Massage Culture in Thailand.

Street pop up massage place on market day.

Massage is very much part of day to day life in Thailand . Often it is not segregated away into sanitised clinics and spas (but those places exist) . It is both part of popular culture and a serious medical treatment . Traditionally children massage parents (bring it on) and it’s not uncommon just to see people getting stuck into each other’s knots and blocks in less formal work settings and markets. At the airport when leaving I saw one of the cleaners going over one of his colleagues, including standing on him, just on the floor outside the loos . Whilst on my research and study trips I made it my business to receive massage in as many and varied places as possible.

Receiving massage in Thailand can certainly be an experience. In general there is a cultural expectation that massage be strong . One of my teachers when asked what is the main difference between other massage modalities and Thai massage answered ‘with most massage you lie there waiting for something to happen , with Thai massage you lie there worrying about what will happen next’ . Ho ho , but I get his point and have had pillow biting experiences like that at times in the name of research, but it needn’t be this way and you can always ask for more a more gentle massage (google translate is your friend if you’re in doubt of how to ask).

It can also be long , whilst short ones are possible and available (one and half hours being at the shorter end) , the record for myself in receiving was a four and half hour one. She was thorough, though we were getting hungry by the end. The record that I’m aware of was six hours received by a friend from the same therapist – phew, she slept well. This is how it works. Perhaps this is because it is understood that good massage takes time, and that problems or pain in the body generally don’t occur in isolation so whole body in depth massage is needed. Also perhaps culturally (certainly historically) time was perhaps less of an issue and massage treatments lasted until they were finished . A refreshing change from time pressured one hour (if you’re lucky) clinic slots found in some western massage clinics which unfortunately can end up being as much about money as people.

Historically one of the traditional places massage was practiced was at the wat (Buddhist Temple), which as well as being places where monks and nuns lived and practiced often had multiple other community uses such as for school, health care, life rituals and festivals. This practice continues in a few places and in general a room or hall is filled with floor mattresses and it is often partly a social experience. Some of these places can seem quite informal , with a bit of a laugh going on, kids and animals coming and going, along with some serious work. One of my favourite places is Wat Pan Whaen in Chiang Mai .

Reusi ( Thai yogis). The originators of Thai massage.
Elbows and forearm action at Wat Pan Whaen.

There are places run by blind practitioners as historically massage is one of the traditional occupations (along with music) for blind people in parts of Asia (I hope there are more options available to them these days). There is one guy in one of these places who has been working there since I first went in 1999 and we have little chat each time I go (we’ve been practicing about the same length of time, same aged kids…).

Another social entrepreneurial type project that has appeared in recent years has been the creation of a small chain of massage centres for women ex prisoners; essentially a job and safe workplace for them when they come out. In my experience these women are well trained and grab the opportunity with both hands doing great work.

At the more clinical end of the spectrum there is a new research health centre linked to Chiang Mai University that has sections for Traditional Thai Medicine, Western Bio-Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine . In consultation with a doctor you get to decide which is the best approach (or combination of approaches ) for your situation . In a country where you pay for health care regardless, it seems a pretty good set of choices .

Massage happens more or less anywhere (through there are ethics around this) . There are more commercial spa type places for tourists, but not only. If you’re a tourist in the south of Thailand , you can get one under a tree on the beach , in the countryside you may just find a shack somewhere offering it or a sign outside someones’s house . Once when I called a teacher to book massage (pre internet days), I was given directions to her house which turned out to be an old wooden stilt house under a motorway flyover on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I had the massage in the main room whilst her very elderly mother rocked in a chair cackling away and a small boy chased his toy cars round the room . Given that I work at home I can relate to the need to work whilst maintaining caring duties – it was a great massage.

If you want to find me for Thai massage, I work in Totnes, Devon , UK . Find out more here.

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