Aside from Sweden, Asia dominates the massage market. While sports and sunburn options have been added to the menu, it is countries such as India, China, and Thailand which proudly claim an ancient history in the craft.
The history of massage in Thailand dates back to 2,500 years ago when a man named Shivago Komarpaj – said to be a physician to the Buddha himself – imported the practice from northern India.
When you hear the word “massage” it may conjure up relaxing hours wiled away in rooms smelling of patchouli with panpipes and running water played through speakers, but a traditional Thai massage takes a very different approach.
What is Thai Massage?
The traditional Thai massage is one of the country’s major exports, in a sense. The style is replicated all over the world. It consists of applied pressure to muscles, stretching, manipulating joints in yoga-style positions, and tapping the hands across the body.
Thai massage is not inherently relaxing, but rather an intense workout for the whole body which leaves the recipient feeling invigorated. The experience was summed up by one tourist as “very aggressive – afterwards you feel as if you have no bones.”
In southern Thailand, tourist hot spots such as its picturesque islands and bustling cities have capitalised on their unique cultural commodity. The streets are brimming with massage parlours. Sometimes in uniforms, masseuses often wait outside with a price list at hand hoping to entice weary travelers inside.
The concentration of Thai massage practitioners in some places, such as Pattaya, has reached a near-boiling point. Every other shop seems to be a massage parlour or salon. A savvy traveler knows bargaining is the way of the world in Southeast Asia, but this is not often the case for massages. There is often a price agreement in place across venues, meaning you may not find cheaper even if you searched or tried out your best bargaining skills.
Thai massage tip: prices will tend to decrease slightly as you get further from the centre of town / the area where tourists are most concentrated.
Massage in Thailand: Thai Massage
The main massage style – Thai massage – which is available in virtually every salon, will often be the least expensive full body massage. The cheapest I managed to find it for for an hour was 120THB in Pattaya, but this was on a special promotion. Otherwise prices ranged from 200-350THB on average, with prices rising to 500THB and above at the highest end.
Unlike most other massage techniques, Thai style requires you to be fully clothed, although socks are optional. But you do not need to show up in your baggiest t-shirt, as salons will always provide you with a suitable attire. You’ll be given a pyjama-style outfit to wear: a one-size-fits-all t-shirt and trousers. No oils are used in the Thai massage, just stretching and pressure above the clothes.
Expect your back to be cracked, your limbs to be contorted into positions not thought possible, and your toe and finger joints worked on alongside taps and knocks from a masseuse with hands like steel. The full hour is recommended for an authentic experience.
Massage in Thailand: Oil Massage
If a relaxing massage is more your style, then oil options are also available. This is the typical face down, no shirt style with long sweeping strokes and the working out of knots and kinks in the back and shoulders. Often coconut oil, a staple in massage parlours, kitchens and pharmacies, is on offer.
Aloe Vera, another plant renowned for its properties, is also commonly used. If not specified, or you opt for just an oil massage, you are at the mercy of the masseuse, which may not be a bad thing. Tiger balm, a wonder concoction used to treat all ailments, is a good go-to and can be mixed with other oils, such as melon.
Expect to pay more for the oil-based options, which start at around 250THB and can cost as much as 750THB. This style can be offered as either a 30, 60, or 90 minute session, with prices adjusted accordingly.
Massage in Thailand: Foot Massage
Foot massage, or reflexology, is another staple massage style in Thailand. This is often offered as a 60 or 30 minute package, and the tourist-centric walking streets often have rows and rows of chairs outside filled with partygoers taking a well earned rest and having their feet seen to.
Oil is sometimes used for feet, which also goes up to ankle and shin. But some shirk that for a hardier style, using no oil but a stick to activate certain pressure points. While focusing on the feet, elements of the traditional Thai sneak in with compression, stretches, and the clicking of toes as well as pressure applied the calves.
Feet are held in high importance in Thai massage, indicative of their own reflexology style, and such is their importance it is not uncommon to go for a back, neck, and shoulder massage only to have the masseuse start with your feet. A foot massage may often be the cheapest on the menu at a 30 minute package, with some salons offering the service for 150THB. Needless to say this increases in more built-up areas, particularly on the walking streets.
Massage in Thailand: Head, Neck, Shoulder, Back
Head, neck, shoulders, and back can be offered as a variety of choices usually covering three of those four options. As before, your feet will not be ignored but the masseuse will often quickly move to the afflicted areas. This is similar to oil, where your back is free from clothes to allow the masseuse to work their magic. Elements of Thai will again sneak in, will pressure and compression done over a towel which is later removed and oil applied.
The pricing is similar to oil, and it is used in conjunction with long, sweeping strokes and the working out of knots using knuckles and fingertips. Often for the head or neck section, you will be asked to turn on to your back with your head in their lap, or you will be sat up with them behind you supporting you.
Massage in Thailand: Body Scrub
A body scrub comes in many different formats but the principle is the same: an all-over body exfoliation to get rid of dead skin. Here the technique is often the same but what they use differs greatly, which is reflected in the price. Honey, milk, coffee, herbs, and salt are but a few ingredients advertised.
Typical scrubs bought in shops can also be used, but be warned if you do not opt for a specific package or do not check what you will be scrubbed with it is likely salt will be applied. Used with water, while it does the job it may not be the relaxing and invigorating experience you hoped for.
Scrubs are often 60 or 90 minutes and are usually pricier than a standard Thai or oil massage. The price starts at around 300THB and can rise to 1000THB depending on the salon and type of scrub used.
Salons may offer packages, a facial, scrub with a type of massage, or a foot rub or scrub while you enjoy a facial.
Want to know more about Thai Massage?
If this article has you aching for a thai massage, and you want to know more, check out the articles below.
- What is Thai Massage? by Anitra Brown for TripSavvy
- Funny and Embarrassing Thai Massage Stories by Chris and Angela of Tieland to Thailand
- The Travelettes Guide to Thai Massage by Frankie Thompson for Travelettes
- Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Thai Massage by Kelly Iverson for CultureTrip