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Looking For Thai Massage

  • Written by Tourist
  • September 15th, 2010
  • 9 min read


So you are looking for Thai massage?

Seems like an easy one, with offers on every street corner. The trouble is, in recent times it has got slightly more complicated than I expected. Let me try to explain.

First of all, I know what you were thinking when you read the title of this piece. Everyone thinks it. Go back after your holiday, tell your friends that you had great Thai massage, and they think it too. It might be a thousand years of Christianity, but every unknown touch is still sex, and those who do it end up in a rather hot and unpleasant place in the foreseeable future.

And not only you thinks so. Most of my fellow tourists do too. Thus whenever they see the offers on every street corner, they know that this Thai massage is something special.

So you are looking for Thai Massage?

My first experience of Thai massage was many years ago, on my first trip. Those days, massage was not offered to farang tourists that frequent. Chiang Mai, some street which I do not remember now. A sign advertising traditional Thai massage, a price and some photographs of what to expect. Basically the only place in the city where I did see such a shop.

Weak memories, faded by time. White pyjamas, room with a series of mattresses, two hours with someone stretching and pushing all corners of my body, performing acrobatics I did not think myself capable of, pure bliss afterward.

It was a first, and probably the best. Since then I had Thai massage in many places. Professional places in Chiang Mai, upstairs floors of shops in Isaan or back streets of Bangkok, spa type places and many others.

I like the ritual; just one of those little treats. The washing of my feet. Changing into whatever outfit they give me (usually thin oversized pants and a cotton shirt). Laying on my back and someone starting to knead my legs. The moment when they cut off my artery in the top of the leg: you slowly feel the leg grow cold, after which they push the warm blood through. The fingers which relieve the knots in the back. The feet which push against the back of my legs. The careful kneading to get a year of work stress out of the shoulders. The slow movement of the skin over the head to get all stupid thoughts out. And yes, there is a relief in pain: the elbow which gets pushed in the shoulder, the thumb which gets pressed in these little muscles which I didn’t know I had but which hurt a lot when thumbs are pushed in them.

And the reward afterward: feeling calm and at peace when it is over. Floating in thin air when you walk on the street afterwards. Lying on your back that night and feeling that your body has never been so well balanced.

So you are looking for Thai massage?

Since that first, many things have changed. Massage shops are now all over Chiang Mai. And if you do not want a shop, then open air service at the night market is also available. The sign of Thai / Oil / Foot is pushed in your face dozens of times a day when you walk through Bangkok. But that hasn’t made it easier to find a good Thai massage.

The fact is that to do a good massage, you need training. Now, anyone can learn to do a decent oil massage in a half a day or so. The technique of putting someone in oil, the moves or touches are not that complicated. There is just a few pointers on what certainly not to do, and you can be on your way. Thus, nice looking girls take up the job in the hope of making some money, and making some extras.

And we have to look into the mind of our Western tourist. Since my first trip, Thai massage has changed. On that trip, the standard time for Thai massage was two hours. Ask for one hour, and you’d be frowned upon. Nowadays, there hardly is a place which offers two hours anymore. One hour is the standard time. I have often asked why? Are we farang so impatient that being quiet for two hours is just too much to ask? Just like I have often wondered about the popularity of foot massage on the night market. Do we farang accept a stranger touching our feet, but not the rest of our body? And we have the association of any touch of the body with sexual activity, which means that we farang expect massage to lead to something extra.

It is not difficult to teach someone to do oil massage. Half a day or so. Of course, they will not reach the level of magic the Japanese lady performed on my back in her small shop in Hiroshima, but the result will be highly acceptable to most customers. It is, however, quite difficult to teach someone to do good Thai massage. It requires skill, technique and a good understanding of anatomy. And things can seriously hurt when this training has not been correct.

So we get an oversupply of quickly trained, beautiful massage girls, a bunch of tourists expecting the extra and me looking for massage. No, it has not gotten any easier.

