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Looking back in time I suffered a certain chronological disbelief. I recently met Kam Thye Chow and our conversation had evoked memories of Asokananda and Chaiyuth Priyasith. Chaiyuth Priyasith is a famous Thai massage teacher in Chiang Mai who passed, transformed in 2004! Is this possible? 12 years ago? He was not my teacher in any concrete sense. Many stories circulated about his eccentricities and unique massage style, his love of Western music and Western women. I had been spending substantial amounts of time in Chiang Mai for a couple years but had become a student of Pichest Boonthumme and remained fairly faithful to his practice. Finally a moment arrived when I chose to seek Chaiyuth.

I called on the phone and he offered a 5am appointment Saturday morning. Now we all know that Thailand is a hot place, but on this January morning in the mountains of the North, formerly known as the Lanna kingdom, there was a chill in the air. My walk up along the moat at Kotchasan rd. and past Thae Pae gate was punctuated with shivers and I walked briskly to his house. He was there in the grey morning shadows and led me around to his massage room, up a small set of steps. He was small of stature and seemed more well-groomed than his unconventional reputation and past photo’s might have impressed upon me.

What followed was, to say mildly, an awkward hour and a half. His style was very dynamic, incorporating much of his body with lots of movement, unorthodox positioning’s, and rocking and rolling over his knees. Indeed, of all his students I met, I found only one person who actually mimicked and used such a similar style(while practicing at Pichest’s) in his thai massage dance. The awkwardness came about because I was ‘freezing’ cold. And because there was no netting I was being mercilessly eaten by mosquitos; being stiff as a board is not conducive to receptivity especially with such a dynamic style.

Despite the massage discomfort I was intrigued and happy when he invited me to come back a couple hours later to join him and a group of students for a Spirit dance. A Spirit dance is pragmatically something like a Church fundraiser for a person or group often sponsored at a home or hall but in the Thai Buddhist tradition in which spirits are evoked through trance, dance and herb. The dancers usually wear very ornate costumes and there is lots of smoking of cigarettes or local herbs? and drinking in order to conjure the Spirits! Of course I know only what I have observed with little explanation.

I arrived a bit later that day and now there was a small group gathered. Felicity Joy was there, she was one of his principal students and an ubiquitous figure around Chiang Mai. The room was light and warm now; much different than before and Chaiyuth was looking quite distinguished and composed. A tall woman then came down from upstairs and it turned out to be Chaiyuth’s girlfriend. She came down cutting quite a figure with a garland of flowers around her neck and a flowing wardrobe. I can’t remember her name but she was American. Nor am I sure how long they had been dating but the energy felt special and it seemed that they were both happy and glowing in that moment. Eventually I joined some others of this group and we went to a Spirit dance.

I had attended a couple of Pichest’s Spirit dances but it was still novel to observe and many questions roiled around (and still do) in my head. Were they really channeling spirits? Why do they dance so much? What was it for? Why do they smoke so much? Is alcohol part of the ceremony, or just enjoyment? Why are there money bills attached to that little tree looking thing(a money tree)? At one point Chaiyuth explained to me that he has a particular dance style he called something like a serpent dance or snake dance and there were certain twists and leg rolls that reiterated themselves throughout his dancing. It reminded me of my first salsa dance teacher from Kali, Columbia who had a signature hop and spin flare kick he always did. For Chaiyuth this dance seemed a part of his spirit expression come through trance. During this Spirit dance Chaiyuth made what I might call one of his dramatic statements (highly emphasized). This was in regard to donating to the money tree, and to paraphrase it was basically “don’t be stingy; opening your purse is like opening your heart”. This is part of the very important Thai value of ‘nahm jai’, which is translated as water heart, or generosity. So this is a big theme of the Spirit dance. In my selfish ego process the thought did occur that we were invited just to get our money, but I later realized that truly this was an opportunity and an important lesson. Karma is not just an abstract idea, and doing for others, being generous has immediate personal and spiritual ‘reward’. After that first Spirit dance ended some of us went for dinner in the Old City.

So the next day I was invited to another Spirit dance. The location was farther out of town South along the Ping river. Along the way we stopped for a meal at one of the open stall markets. I said something about not eating meat, or pork or something and he kind of frowned at me and made another dramatic statement ( I think he was just a dramatic, larger than life character). “WHAT, why do you limit yourself? I can eat EVERYTHING”. His arms were outstretched and he was shaking them for emphasis; more words I am still reflecting on.

As the second Spirit dance wore on every one of our group left except me and Chaiyuth. He was in rare form dancing, drinking smoking, enjoying the stream of life and consciousness. He was surely something of a hedonist; a paradoxical person who loved to enjoy life. I was observing and engaged in the event as much as an outsider could be. The flash of spinning costumes, the great billows of smoke, the smiles and laughter all struck me as did the faces sometimes lost in trance, the particular way that people danced around each other and the feeling of mystification and spiritual presence.

As the Spirit dance concluded I was out front talking to a young Thai woman who had intrigued me. There was something of a buzz between us and I was making my best effort to speak Thai. Chaiyuth then sauntered up. He read something of the vibe and put in a lascivious plug for her. I can’t recall his exact words but it was like “BELIEVE me!” He said, “ you will LIKE her! She is very GOOD” as he rolled his tongue across the inside of his cheek in a very suggestive gesture. The next thing I remember I was driving his scooter and he was on the back swaying back and forth as if he might fall off at any moment and he was singing into the wind.

Finally he stood at his threshold facing the driveway as I was leaving. He was asking me about my plans. “ You must come study with me” he said. “I can make you PERFECT!” Again he was speaking dramatically, like a samurai from an old samurai movie, as if every word held great importance. “I am not this littIe body you see before you. I am a DRAGON” he said, as he motioned from one end of the driveway to the other “ from HERE to HERE”!! Words and assurances passed between us I walked down the drive and into the deepening twilight. That was Sunday. On Friday, he was gone; a great dragon on a mystical wind.

Thai massage is much bigger now. And the Chiang Mai of that era has changed so much. Sometimes it is hard to believe it is the same place. Many new students and teachers will not be so lucky to meet the iconic Mr. Chaiyuth Priyasith. I almost didn’t. But I did that last weekend he was on this earth, and he will live on in my memory in greatness and in his humanity both high and low. I still cannot grasp that such as 12 years have passed. Fly free dear teacher Chaiyuth!

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