An Authentic Thai Massage

Lots of massage parlors around the world advertise their “Thai massages.” Not surprisingly, these massages sometimes have little in common with the real deal. Here’s what I experienced over the course of ten massages:

  • Places in Thailand usually advertise multiple styles of massage: Thai, oil, foot, aloe vera (oil), milky (oil), relaxation (oil), aromatherapy (oil), back/shoulders, etc. Cambodian places did this as well, but the choices were often more limited. I only ever saw locals getting a Thai or a foot massage, but that may have been by chance.
  • As in Cambodia, expect masseuses to talk to each other throughout your massage.
  • Also, there is no evidence that any of the masseuses are certified or licensed, as they are in the US. On the other hand, massage technique was very consistent, even in different cities of Thailand, so the training must be fairly rigorous.
  • Massages in Thailand – even the non-oil varieties – often involve coconut oil. In Cambodia, Thai massages are dry: no oils of any sort.
  • Everywhere but the most touristy neighborhoods (e.g. Yaowarat/Chinatown in Bangkok), a masseuse may apply oil to you without asking whether you have allergies or whether you’d like any. Speak up ahead of time, just in case.
  • Thai MassageFor a Thai massage, they provide you with a pair of large cotton “pants” and sometimes, a large cotton shirt (or you keep your own shirt on). Both are high thread count so that they can massage you over the clothing without it hurting.  The cotton pants have no elastic at the waist; instead, they have two strings (not drawstrings) at the waist that you can wind around your waist and tie to secure the pants. When I say that these pants are large, I mean large: if you put them on and hold them out away from yourself, you can fit between one and two more versions of yourself in there.
  • In the US, girls are asked to take off their shirts and bras before any kind of massage. If you’re a girl getting a back and neck massage in Thailand, expect to remove your shirt, lay face down in your bra, and have the masseuse unhook your bra and pull the straps off you while she massages your back. She’ll re-hook it for you afterwards.
  • Modesty is less of a thing. B was told to remove all his clothes pre-massage, and when they told him to turn over halfway through the massage, the masseuse just removed his towel outright while he turned over. When I needed to change into the provided pants in a one-room massage parlor, she drew a few of the curtains facing the street, but mostly as a gesture, since I could still see people outside, and she could certainly see me as well.
  • Most massages are done on a thin mattress directly on the floor. There are not massage tables, like there are in the US or Europe.
  • Despite what’s shown in the above photo, the mattress isn’t made up like a bed. There is usually one fitted sheet on the mattress, with a towel or two for massaging over on your arms, which your shirt doesn’t cover.
  • A foot massage is actually a foot and leg massage. A back/shoulder massage usually involves at least a bit of leg and back massage as well.
  • Just as in the US and pretty much everywhere else I’ve been, a reflexology massage isn’t true reflexology. They mostly rub your hands and feet, without focusing on the appropriate pressure points – even if they have a pressure point foot poster right there.
  • Thai massage is sometimes called “stretching” massage because it involves the masseuse contorting your body to stretch out your muscles. This means that unlike Swedish massage – practiced widely in the US and Europe, Thai massage is not so relaxing. You are likely to be mildly uncomfortable during your massage, though you may well feel better in the day(s) after.
  • In Swedish (Western) massage, a masseuse uses smooth strokes to rub your muscles. A Thai masseuse, on the other hand, tends to press into your muscles instead of rubbing.
  • She will also likely walk on you as part of the massage. The skilled know how to do this without inflicting any pain, so it just feels like a firmer pressure on your legs and butt; the less skilled make you want to scream a little bit while they do it.
  • I don’t recall seeing a single male masseuse in Thailand. We saw quite a few in Cambodia, primarily at the “healing hands” massage places staffed by the blind.
  • Many masseuses sit outside the massage parlor, chatting and making themselves visible. This is for two reasons: (1) In Bangkok, this allows passing men to pick the “masseuse” they want based on her physical appearance. (2) In other cities (where fewer massage places are a front for prostitution), this is so that the women can socialize with locals driving by and invite passersby in to get a massage.
  • Except in a few specific neighborhoods in Bangkok and Pattaya, the majority of massage places are legitimate. For entertainment’s sake, here is how Wikitravel proposes you tell the difference, “It is fairly easy to distinguish legitimate massage shops from more dubious places (where massaging is only a front for prostitution); the real deal will charge 250-400 baht for a typical massage and will often have a row of beefy farmers’ daughters in white coats working on customers’ feet in public view, while the other kind has wispy girls in evening dresses wearing too much make-up and saying ‘hello handsome’ to every passing male.” This is really only pertinent for men traveling alone, or with one other man: most other customers are defaulted to regular massages, even at places that offer the more illicit options. It doesn’t hurt to be able to distinguish though, since the illicit places tend to have ladies who aren’t as good masseuses.

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