Learning About Thai Massage

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Stone inscription

Stone inscription by Erik Hartberg, on Flickr

You won’t get far in Thailand without hearing “Thai Massaaaaa?” whispered at you from every other shop. We sampled a few different massages during our time in Thailand from a basic foot massage to a full, traditional Thai massage. These are a very different variety from the intense turn-your-muscles-to-jelly-type massages that are popular in spas in the U.S.

A Thai massage, or nuat phaen boran, is more of a stretching, invigorating process that focuses on pressure-points. The Thai name translates to “ancient pressure massage” or “traditional pressure massage”. The modern Thai Massage is derived from ancient health practices and focuses on the major sen (or energy lines) of the body. Advocates of this type of massage profess that it improves circulation, increases alertness, relaxes the muscles, and flushes toxins from the body. I just know they feel great.

Sometimes travelers get a bit intimidated at the prospect of pointy knees and elbows being shoved into the soft and sensitive parts of their bodies. Don’t be. Your massage shouldn’t be overly painful, just intense, and you’ll feel great afterward. They’re also really cheap (about $7 to $10 an hour). If it is your first one, don’t be afraid to let the masseuse know. She’ll help you out by telling you when and were to shift and move. She’ll probably even ask you if a certain amount of pressure is o.k. or too much.

I should also mention that there are different kinds of “Thai massages”. If you are looking for a relaxing, non-sexual massage, look for the shops where the women are dressed in normal clothes like a polo shirt and yoga pants. Not every masseuse will be extremely well-trained, but even the amateurs do an all right job. The heavily made-up, younger girls dressed in heels and mini skirts are offering a different kind of massage entirely. That variety will cost more than $7.

A typical Thai massage will take place on the floor on a soft mat. You will either be in a private room, or one large common room with curtains separating customers. On the islands you’ll most likely be in an open air hut. Your feet will be washed and then you’ll be given some form of baggy pajama-like outfit to put on before you are led to your mat. This is so you feel less exposed when your limbs are being twisted in odd ways. A towel will also be layed over you to keep your body warm.

Most massages start with the massagee on his or her back. The woman will squeeze your feet, twist and turn your ankles, pull and pop your toes, and even punch the bottom of your feet. She’ll apply pressure on your pelvis, legs, knees, and ankles, gently, but firmly pushing them into the soft mat. Your legs and calves will be kneaded and squeezed. If you are ticklish, this part can be a bit intense. After a few minutes you’ll get over the sensitivity.

Photo from www.embodiedbeing.com

You’ll then have your legs stretched in yoga-like poses. She’ll push your knees to your chest and down to the mat in ways you didn’t know your body could contort. The masseuse will sometimes use her feet to push your body one way while she pulls your limbs another. All of this happens very slowly and shouldn’t be painful, just a little uncomfortable, like any deep stretch. Make sure to keep your muscles as relaxed as possible or your massage will be more painful than it should be.

Your arms and hands are next. Your hands are treated in much the same way as your feet, twisting your wrists, popping your fingers, squeezing your hands and arms. You’ll then turn over and she’ll starting putting most of her weight onto your back and butt. I usually just got knees, but Clark’s masseuse walked on his back. I really loved it when she sat on my back and pulled my arms behind me, lifting me off the mat, and stretching me backward.

Next, she’ll ask you to sit up, cross legged while she uses her arms and elbows to massage your shoulders and back, again putting a lot of her weight on you. You’ll hear your muscles and bones popping and crackling. My favorite part of the massage is the head and neck. They know exactly the right spots to apply pressure to the back of your head and temples that feels great and relieves any sinus pressure you may have. The massage will end with some more pulling and stretching of your arms and back. She’ll probably put your hands behind your head and pull your body around to pop your back as well.

After you get dressed and head out to the lobby you’ll be served tea. You won’t feel hazy and sleepy but alert and relaxed. Sit and enjoy your tea, chat with other customers or your masseuse if she speaks enough English. A typical tip for your masseuse is 50-70 baht. Go ahead and tip 100 if you want to be generous since the women work mostly on tips. Tipping $3 won’t break you, but it might just make her day!

Posted from: Suriya Wong, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand

Kim and Clark Kays
Kim & Clark Kays quit their jobs for an uncertain trip around the world. Originally from St. Louis, they relocated to Chicago after getting married in 2005. After working for five years in middle school and the Fortune 500, they realized there was more to life than the 9-to-5, so made the crazy decision to exchange money for time rather than the other way around.

Their hobbies include fighting over writing styles and searching for gelato. They think food, beer, architecture, and photography are some of the best things about travel—especially when combined. Their travel blog, To Uncertainty and Beyond, includes long-term travel tips as well as humorous anecdotes from their journey through Europe and Asia. They invite you to experience their journey and learn from their adventures and mistakes.
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