 120 sighted masseurs who were among the National Institute of Thai Traditional Medicine's first graduating class await their chance to make money abroad, Italian medical practitioners are queuing up to employ blind massage therapists from the Nonthaburi centre.

Talkative Manope Takhiangkorn, 23, is the only one of the three blind masseurs flying to Italy in January who has been outside the country - or even on an aero plane - before. He is also an accomplished judo expert who represented his country at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney.

Manope lost his sight as a 10-year-old in an accident while playing with a catapult with his friends in Lop Buri, where he grew up. After that he was sent to live and study at a high school for the blind in Bangkok, before his teacher introduced him to the Nonthaburi Centre.

"If I can establish myself in Italy, I'll be living there for up to 10 years to gain experience and, of course, make money." Following that, Manope hopes to become a massage instructor at the centre.

Manope's more reticent colleague, Mahesak Wongnok, 22, came to the centre two years ago after learning about the massage skills development course from a radio programme. His goal ever since hearing the programme has been to be able to support himself financially.

After going blind as the result of an adverse reaction to medicine at the age of 12, Mahesak continued to live with his family in a remote village in the Northeastern province of Nong Khai. His best friend growing up was - and remains to this day - his radio. "It's a great channel though which I continue to learn," he said.

Having come across many customers who are struggling to cope with stress in their lives, Mahesak plans to study toward a degree in psychological counseling, saying he wants to be able to address his clients' non-physical problems properly, rather than just being a good listener.

Friendly Bundit Ritnuan, 23, could barely contain his excitement at the thought of flying in an jet and living abroad. Bundit, who was born and raised in the northeastern province of Loei, was totally blind by the age of 12.

One day in 1997 he attended a seminar, at which a speaker told him about the centre and asked if he was interested in attending a massage class there.

"To tell the truth, I really didn't want to leave home, but I had to come because this is the only place I can fulfil my dream," he recalled.

To prepare his three masseurs for living and working in Italy, Father Charles has been teaching them Italian and cooking Italian dishes for them. "You know what? We're all getting chubbier because of the Italian food," joked Bundit.

Father Charles said the Italian employer is awaiting approval of the three Thais' work permits from the Italian Labour Ministry. The country grants a limited number of work permits to foreigners every year under a quota system.

"Their chances of getting work permits are very high. They are going be the first three traditional Thai massage therapists in Italy, so they're not competing against any other candidates under the work permit quota," said Father Charles.


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