Behind the smiles: lives of massage girls

What’s it like to be a masseuse? What goes on behind the scenes in the life of a massage girl? I’ve had a lot of conversations over the years and managed to get some insights. In this post, I’ll share a few anecdotes I’ve gleaned over the years (Note: names are changed to protect their identity.)

Many masseuses have ‘normal’ lives, that is, working, and returning to a regular family life but more often than not, their lives are more of a struggle….


Awan’ is an attractive 23 year old woman working in a higher end spa in Siem Reap. Her mother died when she was 3 months old and her father remarried. Awan did not get along with her step-mother at all and she desperately wanted to get out of her father’s house. At the age of 16, she found an escape: marriage to a 30 year old man. The marriage lasted four years and at the age of 20, she found herself divorced with two young daughters (now aged 3 and 6). Her husband left her for a ‘prettier and younger’ girl. The daughters are being cared by her mother-in-law who lives an hour’s drive away from the city. She only gets to see her children once a month when she pays a motorcycle driver $5 each way for a quick visit on a morning before work. She loves to play with the kids and misses them terribly but at least can call them frequently on the phone.

For the last three years, she’s worked in various massage spas where she does foot and body massages for tourists, as well as pedicures and manicures. Despite the fact that she’s very attractive, she doesn’t see any future possibilities in getting married again as no Khmer man would consider a relationship with an ‘old’ woman like her who has two kids and works as a masseuse. Her best chance for remarriage is finding a foreigner who is willing to take the whole ‘family.’ She gets 4 days off a month and earns $100 US for the month. She gets nothing for each massage she does but gets to keep the tips. She’s never had a real vacation.

THAILAND: Chiang Mai

‘Fa’ is a slim, attractive 29 year old who came to Chiang Mai about a year ago from a small village near the northern Thai/Burma border. She had been working hard all her life to keep her family supported in her home village but it was getting harder to make ends meet with few lucrative work opportunities in the rural area. So she moved to Chiang Mai where there’s a thriving massage industry.

I had a couple of massages from her and we would have interesting talks, made possible by her fairly good English abilities; she’d picked up the language by talking to customers. I invited her out for coffee and got a few details about her life story. We agreed to meet at a 7-11 and very uncharacteristically, for a Thai woman, she was 15 minutes early!

Her dreams: she would have liked to have gone on to university and as a very intelligent woman, she would have gone far. She finished high school but never had the chance to go further. She would like to get married and have a child but sees little hope for that as she must continue to work seven days a week to make enough money to support everyone. There is no time for socializing and after a 12-15 hour day, she’s exhausted. Her expenses in Chiang Mai are low: her apartment is tiny and costs 2500 baht per month. There is only space for a bed and a small bathroom so she can’t cook there. She says she’s a really good cook, having done it all her life when taking care of her family but because there’s no room or facilities in the apartment, she has to eat out (which fortunately isn’t that expensive in Chiang Mai). She has a used scooter that she uses to get around. She sends 2000 baht to her younger sister in school and 4000-5000 baht a month to her parents (or less in slow months). What little is left, she uses to shop for nice little things: clothes, a bit of makeup, things to make her look pretty. She has some digestive problems and takes antacid pills after every meal; she should go to a doctor but can’t afford it.

She has five siblings, most of whom are now married but has a younger sister who is still in school. Fa, being the only single child not in school, is now the breadwinner for the family. Her father is an aging farmer who can’t work enough to support his family anymore; her mother has had some kind of chronic illness that has left her bedridden for a decade or more. So it’s up to Fa to go to work. She feels sad about it sometimes but is pragmatic and tries to remain upbeat: it’s simply her duty that she must work for all and there’s no sense moping. There’s no sense trying to dream about a better life because she knows it will never happen and there’s no point torturing herself with dreams of what will never happen (in her mind).

Spiritually, she’s an anomaly among the girls of the area as she is a Christian and even rarer than that, a Roman Catholic! Her tribe is Akha and comes from that region of the Burma-Thailand border where there are many tribes, such as the Karen, that have been converted to Christianity. As a devout Catholic, she attends mass every week faithfully. She keeps her massage practices strictly professional and even though it’s tempting to offer extras for some easy money, she refuses. And as an attractive young woman, she is constantly being asked by customers for sex who have offered her as much as 3000 baht for intercourse.

She works every day, rarely taking a day off. Now, when she goes home to visit her family, she thinks the village is dirty, having been exposed to a cleaner city life; she keeps her apartment spotless. She went on vacation with a girlfriend to Phuket once, travelling by jet which was quite an awesome experience for her. She’d like to travel more.

CAMBODIA: Phnom Penh

Pheapwas one of my favorite Phnom Penh masseuses. She was 28 when I met her. Her hands were strong and could weave magic as she worked my back muscles. Despite her being attractive and childless, she was struggling and slept at the massage shop in Phnom Penh where she worked. Four girls worked there and they each got a massage bed to sleep on but they had to turn the air conditioning off at night so it often got stiflingly hot. The boss didn’t want to waste money on them. They got paid about $40 a month plus free room and board and made their money on tips. When I returned to Phnom Penh a year after meeting her, she was gone. The other girls told me she was pregnant and was about to give birth somewhere but they didn’t know where she’d gone to.

Chanta’ is a delightful, friendly masseuse, mid-30’s, divorced mother of two. She works in Phnom Penh and is always a little too glad to see me, giving me warm hugs and kisses whenever I roll back into town. She left her husband after one too many sessions in which he would do ‘boxing on her head’ (that’s how she describes the regular beatings he would give her).

Thailand: Pattaya

‘Tu’ is a woman from a rural village in the Akha hilltribe region of north Thailand. For someone of such humble beginnings, she’s certainly managed to get in a lot of travel. She’s about 39, she thinks, unwed, with a 5 year old son who’s being taken care by her mother. She sends some money home regularly. When I met her, she was killing time working in a massage shop in Pattaya, Thailand, waiting for a Visa to come through so she could work in Australia. She has a friend there who owns a massage shop and is hoping to work there for a year or so and save a lot of money to buy some land. When I met her, she stood out from the the rest of the girls in Pattaya, much taller and more Chinese looking. Her father was Chinese born from Guangxi province and move to Thailand marrying an Akha woman. It was hard to figure out what her true backstory was because even she didn’t know many of her own early life details. She admits freely that just about everything in her life is fake including her name (adopted from a purchased identity card: many hilltribe people weren’t issued birth certificates so they have to buy them on the ‘black’ market). She doesn’t know her birthday, just the one on her purchased card. Her breasts are fake she told me: implants recently purchased for a couple of thousand dollars. With her massage career, she had managed to travel to Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, and South Korea (where she was arrested and briefly held in jail for a visa overstay). I found her to be a somewhat wild and unpredictable person but intelligent and interesting. She struck me as a bit paranoid, always looking over her shoulder, and suspicious of everyone. Her massages were excellent!

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