Traditional Massage can mean a lot of things in this part of the world. Here, we are defining ‘traditional’ as a ‘fully body massage’ where you are fully or partially clothed and there is no oil or lotion involved. It is the whole body that is being massaged, rather than just the feet or head and shoulders, for instance. A traditional body massage may go by many names depending on what country you are in. It may be called Thai Massage, Khmer/Cambodian Massage, Lao Massage, Balinese, Javan, or Vietnamese Massage but they are all variations on a theme.
We will describe ‘Traditional Thai Massage’ (or Classical Thai Massage) because it seems to be the basis of all Southeast Asian traditional massages. Under the various country descriptions, I will describe the variations on the Thai theme.
Traditional Thai Massage is thought to have been developed by Buddhist monks in Thailand 2,500 years ago. Over the years, it has incorporated elements of other regional massage and medicinal systems from India, China, and Southeast Asia. Some of the stretches are reminiscent of yoga moves but are done with an assistant.
One prepares by changing into some loose-fitting clothes: some baggy shorts or pajama-like clothes (top and bottom pieces) are usually provided. The shorts often have two long strings attached; these go in the back and get drawn toward the front and tied in a knot (I put them on backwards first time which got some laughs!) Once dressed, you lie down on a mat or on a firm mattress on the floor or on a bed. Since there is no nudity involved, privacy is not an issue and you may or may not have a private space. Often, there will be several mattresses side-by-side with several people being stretched, prodded, and otherwise manipulated simultaneously.
Using the hands, elbows, forearms, and even knees and feet, the masseuse/masseur will apply a series of rhythmic pressures, pushes, and pulls to every part of the body. Some moves involve ‘walking’ up and down the back with hands pressing down on a spot for a few seconds, lifting up, then moving a few inches up or down and repeating. Other moves include the masseuse gripping your arms or legs and then using her feet to do the pressing in of the target area. Her elbows can used as well to apply pressure.
Thai massages can last as little as an hour but many recommend you go for at least 90 minutes and preferably two hours to get an unrushed, full treatment. They are so cheap that two hours is easily affordable. If you are in an area for a while, I would recommend trying an hour first and when you find a practitioner you like, expand to 90 minutes or two hours. That way, you’re not committed to two hours of hell if it’s not working out. You can always stop early, however!
There are so many variations but what usually gets covered is the back, legs, arms, torso, hands and feet, and head.
Thai Massage is supposed to have multiple benefits including migraine relief, relief from asthma, bruising and strains, anxiety, tension (both physical and emotional), improved sleep, enhanced flexibility, and increased energy. Whether or not these benefits are real, massage just plain feels good.
The most famous training area for Thai Massage is the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School which opened in 1955. People from many countries train here. I’d like to say that most of the masseuses that you will encounter were trained here, but unfortunately, most are trained on the job by their ‘sisters.’ Still, many have very good skills and you will almost always leave feeling much better.
Are Thai massages painful? Some moves can generate a bit of pain and if you’re not very flexible, some of the stretches can be quite painful, but you can always say ‘ouch’ or ‘jep’ (Thai for ‘pain’) and the masseuse will let up. A little pit of pain is a good thing and it feels so good when it’s all over.
A typical Traditional Thai Massage
Here is a description of a massage I had in Bangkok recently. My masseuse suggested I get a 2-hour massage so I thought I’d give it a try. She said that she had had some professional training and after the massage I got, I’m inclined to believe her. First, I was handed a pair of baggy long shorts with the two drawstrings as described earlier. I was asked to disrobe and change into these, then lie face down on the bed. The bed was curtained off for privacy and there was soft, relaxing music playing in the background. Candles were flickering nearby for an undulating light.
She began by rhythmically moving up from my heels to my thighs with her fists, pressing them into my muscles for a few seconds, then releasing, then moving up a bit and repeating. As she got up to my lower back, she ‘walked’ up my legs with her knees, incrementally as she continued. So, I’m getting pressed in by two fists and two knees simultaneously.
She spent considerable time on my back, pressing in with fists and kneading with palms. She also worked the back of my upper arms and neck. Finally, with her feet, she ‘walked’ on my back, up and down, then down my legs (you want to make sure the masseuse knows what she’s doing and that she’s not too heavy. My back is strong, fortunately, and I rather like the feeling but do keep in mind that damage can occur!). Actually, walking on the back is not very common.
Next, she spent some time kneading, twisting, and pressing on the backs of my legs. At one point, she pulled my arms back, had me grip her wrists tightly, then pulled so that I was arching my back and head up in a big stretch. This was hard for her to do as I’m a pretty big guy at 6’4″ and she was half my weight but she did a pretty good job.
Next, some nice foot massage, then time to turn over and work up the front of my legs.
A couple of strong presses into both sides of my groin really got the blood flowing. Some interesting stretches happened here, the kind where it feels like you’re getting bent like a pretzel. A leg gets bent and pushed sideways, massaged, then pushed across the other leg with some mildly painful muscle stretching and kneading of newly exposed areas. It’s hard to describe the actual movements but you’ll know what I mean when you try it out.
There was some deep kneading of my intestines as she worked my lower torso. Finally, the arms and hands got massaged. My arms got stretched behind my head in yet another pretzel-like or yoga-like move.
Next, I was asked to sit-up and she worked on my upper back. She leaned into my shoulders with her forearms, rocking and really getting her weight into it. There was some neck kneading and stretching, and finally a head massage, laying my head back into her lap. This included some facial massage (mouth, cheeks, eyebrows, forehead) and some scalp and ear massage.
When finished, she said ‘thank you’ and gave me a hug (I’d had a few massages from her already so this was perfectly normal).
Throughout the massage, she had used her fingers, thumbs, palms and heels of her hand, forearms, elbows, knees, and feet. Even the weight of her bum sitting on the back of my legs and rocking around could be considered to be part of the massage.
I was offered a cup of tea after the massage. There is usually a bottle of water or cup of tea available afterwards.
The two hours went by pretty fast.
Word of warning: take a minute or two to relax and get up slowly as all that kneading and pressure work, releases a lot of toxins, and makes you super relaxed dropping your blood pressure quite a bit. You might get dizzy or light-headed if you arise too quickly. Drink plenty of water (or beer if that’s all there is ) to aid in flushing toxins.
Note: In traditional Thai Massage, there is no oil or lotion involved. If you’re going for an aromatherapy, lotion, or oil massage, check oil massage for details.