When they think of a traditional Thai massage, many people believe that it always ends with a happy ending. Nothing further from the truth! In this article, I tell you about my experience with Thai massage, to solve all the doubts and curiosities you may have. Let’s get started!
I was walking through Bangkok, when the sun had already set and the lights of the buildings came on. The public luminaire and the neon lights of the small shops and pubs illuminated the steps of passersby.
I was distracted listening to the music already reaching my ears from some nearby bars, and a parade of smells of different street foods was awakening my appetite. I was enjoying an atmosphere that is nothing like my city when all of a sudden a middle-aged man approached me on foot. He hastily greeted me and in a friendly tone asked me where I was from.
Almost without waiting for my answer, he asked me: “Massage? Happy ending? Boom boom? Beautiful ladies?” Meanwhile, he put in front of me a somewhat crumpled laminated brochure in which, amid the reflection of the street lights, I managed to glimpse photos of Asian girls in underwear. After my refusal, he no longer insisted, and he kept chasing other male tourists, whether they were walking alone or in a group of friends.
You will see this kind of situations especially if you go to Bangkok and visit some specific areas such as the streets around Patpong Night Market.
Oh by the way! What that man was offering is not a traditional Thai massage …
In this article, we will see in detail the origin of traditional Thai massage, the main techniques and the different types that exist. In addition, I will tell you some tips that you should know before getting a massage in Thailand, as well as how to recognize which places to avoid if traditional Thai massage is what you are looking for.
What is Thai massage?
Thai massage is famous all over the world, so if you decide to travel to Thailand, it is something that definitely cannot be missing from your to-do list. Everyone has heard of it, but despite its growing popularity most tourists arrive in Thailand without really knowing what traditional Thai massage is.
Here in Thailand you will find a very wide offer. In tourist areas, especially, a short walk in either direction is likely to bring you to the doorstep of a massage shop in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. And I mean a serious massage, not a Thai massage with a happy ending or other “special services” (which are also available).
What is special about traditional Thai massage and how is it different from other types of massage?
Although traditional Thai massage is a highly enjoyable massage that can provide great serenity, it is not a pleasant experience for everyone. In Thai massage the patient lies on a tatami or hard mat on the floor, and the masseuse (most of the massage therapists are women) uses her hands, elbows and knees, taking advantage of the weight of her body in the massage execution.
Traditional Thai massage is both a relaxation and a decontracting massage, with many stretchings involved: that is, the therapist will stretch your limbs, neck, back and torso.
To give you an idea, Thai massage techniques are similar to some used in yoga practice.
The masseuse will also apply pressure to certain points on your body. Thanks to this, you will release tension in your muscle tissue at a deeper level than what you would reach with a Western massage.
During the massage, the masseuse gets to press very hard, so there may be times when you feel pain.
A common misconception is to think there is such a thing as “traditional Thai Oil massage”, since traditional Thai massage doesn’t use oils of any kind.
Most massage shops will lend their clients loose, clean clothing for the occasion.
Where does traditional Thai massage come from?
Its origins are not entirely clear, but it is believed to date back to the times when Buddha was already alive and preaching. It is known to be linked to the development of traditional Thai medicine and to have cultural influences from various regions of Asia, such as China, India, and Southeast Asia.
Today there is no clear theoretical consensus on how traditional Thai massage should be practiced. So each region of the country has its own style and variations, although they are all similar and share a common essence in spirit and techniques.
Traditional Thai massage is one of the branches of medicine originating from traditional Thai culture, and is strictly regulated by the government. But it is also practiced in spas and in the tourism industry, in which case its purpose is relaxation, and even when not 100% faithful to traditional Thai massage these massages can be excellent anyway.
In addition, an increasing number of people are interested in learning the ancient Thai massage techniques for medical or relaxation purposes. And it is no wonder that all travelers want to experience it: after the massage you will feel wonderful !
Types of Thai massages
Given the huge number of massage shops in Thailand, especially in the most touristy cities, it is good to distinguish what is really a Thai massage, and which types of massage you will find on offer.
You must take into account a few things (some more obvious than others) in order to be able to distinguish between a serious and quality massage and other types of offers in which the word “massage” is nothing more than a euphemism to sell you (if you are a man) a complete different service, usually a sloppy massage with a happy ending.
