"McNab said his wife, Jenny, "roared with laughter" when he told her about his plans - and he was sure that his friends from the SAS will be "ringing me up wanting free samples for their wives and girlfriends"."
HEADLINE: Escape: Taiwan: Paper pants and rose petals? Just don't tell the lads...: He's more practised with hand grenades than bath bombs, but Andy McNab puts his macho image aside to face one of his biggest fears - getting tactile - at one of the world's best spas
BYLINE: Andy McNab
After 18 years in the British army, most of it in the SAS, I'm used to being sent on tough missions. So when The Observer asked if I would consider an assignment in Taiwan, I mentally prepared myself for a gruelling trip. What did they want me to cover? How to survive in the rainforest on two cockroaches a day? Or maybe the Taiwanese were getting twitchy about Russian military exercises in China. Whatever it was, I was sure it would mean getting hot, sticky and bitten to death by mosquitoes. But that's the kind of thing I do, so I checked my mozzie net for holes and waited patiently for my mission.
When the orders finally arrived, they came as quite a shock, and it was much, much worse than I had imagined. 'We want you to spend a week in one of the world's ultimate spas,' my contact said, 'the Lalu Hotel on Sun Moon Lake.'
Now I'm not the most tactile person on the planet where stranger-contact is involved. I didn't even like going for physiotherapy after my return to the UK, following the torture and beatings I sustained in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison as a POW. So the thought of volunteering to be scrubbed and massaged was not exactly my idea of fun.
My wife, a veteran of many spa campaigns, told me I'd need help negotiating my way around the spa jungle and offered her services. Funny that - she never offers to accompany me around wet and windy UK book tours.
After three hours' drive from Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, we walked into the Lalu Hotel, to be met with a breathtaking sight. The 100m-long glass-walled lobby looks out on to the longest infinity pool I've ever seen, and behind it was a vast expanse of blue - Sun Moon Lake. Two white power boats were speeding out, past the small island dropped into the middle of the sparkling water.
The hotel is furnished in a minimal but luxurious style, with lots of stark, black slate softened with palm trees, exotic flowers, and wooden decks lit up by Chinese lanterns. It was spectacular and pristine - and needed only a villain stroking a cat to turn it into a set fit for James Bond.
Our room was enormous and open-plan, with wooden floors, sliding partition screens and a large fireplace in the middle. I couldn't imagine using it since the average temperature in August is 30C, but apparently the Taiwanese like the look of a roaring fire, so they design them to give out very little heat. I plonked myself down on one of the daybeds, looked out through my own giant glass wall on to the lake (the hotel and spa are designed so that everywhere overlooks it) and flicked through the hotel bumpf while my wife, with her invaluable expertise, booked us some treatments.
As I was handed a white robe, fluffy slippers and a pair of white paper underpants, I began to get a whole lot more nervous. I'm all right crawling on my belly through jungles, and pointing a weapon at people when required, but I could tell within seconds that in one of the world's most luxurious spas I was completely out of my depth.
Needless to say, the spa was stunning. All wooden floors, dark slate, orchids and aromatherapy candles. Even my spa-veteran was impressed. The changing rooms have vast hot and cold plunge pools, steam rooms, saunas, and traditional as well as Japanese sit-down showers. Everything is pro vided, from towels to special razors with a built-in button you press to release a blob of shaving foam. With a wash down before every treatment, everyone in the Lalu squeaked as they walked.
A Taiwanese woman in a white coat came for me. I was tempted to cling on to my wife and beg her not to abandon me as I was led into a treatment room. Each private room has its own steam room and shower, vast massage table and stone bath. The room was filled with more smelly candles and Oriental music played gently in the background.
There was a wooden bowl of rose water for me to soak my feet in first, and a tray of jasmine tea and Japanese cookies to munch - all so I could relax and chill a little before my treatment. Chill? Sitting in paper pants with my hairy toes in a bowl full of rose petals?
The more my wife had talked about Taiwanese massage, in particular the 'acupressure' treatment she'd chosen for me, the more convinced I became that I was going to spend an hour being held in a martial arts death grip. I waited for my executioner to arrive.
