In August of 1997 I was stranded in Bangkok for a week due to unforeseen complications involving a work permit. August is technically during monsoon season in Thailand and the skies over Bangkok would occasionally open to sudden downpours, causing the streets to become rushing rivers of brown water that reached up to my shins, but vanished in a matter of minutes, thanks to the city’s efficient drainage system. During my time in Bangkok, in between quests for a working bank machine, trips to the travel agent, Internet café and the odd Buddhist temple, I took the time to treat myself to several Thai massages. Since the Asian Financial Crisis was in full swing, exchange rates were particularly good, providing prices that enabled even a spendthrift like me to splurge on luxuries I would normally balk at. The Thai Baht equivalent of $ 3 for a half hour’s massage or $ 5 for a full hour was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Mind you, these were massage clinics and schools in the backpacker district surrounding Bangkok’s famous Khaosan Road, and were either open-air street side affairs or glass-fronted shops with an open-plan layout similar to what you find in a hairdresser.
What I read about Thai massage in the information provided at the clinics was that it is an official branch of Traditional Thai Medicine combining Eastern systems like Indian Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and yoga. What I experienced was a far cry from the almost sacred New Age atmosphere of pampering and essential oils one finds at many Western massage therapy establishments. The Thai massage practitioners were mostly stout middle-aged women with powerful arms, who chatted loudly with each other while working on their clients. For me this was no problem, as I was looking for something to relieve and invigorate my muscles after long days spent pounding the hot pavement, rather than a luxurious urban oasis overflowing with white towels and windchimes.
One thing that’s great about Thai massage is the informality and simplicity of it all. It works best if the client is fully dressed (but shoeless), so there is no question of modesty, and no oil is used, so you won’t emerge from your treatment feeling greasy and in need of a shower. The often-used moniker “Thai yoga massage” is a very accurate description for only containing three words. Getting a Thai massage feels very much like practicing “passive” yoga while receiving a particularly assertive massage. Pressing and massaging muscles with palms, fingers, knees and elbows, combined with the manual stretching of limbs at the very capable hands of a trained Thai massage professional leaves one feeling pretty great, even if some of the techniques can be a bit uncomfortable when being applied. It may be advisable to let the therapist know when you feel some discomfort, but I was young, foolish and brave and thought I’d like to get the “full experience” my Thai massages had to offer, which in hindsight were occasionally a bit painful. So when asked, “do you have pain?” I stubbornly shook my head and lied.
Some years later, as part of my own massage education, I took a two-week course on Thai massage and learned the basic techniques and philosophy behind the practice. Known in Thailand as nuat phaen boran or nuat thai, Thai massage works along the concept of promoting wellness by stimulating “sen” or energy lines, taken from traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, but the results felt by the recipient of the massage are decidedly less esoteric. The patient lies upon the floor instead of a table like in most Western massage systems and is at times made to sit up, stretched, pulled and prodded in what comprises an invigorating experience and an end result which is radically different from your typical spa massage.
These days, Thai massage is becoming well known throughout the world and clinics providing Thai yoga massage are springing up all over. For a wonderfully unique massage experience, Thai massage is heartily recommended.