My experience with massage in Thailand. Photos, stories, and bucket list successes.
Thai massage is an ancient art as old as Buddha himself. Its practice is a fundamental part of Eastern medicine. Frescos at Wat Pho in Bangkok (pictured above) even depict early instructions on how to treat the body’s pressure points. Wat Pho has not only been a prominent holy Buddhist temple, but a centuries-old school for medicine (meaning massage) as well.
Unlike massage as we know it in America, Thai massage incorporates passive, or assisted, yoga stretching.
I am not a fan of massages. I don’t like being prodded and I don’t find any of the sensations relaxing. However, when in Rome. I was really looking forward to giving Thai Massage a go while in Thailand.
It wasn’t difficult to find. Massage parlors seemed to make up about 1/3 of the businesses in Chiang Mai. Fancy all-inclusive spas were sometimes right next to family owned parlors. Chairs were sometimes set up in night markets, offering Thai foot massages for less than $3 USD. The average parlor offered hour-long massages for 200 baht (~$5USD)
My First Thai Massage Experience
I decided to experience a Thai massage on one of my first nights in Chiang Mai. Myself and two others walked into a small family-owned parlor on the strip of businesses close to our hostel.
We were given baggy clean linen robes to change into, and long curtains were drawn around our three beds. It was very dimly lit, and a stereo played calming Asian-esque music. We let our three masseuses know we were ready, and laid on our backs.
The women began at our feet and worked their way up our bodies, poking and prodding and stretching and yanking.
I hated it.
As I said before, I am not a massage person, and this was no exception. There were a couple moments when the yoga-like stretches felt nice. At one point, she grabbed my arm and gently twisted me as far as I could go. However, it felt like the majority of the massage was just prodding. She also got a bit too close for comfort around my groin, and at certain points, I couldn’t help but giggle.
When she got to my head, she took a chunk of my hair in her fist and yanked, and then took a different chunk of my hair and yanked, so that the nerves in my scalp were all awake. When I commented on the absurdity of this motion to my two companions, who had both had Thai massages in the past, they both exclaimed that they had never heard of such a thing, and did not receive the same treatment. I thought it was pretty comical that I was the one who got the weird scalp thing.
At the end of the massage, we were given hot Pandanus Leaf tea, which was delicious and sweet.
Thai Prison Massage
Thai prisons are infamous for their overcrowded facilities and mistreatment of prisoners. Minor offenders are often given life sentences, and tourists are warned to be wary of strict no-tolerance laws, lest they be incarcerated for life.
However, one prison is trying to do some good in the world. Chiang Mai’s women’s prison has a rehabilitation program that’s paving the way for law correction around the world.
Women who are minor offenders have the opportunity to learn trades and skills to help them get back on their feet once they are released. The women can gain knowledge in trades such as computer/tech, cooking, weaving, and massage. Because of these programs, the rate of repeat offenders has decreased dramatically. Not a single offender has been readmitted into prison after going through this program.
A group of us took a Song-thaew into old quarter toward the massage parlor and restaurant owned by the prison. The courtyard was quaint and green, with orchids and plumerias dotting the area. Cute little birdhouses and terracotta gnomes gave the location a cozy feel. We made reservations with the women at the front, who were dressed in imposing warden outfits. They were jovial and spoke english helpfully.
The place was busy, and we had to wait a full four hours before getting our massage. We paid the 400 baht and got a ticket with a number. Some of my companions started to get nervous about “getting shanked,” but I laughed them off. My general opinion about convicts is that they are victims that need help instead of horrible people who need to be punished, and from what I’ve been reading, a lot of Thai prisoners are incarcerated for seemingly insignificant crimes.
I ordered a pineapple shake and some shrimp eggrolls with sweet and sour sauce. The service was quick and the food was delicious. After working on assignments for a few hours, it was time to enter the massage parlor. We stepped through the doorway into a dimly lit corridor. The scent of menthol suddenly assaulted us, and tiny breathy moans wafted from the different tables, customers obviously pleased.
We were lead into a back room to change out of our clothing, and were given baggy linen clothing. I somehow ended up with the largest possible gown. I had to physically hold the pants up close to my neck to keep them from falling at my ankles.
We were then lead to giant reclining chairs, where women washed our feet in warm water. The water was drained and we were lead to our individual beds. The masseuse I was paired with was a petit Thai women who couldn’t stop giggling with her neighbor. She was very cute and very kind, and constantly asked me whether I was in pain or not. “You are so small!”
Every time I attempted to practice my Thai with her, she would get extremely excited and would get the attention of one of her coworkers. I had only had one Thai massage before this, so didn’t have much to compare. The masseuse worked her way up from my feet toward my head, popping the joints in every toe and putting pressure on my muscles. Sometimes she would cut off circulation in one of my limbs for an extended period of time, and then allow the blood to suddenly rush back in, generating an odd warmth as she rubbed aggressively. I have never liked massages, so all the touching and pressure was unpleasant for the most part. However, it was a lot of fun to giggle with the friends lying on the beds on either side of me, as well as listen to the masseuses tither at each other. My favorite part of Thai massage is the yoga-esque aspect. She sat on my legs as I lay on my stomach, and she pulled my arms backward until I couldn’t stretch any further. I wish that the entire duration of the massage was like that! It felt amazing.
The source of the heavy menthol scent was Tiger Balm, which is an ointment commonly used in Thai Massage as well as Muay Thai. It’s one of the most popularly smuggled items out of Thailand, and it is strong. At one point, my masseuse rubbed Tiger Balm into my skin, which produced an indescribably warm feeling.
After the massage, we were given delicious sweet pandanus leaf tea. Everyone felt lethargic and groggy, and we took our sweet time making our way back into the Song-thaews. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to contribute to this rehabilitation program, and now I can say I got a massage from a Thai prisoner!