If you haven’t experienced Thai massage before arriving to Thailand, maybe your first impression will be shaped when observing tourists comfortably sitting in reclining chairs along Khao San road while masseuses laboriously work at relaxing their bodies. This image will be repeated on most Thai beaches, conveniently equipped with pavilions, where mattresses are neatly arranged to fit in as many costumers as possible. The 30 – 120 minute sessions of pleasure should not cost more than 300 – 500 baht, usually less (150 -300 baht) if performed on the street or beach. However, be aware that there is ‘Thai massage’ and there is ‘Thai massage’, and your experience will vary significantly depending on which one you happen to stumble across. You will soon realize that there is a huge difference between a masseuse who applies him or herself to the job and art of Thai massage, and one casually chatting with the neighbors throughout the massage and checking their mobile phone, whilst automatically performing the movements. If done correctly and by an experienced and well-trained masseuse, Thai massage can make a tremendous difference to your mind and body. If performed half-heartedly by an amateur, it will probably still feel quite good and relaxing. So don’t fret too much.
Thai massage developed as a part of Traditional Thai Medicine (TTM), which was influenced by Indian, Chinese and other South-East Asian medical traditions. It is still considered a medical discipline when practiced by properly trained professionals and regulated by the government. In Thai it is usually referred to as nuat phaen thai or nuat phaen boran. The system taught and applied today originates from 19th century practices. The theory behind it explains that there are numerous channels or pathways (sen) in the body (72,000 of them to be precise, which actually means an infinite amount in the Buddhist tradition), which are filled with energy (lom). The massage therapist manipulates these channels and presses on certain body points. The person usually lies on a firm mattress or padded massage table, wearing comfortable clothes. The masseuse performs body manipulations, assisted stretches, and applies pressure (indicate how strong you want the massage to be, after all you don’t want to leave feeling either sore or merely tickled). No oil is used in traditional Thai massage, although a lot of touristy places offer oil massages too.
All around Bangkok there are countless massage salons and spas and the cry “sir, massaaaaaaaage?” will probably not escape you. A place often mentioned in massage circles is the Wat Pho Traditional Thai Medical and Massage School (river ferry stop Tha Tien), where you can receive a massage (maybe after visiting the reclining Buddha?), as well as learn how to massage. They offer basic (30 hours), as well as advanced (60 hours) courses. Also often visited is the Health Land spa (120 Th Sathon Neua, BTS Chong Nonsi), which operates a chain of centres across Thailand in luxurious settings. Alternatively, if you have never been massaged by the skilful and sensitive hands of a blind person, you can choose one of the venues supporting the employment and training of visually impaired people. Skills Development Centre for the Blind (78/2 Soi 1, Th Tiwanon Pak Kret; river ferry to Tha Pa Kret, and then take the taxi or motor-taxi from the pier to the Centre) is one such place for this type of experience. When on the journey there (getting there can be a bit tricky), remember it is often about the path and not the goal.
When you go to North Thailand, you can spice up your massage experience by visiting the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Centre where massage is performed by female inmates. This is their vocational training and a progressive rehabilitation programme, so I implore you to utilise it. The guards are present to ease you into the experience (or make you nervous) and the girls are friendly, and decently dedicated to the massage.
And my take on the best bit of the massage? The green tea served afterwards, when you are feeling all relaxed, muscles kneaded, and a bit light-headed.