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How to get a Thai massage in Bangkok without getting hospitalized
Not every Thai massage therapist is a professional. An experienced hand explains what to look for -- and when to cry "halt"
Much like som tam salad and Sangsom whiskey, traditional Thai massages are addictive. Coming to Thailand and not getting massaged is like missing Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.
Unfortunately, there are hundreds of massage spots to choose from and many shouldn’t even be in business. And we’re not even talking about the kinky ones.
Nobody wants to wind up in a wheelchair after getting a Thai massage. So what should you look for in a masseuse?
Ratanalak Kanjananiwut -- aka Kru Yim -- is an experienced Thai traditional massage teacher at Bangkok's Thai Massage & Spa Academy. She offers some key points to keep in mind when looking for a Thai massage therapist.
“Most massage shops pass on their knowledge from one therapist to another, which means sometimes they miss out on some very important steps and rules,” she says. “Some therapists don’t have enough training; others just ignore the proper steps because there are too many clients to deal with.
"Clients' health and safety must come first -- that is the first rule in Thai massage.”
Unfortunately you can’t tell if they are well trained just by looking.
"You are going to have to try them out, and be sure to ask questions about their qualifications,” Kru Yim says. “A good therapist always asks the client about their health issues –- if they had any recent surgery, accident or diseases.
"Many common illnesses, such as high fever -- high blood pressure, heart disease, skin infection, bone disease and diabetes -- forbid massage. Therapists are required to ask about these things.”
The right pair of hands for the job
Under Thai law, spas and massage shops need to be licensed by the Ministry of Health. When therapists finish their training courses, they take a test to earn a massage license.
But many cheap massage shops just hire a few licenced masseuses to satisfy the bare requirements of the law and so look legit when the Ministry of Labor sends its inspectors around for regular checks.
Kru Yim also notes some critical body parts that decent therapists should treat with extra care -- or even avoid altogether.
Spinal bones –- A back massage is fantastic, especially for anyone who sits in front of a computer all day. It reduces muscle tensions and relieves stress.
But the spinal bones need to be treated with extreme care. Untrained therapists who breach this rule can leave you paralyzed.
Head --- The skull is fragile. A wrongly pressed finger could have disastrous consequences for your brain.
Neck -- Pressing on the wrong spots on your neck could interrupt blood supply to your brain, which may cause dizziness and vomiting. If you feel uncomfortable, you should immediately ask your masseuse to stop.
Shoulders, elbows and ankles -- These body parts can easily dislocate or even break. Collar bones should be avoided as lymph nodes are located along that area.
“There is good pain and bad pain. If you feel pain when being pressed and feel good when released -– that’s a good pain," says Kru Yim. "But if you’re experiencing pain after the fingers are released, you should ask them to stop.”
Aside from safety, an effective therapist is also important. Therapists need strong hands to apply pressure to the key pressure points. This can only be obtained from years of practice, which is why knowledgeable Thais will usually request an older massage therapist if they want a particularly strong massage.
“Contrary to belief, Thai traditional massage is a type of therapy that helps one relax but it will certainly not cure any ailment,” says Kru Yim. “You should visit a doctor if you have health problems, not a massage therapist.”
For more on the basics of Thai massage, including a few spa recommendations, click here.