The massage offer in Thailand is so huge because both locals and travelers enjoy traditional Thai massage, among other kinds of massage.
All massage shops have a variety of options to choose from, so if you still don’t know which Thai massage is ideal for you, here are the most popular and requested ones:
1. Traditional Thai massage
It is the one I have already told you about before. But, in summary and to distinguish it from the rest we can say that it is a deep stretching and pressure massage.
The client lies on a tatami or a mat on the floor, and simply surrenders to the talent of the masseuse who uses hands, feet, elbows, knees, etc. to make sure that you end up feeling like in heaven.
In a good massage center they will give you loose, clean clothes to change into. In addition, they perform the massage while you are lying in a dimly lit room with soft and relaxing background music playing through the speakers. The air conditioning, of course, on full blast and, to prevent you from getting cold, they will cover you with a blanket.
2. Thai foot massage
You’ll see it on every massage menu when you are touring Bangkok or elsewhere in Thailand. It is a relaxation massage, ideal especially to release the tension accumulated in your feet after a long day of walking.
This massage is received sitting in a comfortable chair. The masseuse will first clean your feet with warm water, dry them with a clean towel and proceed to execute the massage using different oils or lotions.
While you enjoy it, you can talk with the masseuse or whoever is accompanying you, read a book, write to your loved ones on WhatsApp and even take a nap (it is common to see people sleeping peacefully while receiving a foot massage). It is usually similar in price or slightly cheaper than traditional Thai massage.
3. Thai oil massage
It is a full body massage that uses basically the Thai massage techniques that aim to relax, skipping the most ‘aggressive’ stretching techniques that can be somewhat painful. The client receives the massage half naked and lying on a stretcher. To rub the skin in a more pleasant way, the masseuse uses special oils.
Oil massage is practiced in complete privacy, either in a separate room or in a partition separated by curtains. For the most part it is based on Western techniques, so it is probably much more similar to the kind of massage you can find in your own city. It is also more expensive than Thai massage.
4. Thai aroma massage
This massage is quite similar to Thai oil massage. However, oils are used with special essences extracted from specific plants that have therapeutic properties and that also contribute to the harmony, health and well-being of those who receive an aroma massage.
These Thai massage practices and techniques are primarily based on aromatherapy, and are priced similarly to Thai oil massage.
Tips for the best Thai massage experience
To choose the right place to pamper yourself for 30 minutes or an hour, and give your body the attention it deserves during your vacation, it is good to take into account the following tips:
1. Keep in mind that traditional Thai massage is not purely a relaxation massage
As we have mentioned, traditional Thai massage can be somewhat painful in its execution, since it will stretch your limbs and press hard on your body. But do not worry! They won’t torture you or anything like that. It’s just better to know in advance so you don’t get caught off guard. If you are in a lot of pain, just tell the therapist… Although no doubt he/she’ll notice before you say anything!
After that hour of stretching, you will notice the magic the therapist has done on you. The feeling of relaxation will be total. They usually give you some time to recover, as you need a transition between getting up after the massage and getting back on the bustling streets. The feeling of ease and pleasant relaxation can accompany you even for a few days!
2. Try the massage for at least a full hour, and allow an additional 15 minutes to recover
Some shops offer 30-minute massages. Although they can provide a pleasant sensation, in the case of traditional Thai massage it is better to have at least a full hour massage, to be truly effective and get a more complete experience.
Also, I recommend that you take a few extra minutes to “recover” after the massage. At first the relaxation is so complete that the perception of your own body feels a bit funny.
In the massage center they will invite you to take your time to stretch and change clothes. Often you will be offered a complimentary tea afterwards.
3. Choose a massage shop that looks the way it should
Although this sounds very obvious, it is worth noting. In some areas, especially in and around red light areas, you can sometimes find a group of girls with excessive makeup and scant clothing offering to give you a massage.
As I mentioned before, the word “massage” is often used to sell tourists a different service than you may have in mind.
Sometimes the excessive neon lights and the looks and ways of the masseuses make it easy to recognize what type of service is really provided. But on other occasions the funny business is not so obvious.