Huge relief. Just as I finished my tea, in she came: a four foot nothing woman who took my feet out of the rose petals and gently dried them. She then bowed and smiled a lot while getting me to lie face down on the massage table. She covered me with a sheet. This was going to be good. I could lie down and relax while this woman tickled a few pressure points. What had I been worried about?
How wrong I was. She may have weighed less than a bag of sugar but she had hands of steel. She spent a few minutes pressing hard into my back and shoulders, then suddenly the smile disappeared as she jumped on to the table kung fu style and the massage turned into a tag team wrestling match. Bones cracked (I think they were mine), muscles stretched, knotty bits were attacked, and at one stage she stood over me, twisting her legs around mine, before crashing down so that she could karate chop the base of my spine. I now understood why my wife had been secretly smiling as she booked this one.
The hour finished with the masseuse still on the table, digging her elbows into my legs before jumping off and letting her smile return so that she could bow her way out of the room as more tea and cookies arrived.
I stood up, expecting my legs to crumble and my back to be in agony, but, amazingly, I felt great - calm, relaxed, floating on air. It was a fantastic feeling. Apparently, the massage had been particularly tough for me because I'd never had any kind of massage treatment before. Personally, I wasn't sure if I felt so good because all my muscles had been released, or because Kung Fu Woman had decided to let me live.
It may be little known in Britain, but the Lalu has had visits from many heads of states, including the Queen and the Clintons. I can't quite imagine Her Majesty going a couple of rounds with Kung Fu Woman, though if Bill did, I bet he loved it.
Last orders at the European brasserie and Japanese restaurants (both delicious with excellent ser vice) were the same as for the Chinese restaurant (the best I've ever tasted) - 9pm. The bar was open until late, but empty by 9.15pm, even though the hotel was 80 per cent full. That's because the Taiwanese economic miracle has been built on hard work. Twelve-hour days, making everything from electronics to Toyotas, are common, so they are used to getting up and going to bed early. They are workaholics, and even on holiday habits die hard.
The next morning we decided to go native and join the other guests on sunbeds beside the infinity pool at the ridiculously early hour of 7am. Guests were mostly Taiwanese or Chinese - only 5 per cent are Westerners - and half of them looked as if they had already been up for hours. A quick dip, and it was straight off to the spa for an Imperial Body Elixir Ritual, three hours of scrubs, herbal steams, hot stone massages, luxurious facials and rose petal baths. I know, I know - rose petal baths don't sound all that manly, but, believe me, they smell nice and meant I could watch the boats float past on the lake while drinking tea.
The hot stone massage was great and relatively painless. I must be getting the hang of these massages. Needless to say, I've never had a facial before; it felt very strange and left my face tingling afterwards.
In addition to idling your days away in the spa, you can play golf, ride bikes, play tennis, horse-ride, go fishing or boating, or hike the trails around the lake, which is part of a national park. The scenery is stunning, with the chance to see butterflies, egrets, herons, kingfishers, carp and chili fish, but trekking round rainforests for pleasure is not my kind of thing. I've done enough of that loaded down with a backpack. I did my nature observation from the comfort of my daybed on the balcony. We lay there one evening, sipping martinis, watching the sun set over the lake. It was one of those moments when you know you'll have to come back someday.
We had a couple of days to see the sights of Taipei before we flew back. There are extraordinary temples, bustling night markets, and in the National Palace Museum, filled with Chinese artifacts, we saw Taiwan's equivalent of the Mona Lisa: a magnificent lump of jade, carved into a cabbage covered in insects. I know it sounds unlikely, but it is genuinely stunning.
Yet Taipei is more about the future than the past. The place is so hi-tech it makes the UK look steam-driven. Naturally, we took a trip up the world's fastest elevator, to see the view from the world's tallest building, the Taipei 101 tower.
I'd go back to Taiwan like a shot, and with a successul first tour of spa duty behind me, might even risk another couple of rounds with Kung Fu Woman.