Streets in Thailand are saturated with massage shops. As you walk along steamy summer sidewalks, the cool air bursting from within, and welcoming waves from waiting masseurs invite desirable moments of respite. Each time I pass, I face the internal battle of, “Do I really need another massage?” Signs with prices posted with a cost of approximately $10 US per hour usually convince me the answer is yes!
Thinking of massages might elicit visions of quiet music, soothing touches, and a sense of self-pampering. This is not the case for most Thai Massages in Thailand. The best description I can think of is that they are unpleasantly amazing. Instead of soothing touches, you can expect an interactive process that include a variety of pushes and pulls. While some touches make you wince, it feels good at the same time.
While we often think of massages as a form of pampering, I have been told Thai citizens view massages as a form preventive medicine to alleviate stress, boost energy, stimulate circulation, and improve range of motion. Self care and taking time for things you love is also a positive way to support positive mental health. It’s hard to judge whether that is true for me, as there are so many other unusual factors influencing my health, but I definitely value the power of alternatives like massage for positive health.
Here are a few things you can expect when getting a massage in Thailand.
At first, it would be natural to question the safety of massages and wonder if there is a concern about hinky factor. In my experience, I have never felt uncomfortable in any way when getting a massage in Thailand. I did some research on ways to watch for signs people are being exploited, and tried to be aware of work conditions when chooses places. There were some shops we passed that seemed less safe, but instinct, neighborhood, time of day, and communal spaces for massages were some tips I found for choosing a shop safe for everyone involved.
#2 MASSAGE OPTIONS
When you arrive, there are a variety of massage options. I have selected either a traditional Thai body or a foot and leg massage. I’ve noticed there are many options for massages with oil, but have only visited during very warm and humid seasons and felt this option would feel a bit stifling when exploring after the massage. Even when picking a traditional massage, I have found that the technique and amount of pressure vary a bit.
#3 CLOTHING AND CLEANLINESS
You are provided with a set of shorts and a shirt to wear during the massage. The cotton outfit provides full body coverage that allows for easy movement. If you are very concerned about cleanliness, I would look for a more upscale option. In my experience, this also varies from place to place. My standards are generally pretty low, but I know questions about table coverings and lack of cleanliness might be something that bothers others – so you might want to ask to see the massage area before beginning.
Foot massages generally take place in recliner chairs pushed way back and sitting amongst others enjoying the same foot service. Sometimes, during a foot massage, the masseur will use a small stick to increase pressure points and focus on overall body benefits of reflexology. Full body massages are often on thin mattresses placed directly on the floor and separated from others by a curtain hung from the ceiling. While the area is private – you can also hear others close to you. I am guessing more expensive places might offer private rooms – but I have never experienced this in Thailand.
Thai massages – unless specified otherwise – are not soft. They are firm to the point of being somewhat painful at times. Your body is twisted into contortions that stretch beyond typical movement and can at times feel like you are being stretched beyond your comfort zone. Typically, the masseur will use all parts of their body including knees, feet, and elbows to grind into pressure points in places you didn’t know existed. Each touch feels intentional and direct with a pinch to a spot like the wrist eliciting tingles all the way up the arm. It’s not uncommon to be pulled opposite to what you would expect – like having someone stand on your legs from behind while pulling your arms back to lift your head and torso off the ground. It’s almost too difficult to explain – but the best I can say for initial massages is to expect the unexpected.
#6 AFTER THE MASSAGE
Sometimes, you will receive a cup of tea and recommendation to drink a lot of water after the massage. You can expect a bit of discomfort on the days after your first massage. Occasionally, I even have gotten small bruises on my legs. It sounds way worse than it is – because the big benefit is a few days after your massage, you will feel fantastic. Honestly, there is nothing like it. For me, I feel like I can stretch beyond my usually capacity and find that places that usually feel stressed, suddenly feel amazing. Shoulders tend to take the brunt of pressure during a massage, but for weeks afterward, they feel loose and limber.
#7 ONE MORE?
Finally, Thai massages can feel a bit addictive. My friends Emily and Corrine visited Thailand with me for 12 days. Within that time period, we estimate we had seven massages. It sounds so over the top – even to me. There was one day, when we walked home and agreed getting a massage might be too much. Then, we passed the beachfront spot, with reclining chairs facing ocean waves and a glorious breeze and gave eye contact showing agreement that we changed our minds.
Massages can be part of your experience in Thailand. Hopefully, knowing what to expect smooths the process toward deep relief for tight muscles and long term benefits of satisfying stretches.