Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way….
Go for the experienced masseuses. This means women who are a bit older (say late 20’s to 50’s). Yes, the younger ones are cute but unless they’re Wat Pho trained, they’ll probably leave you less than satisfied (at least massage-wise!). Experienced and reputable masseuses usually will be wearing modest, professional uniforms rather than tiny skirts or shorts or schoolgirl outfits!
Be squeaky clean and smell fresh, take a shower, then another one. If you get sweaty on your walk and don’t feel too clean, there’s usually a shower available in the massage house and the girls won’t mind if you want to freshen up first. Do keep in mind, though, that some places will include your shower time as part of your hours. I take a very fast rinse because I don’t like cutting into massage time!
You should avoid eating anything heavy at least an hour before your massage.
If you have any health issues, discuss with your doctor before getting a massage.
Avoid aggressive women (or men). Chances are, they’ll be offering you more than a massage (see massage with extras).
Avoid prostitututes. Yes, they’ll often offer you massages but chances are, their ‘gifts’ lie in other departments.
Get lots of massages. They’re so cheap that you can try out one or two a day (or more). Try different women in different establishments until you find one you really like.
If you’re going for a foot massage, wear shorts or a skirt/dress so that the masseuse will have access to your legs which will get massaged in addition to the feet. Wearing long pants will make it more difficult to get a leg massage.
When you find a masseuse you like, don’t be afraid to tell her what areas need special attention or what hurts or what feels good. Do you need more pressure or less in certain areas? Let her know; they want to please. With repeat visits and your gentle guidance, she’ll learn to give you the perfect massage.
Learn some local language: a few basic phrases will help to break the ice. They’ll be flattered and hugely impressed that you are trying to learn their language even if your pronunciation is horrid. Most farang (foreigners) don’t bother even trying so you’ll automatically elevate yourself above the masses. Get locals to help you with pronunciation. I started learning by pointing to body parts, e.g. finger, hand, leg, etc. and ask ‘what is this? And I help them with their English. It builds bonds.
For a Thai massage, two hours is often better than one.
Make sure the establishment, massage beds, etc. are clean. If it looks like the towels and bedding are getting reused before being laundered, walk out.
Leave your valuables in your hotel, if you can. Just bring enough cash for your massage and a tip. Generally, it’s quite safe but I did have some money stolen from my clothing once so I’m more cautious now. I travel with a wallet filled with a bit of cash and maybe one credit card as well as a camera. Keep your clothing and valuables where you can see them.
Masseuses are human beings with needs and wants just like anyone else’s. Treat them with respect.
If you’re going to ‘wai,’ learn how to do it properly (http://whywai.com/). Foreigners rarely do it right. Just nodding your head or bowing slightly in acknowledgement of someone else’s ‘wai’ is okay.
Paying more might get you better décor but not necessarily a better massage. You can pay many times more for a fancy spa that has nicer beds and wallpaper but more times than not, the massage will be the same. It’s the masseuse that counts so save your money!
Prices are often negotiable. If I see a bunch of massage shops clustered together, I know that competition is steep. I’ll go to one I like that might have a 400 baht pricetag for a one hour oil massage and ask: “Could I have a massage for 300 baht? That way I’ll have something left over for a tip” That usually works! Or walk away and chances are, they’ll call you back!
Watch the time: if you’re only getting 40 or 50 minutes on a one hour massage, your’e getting ripped off (and they know it’s easy for you to lose track of time when you’re relaxed!) Let them know that you’ve been short-changed and tip accordingly.
Aromatherapy is a money-making scam in my opinion as are many of the other supposedly ‘better quality’ oils. In my experience, the basic oil is just fine. Aromatherapy is often the same oil with a bit of cheap scent added in (and several more dollars added to your bill!). If you have a favorite oil, scented or otherwise, bring it along and ask them to use it. If they give you any trouble (and most of the time they’re won’t be any problem), tell them you have special allergies and ‘have to’ use this special oil. It might actually save you a bit of money for not having to pay an inflated price for the the ‘upscale’ oils.
Tip generously, they often make little or nothing on the actual massage itself and depend on tips for a living (see: Tipping)
Be careful about allowing them to walk on your back. I don’t think there’s as much risk of them walking on the backs of your thighs, especially if they’re small and light but I’m always a bit nervous when they start walking directly on the spine. They can and have done damage, mislocated vertebrae, etc. If you’re of a delicate constitution or the masseuse is a heavy person, ask them not to walk on your back.
Pay compliments if they’re doing a good job.
Don’t get angry. Face, or loss of face, is a big deal in Asia. Asians may be very angry with you but will be smiling sweetly, hiding their feelings. It’s not cool to express anger. If you have a problem, smile, and if it’s not that big a deal, ignore it. Otherwise, try to discuss the problem rationally and calmly.