Therefore, we recommend that you make sure that the shop actually offer massages. You can check if there are people sitting in armchairs enjoying a foot massage, for example. Another tip is to check if the therapists are dressed in a relaxed way with comfortable and loose clothing, as required by traditional Thai massage.
A place where Thai massages are offered would be like the one in the image below:
4. Don’t go for a massage right after eating
If you’ve just enjoyed some good Thai food (or food of any kind), this is not the time to go for a massage. It is better to wait for the heaviest part of digestion to finish so your body is ready again for a massage.
It is recommended to wait at least an hour after eating. A good alternative is to get the massage before eating, so you can enjoy your delicious phad thai, som tam or mango sticky rice in complete relaxation.
5. When the massage begins, just relax
When you get a traditional Thai massage you shouldn’t do anything at all, just relax, forget about everything and avoid being tense. In order to do this, you will have to trust the therapist.
You may be worried about the stretching part, fearing that it may be painful enough to ruin your experience. The truth is that Thai massage is beneficial, above all, for those of us who are not very flexible. The massage is tailored to each body, and the good therapist will know what is appropriate to do while performing the massage. So don’t deprive yourself of the experience!
6. Make sure you can undergo a Thai massage
Thai massage has the same contraindications as other massages. In other words, in certain cases its execution may be counterproductive for the recipient. Therefore, avoid getting a Thai massage if you have any of the following circumstances or conditions:
- If you have hypertension or hypotension.
- If you have heart problems.
- If you are under the influence of alcohol or another drug.
- If you have a history of stroke.
- If you have significant varicose veins, edema or phlebitis.
- If you suffer from a herniated disc, arthritis or osteoporosis.
- If you have suffered joint effusions or tendon tears.
- If you have infections or contagious diseases (so as not to infect the masseuse).
- If you have recent bleeds, burns, or wounds that have not yet healed.
- If you suffer from erythema or you have fungus or other contagious skin ailments.
- If you have lymphatic cancer or other types of cancer.
- Avoid massaging areas with organs
- If you are pregnant, it is better to avoid Thai massage for relaxation purposes. Better go to an expert massage therapist trained for medicinal purposes and get her/his opinion for your specific case.
- If you have a history of joint dislocation, especially in the shoulder.
- If you are under 16 years old, avoid undergoing a massage that lasts longer than 40 minutes.
Where to go for a good Thai massage and where not
By now you are surely wondering: where can I find a good massage shop, that leaves me relaxed and happy, ready to continue enjoying the wonders of this beautiful country?
It is true that the offer is very wide and you will find, even among serious professionals, different quality. Therefore, finding an outstanding massage shop without doing good prior research can be a difficult task at first.
So here are some recommendations so you do not have to spend much time choosing or just submit to chance, and just make sure to enjoy an hour of good quality wellness in the kingdom’s capital, Bangkok.
1. Health Land Spa
It is a well-known massage chain in Bangkok and also frequented by Thais. Here you can enjoy very good massages, whose quality could be described as medium-high.
It is open from 9 a.m. to midnight and has several branches (we particularly recommend going to the Sathorn branch). If you want to know more about their massages and services, I invite you to visit their website.
2. Perception Blind Massage
They are known for the fact that their massages are done by blind people, which is not an impediment to give a high quality massage, quite the opposite.
All the clients seem to leave happy and relaxed after getting a massage there. You can learn more about them by visiting their website. Although, like the previous option, we recommend the branch in Sathorn area.
3. Wat Pho
Here you can not only enjoy a good massage, but also learn the techniques of Thai massage. The reason is that this place has an official school to train as a Thai masseuse. Either as a therapist specialized in this branch of traditional Thai medicine, or as a massage technician trained to provide relaxation massages. You can learn more by clicking here.
However, you don’t need to go to Wat Pho to have a good Thai massage experience. In many other places you will surely find skilled therapists, more privacy and better facilities.
4. Where should you avoid going?
One place not worth going for a massage is Khao San Road. Although there are many massage shops, the truth is that they are generally of poor quality. You will rarely see a Thai getting a massage there, since the area is basically intended for tourists.
If you are staying in this area, it is better to stray a bit and choose a good massage shop in a different area of the city.
I hope this article helped you learn more about Thai massage, and gave you the itch to enjoy a good massage in Thailand!
Written by: Marcos Maturana, travel designer at InThailand Travel.