Thus, we come to my main reason for writing this: it gets harder and harder to recognize where good traditional massage is offered. Too many places geared at tourists offer oil, and some extra service and leave a happy customer. Fewer and fewer places seem the places with adequate training. And these few are not easy to recognize for an outsider.

I did find some pointers, of course: massage girls dressed in uniform are a plus, dressed in other outfits offer probably something else. Places with young beauties offer something extra, places with older women are generally a better bet. Places where you choose your masseuse are less of a bet, places where the masseuse is chosen by the company are better. Places where the staff says that you should do oil when you ask for traditional are set up for a bad traditional massage. Better stick to the oil there. Places which by the fun they have when your white face arrives, and the only English they know is on a plastic card which lists services and prices are usually good (although interesting: places where they do not get farang customers, the massage is generally harder and more painful than elsewhere. Also the masseuses have a lot of fun and laugh out loud feeling all the funny spots in your body and about the groans of pain you make. Pleasure which they share out loud with the rest of the people in the room).

The spa type places vary. I’ve seen good (highlight was the masseuse who after the massage could make a quite good guess what kind of job her customer was doing, based on the stress spots in his body) and seen reasonable (places in big shopping malls, where skill level was acceptable, but not so high their prices justified).

And no, this being Thailand they will probably not develop a sign for my sake to tell me where to go for the real massage, because training levels are under control.

So you are looking for Thai massage?

I know what you were thinking when you read the title of this piece. I think it sometimes too. Then I just follow the neon signs saying massage.

These places are different. First of all, they are not designed for us, farang. You notice, because the outside of the building looks non-inviting. Only the flashy neon suggests. Sometimes, you are not welcome. The ladies turn their heads, the papasan is polite, but subtly suggests that you better go. Maybe because we farang lack correct manners. Maybe because of the story that farang are so large, thus stretching up the lady making it impossible for the next customer to feel anything. Or maybe that day I was just wearing the wrong shirt.

These places are different. You walk in. You settle yourself in the lobby and order a drink. You lean back and look at the fish bowl. A large window, showing which service staff they have available. You forget political correctness, where men are not allowed to pick women like fish in an aquarium. And when you do, life actually gets pleasant.

Is it massage? Makes me think of a similar place in Macau. I was comfortably sitting in a large pool, with a young lady explaining. They had massage, special massage, special special massage, even more special massage. Asked what the difference was, she replied “Maybe special massage lady not so good in massage”.

Being in a Thai place, we behave. Are not noisy. Discretely choose our number from the fish bowl. Pay at the desk. Order drinks for us and our lady. Generously tip the guy serving the drinks, our lady after services, the staff who cleans the room. Do not jump upon our lady when we get to the room, but let her guide the rituals. And then, dreams start to come alive.

Floating memories. Being in a huge soapy bath together. Being washed like a baby. And the massage: I lay down on a big mattress. She soaps my body. Using her breasts, she starts to massage my back. A cloud of soap, a body sliding over me. I turn and the ritual continues. Silk sensation of Asian skin. And this all leads to one logical conclusion.

Yes, we forget political correctness for a moment. Just one happy man.

So you are looking for Thai massage?

I know what you are thinking. I am back in my home country, and I cannot ask this question: do you know a good place for Thai massage? Not a good one for my reputation. By the way, anyone an answer?

(Note that I avoid naming places. This has 3 reasons: 1: service in traditional massage places is inconsistent. Places which were good one year, sometimes do a change of staff and a decline in quality next year. 2: there are good neon places, but it takes some effort to find them. The touts which flop the flyers in your face always show the pictures of the best ones, and then bring you somewhere else. Giving a name to anyone is not a guarantee that they bring you there if you have white face 3: if all of you end up in my favorite places they get overcrowded. Decrease of staff levels, and thus of service)

Stickman's thoughts:

I agree that it is getting more difficult to find a place where you can get a decent traditional massage where extras are not part of the deal.