Thai massage: The lazy man’s yoga
You don’t have to delve very deep into Thai society to catch a glimpse of how central massage is to the country's culture. Massage studios continue to proliferate in every Bangkok neighborhood, which both young and old visit regularly, extolling the virtues of massage with gusto.
Having long shed its seedy image, Thai massage -- sometimes called lazy man’s yoga -- has become an internationally revered practice. Thai massage studios have now become a staple throughout salons in Europe, with loads of Thai-trained therapists moving to work abroad every year.
What is it?
Thai massage is a highly interactive massage where the practitioner aims to rejuvenate your energy levels by applying pressure to your network of Sen energy lines. It is thought to have been developed by a yogi named Jivaka Kumarabhacca from yoga practice in about 500BC.
What to expect
Unlike some of its more modern counterparts, you keep your clothes on for a traditional Thai massage and loose fitting fisherman’s trousers and a top are provided.
Your masseuse is likely to be a middle-aged woman (as a general rule, the bigger the better). Your feet are washed prior to the massage, which will typically take place in a curtained partition of a room lined with thin mattresses, but you can usually request a private room too.
The massage focuses on circulation and pressure points to improve internal health as well as muscular flexibility. Throughout the massage you’re gently maneuvered onto your back, front, side and into sitting positions while the therapist applies pressure to your body using their hands, thumbs, elbows, knees and even feet.
It is perfect for the naturally inert, as the therapist will lightly manipulate you into yoga-like positions while you empty your mind of the day’s stresses (or in some cases sleep). The adage ‘no pain, no gain’ doesn’t apply to Thai massage. The pressure applied should be even and the receiver should enjoy a warming sensation at the pressure point. For a full experience a minimum of two hours is needed.
For zealous adherents Thai massage is a panacea to everyday ills. Perceived benefits include increased flexibility, oxygenation of the blood, postural alignment, release of tension and improved sleeping habits.
Preserving the art of the Thai massage
Bangkok’s national headquarters for the teaching and preservation of Thai medicine and massage is at Wat Pho, officially known as Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn -- or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Thai masseurs have been trained at its school on Sanamchai Road since 1955, and its sister school in Chiang Mai. Prior to the temple's founding, the site was a center of education for traditional Thai medicine.
Director Suchart Wong-uraprasert explains why it is important to visit properly trained therapists: “If the massage is not performed correctly there is a danger that muscles and ligaments may be bruised or torn; nerve fibre torn or inflamed; joints dislocated, and in the most serious cases bones broken or organs malfunctioned. There was a reported incident some years ago of tourist death after some ill-advised neck twisting.”
But don’t let that put you off.
Learn from the masters
Interested in learning the skills of Thai massage? You can enroll in short or long term courses at the Wat Pho school. Visitors can also have a full traditional Thai massage inside the temple surroundings. No bookings necessary.
Wat Pho is located on Sanam Chai Road and Maharaj Road, next to the Grand Palace. Open daily between 8am and 5pm, admission 50 baht. Visitors must be in polite dress, no shorts. Tel: +66 (0)2 225 9595.
Tips to make the most of your massage
1. It’s pretty obvious but relax, man. The more relaxed you are, the more you will get out of it.
2. Say "bao noi" if you want a lighter massage and "jep" for pain.
3. Don’t have too many preconceptions. There is considerable variation throughout the regions with no single routine that is universally accepted.
4. Do tell your therapist where you have aches and pains.
Where to go in Bangkok
Chi, the spa at the Shangri-La
A Mecca for the spa savvy. Under the guidance of Vikki Aquino the spa provides authentic Asian wellness treatments and is inspired by the legend of Shangri-La. After an initial consultation to determine your element, opting for one of Chi's signature treatments will leave you relaxed and beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. The ultimate spa massage experience.
Shangri-La, 89 Soi Wat Suan Plu, New Road. Tel: +66 (0)2 236 7777
Ruen-Nuad Massage Studio
Set back off the street in a quiet, leafy courtyard in Silom is the beautifully restored traditional teak house that is home to the Ruen-Nuad Massage Studio. Sisters Duangporn Opaspakornkij and Karnjana have thoroughly researched all aspects of Thai massage and medicine to achieve the instantly calming surroundings of Ruen-Nuad, which means ‘house of massage’.
42 Convent Road, Silom. Tel: +66 (0)2 032 2662
Rasayana Retreat is a holistic health centre specializing in therapeutic massages, such as lymphatic drainage massage and the abdominal pulse massage. As well as highly skilled masseurs the spa provides deep cleansing and weight loss programs, colon hydrotherapy and herbal bowel cleansing. The spa also has a raw food cafe and yoga studio for a top-to-toe, inside-out health fix. Massage prices start from 550 baht for 60 mins.
57 Soi Sukhumvit 39. Tel: +66 (0)2 662 4803