It’s 2 in the afternoon on an almost-not-hot day in Korat and I’m just laying back from a big sticky rice lunch when I’m informed by the missus that it’s time to go for a massage. Now, it seems strange that I’ve been living in Thailand for 3 years already and have yet to submit myself to a Thai masseuse. It’s not that I don’t like massage. It’s not that I’m worried after having seen others being stretched and manipulated. It’s not the cost or the time spent, since I’m not really hurting for either. I can really only offer reasonless procrastination as my explanation.
But here it is, a Sunday afternoon with absolutely no excuses, nothing better to do, and my girlfriend telling me she’s heard enough of me whining about my bad knee – it’s time. The funny thing is that after this experience, I will curse my first 3 massage-less years in Thailand as an absolutely mindless waste, but I still grumble and waste as much time as I can before getting kicked out the door and onto the motorcycle.
The Spirit of Thai Massage
In true Thai style, we drive the motorcycle for only 3 minutes to reach a destination easily attained by a 5-minute walk. We roll up in front of the local massage shop which has a nice garden out front, and there is a woman standing barefoot on the front lawn, palms pressed together holding incense before a small shrine.
On inquiring, I’m informed (like an idiot who should already know) that the cross-legged man in the grainy old picture on the shrine is Jivaka Kumarabhacca, the founder of traditional massage. Apparently he was the private physician of the Buddha back in ancient India, and Thai massage stems directly from his teachings.
We go in and arrange side-by-side massages, though she wants an oil massage while I figure ‘when in Rome…’ and order the Thai style, or nuat phaen boran (ancient style massage). Despite not having had a proper massage in years, I know that I don’t like mincing about – I like a firm rub and ask for the strongest masseuse they have. This is my first mistake.
Thai Style Massage – In the Beginning
In the changing room, which we’re allowed to enter together, we slip out of our civilian wear and into light, loose fitting cotton shirts and fisherman trousers. I start to get the idea that this side-by-side massage thing is her idea of seduction, though I quickly lose that crafty idea as we walk into the main massage room where 4 masseuses are sitting and watching bad soaps on TV. Not so private, but they do sit us down nicely and turn the volume down as 2 of them pull out wet towels to wash our feet.
The girlfriend is told to lay down on her front with her shirt open and shorts rolled up, and the oil hasn’t even worked into her skin before she’s out like a light.
I, on the other hand, am made to sit while my masseuse pokes around the pressure points on my feet using a polished T-shaped stick. She’s definitely strong, with a grip like a cyborg, and I’m pretty pleased about my choice. Then she starts to work the stick in between my toes and I start to hear all sorts of crunching as I wince. She tells me I have great feet, that they’re supposed to crack like that, and I’m mildly convinced.
After a bit more spearing and crackling, I get to lie down on my back as the masseuse works up from my feet to ankles, then calves, knees and thighs. Now this is gooooooood! I can feel electrical jolts shooting all the way up my spine as the tension in my legs evaporates. Then, oh my god!! I have never had a knife stabbed into my inner thigh, but at that moment the only thing I could imagine was that I was somehow being assaulted and robbed by some sort of leg-amputating gangster organization.
I presume I must have screamed since she’s asking me what’s wrong. I look down and see the masseuse pulling her elbow out of my thigh. There’s no hole, no blood, no evidence of sloppy minor surgery. What the hell was that? She laughs and explains how Thai massage works. They learn that the body is full of sen or lines along which energy flows (called lom, or wind in Thai). The purpose of massage is not just to relax, but also to remove any blocks of this energy which if left unattended can lead to physical and psychological disease. It seems I have a lot of blocked energy in my inner calves and thighs that will cause me a lot joint pain if I don’t free up the flows.
Thai Massage or Gymnastics?
I agree to let her do her thing, clenching my teeth through the parts the feel like torture, while she agrees to nuat with a little less intensity. To be honest, it’s all better and better from here. I’m poked and prodded in various points along my legs, spine, head, and arms, but also stretched and contorted into various positions I wouldn’t have dreamed of entering on my own but which seem to provide excellent stretches. I can feel tension flow right out of me every time I’m twisted and pulled.
Thai massage is actually supposed to be therapeutic for both the practitioner and the patient, leaving both with a sense of peace and tranquility at the end of a session. I don’t know exactly how my masseuse feels, but she does use her own body to put pressure on mine and cantilever me in different stretches, plus she giggles a lot at my occasional whimpers, so she might be right on target.
At the end of the session, I like my body is totally relaxed, yet I feel fully energized. In comparison to my girlfriend who wakes up for only 10 minutes before sleeping another hour back at home, I’m full of beans and my mind feels clear and happy.
Recommendations for a Thai Massage
Before we leave the massage shop, we change back into our own clothes and are invited to eat some cookies with a glass of herbal tea. We’re told to drink a lot of water and relax, then we pay 250 THB/person and are sent on our way.
In shops in bigger cities have a lot of competition and you can find a good massage for as little as 150THB / hour. However, most shops give you a discount on your second hour, and if you have the time it’s worth it. You’re not supposed to have a massage after surgery, during pregnancy (without consulting your doctor), if you have a skin disorder or wounds, and not immediately after heavy meals.
There are also many shops around Thailand which advertise massage but really provide ‘other services’. Usually they are obvious, but if you ever find yourself in the wrong kind of place, you’ll know. The masseuses are a little too pretty, a little too weak, and a little too friendly. As a rule, the more neon lights outside the establishment, the more chance that your massage will only focus on certain parts!
When I woke up the day after my first Thai massage, I felt absolutely awful. Think about how mashed potatoes must feel – that was me. It turns out that drinking a lot of water (like 2 litres) is very important after a thorough massage of any kind. My masseuse cousin tells me that massage releases lactic acid from your muscles back into your bloodstream, which then takes a lot of water to flush out. If you don’t it re-deposits all over your body and makes you ache. After other massages, I have always drunk lots of water and have never ever had the same problem again.
All across Thailand, it’s easy to enjoy a cheap and refreshing full body massage, foot massage, or even facial massage but remember not to eat too big a meal right beforehand and to drink tons afterward.
This post is also available in: French