‘Tok Sen’ is a style of ‘wooden hammer and chisel’ massage that has been around for thousands of years but I wasn’t even aware of it until a week ago. It’s not something you see on most massage service menus. A friend told me about it and I was intrigued: a style of massage I hadn’t tried yet! Chiang Mai and other parts of northern Thailand are the places to look for ‘Tok Sen.’ An on-line search led me to the Fah Lanna Spa where an hour of treatment went for the rather steep price of 1500 baht! A bit too rich for my blood! Soon after, I stumbled upon an inconspicuous massage establishment called Arokaya Massage, located right inside the temple grounds of Wat Mahawan on Taphae Road beside Soi 4, not far from the Taphae Gate. Their sign advertised ‘Tok Sen’ for only 200 baht (about $6 US). I walked right in!
The waiting area was an open leafy zone with a fake waterfalls gently tumbling water through sprays of orchids and other greenery with some traditional music piped in on a tinny speaker. Monks were milling about doing their daily chores. Was it a monk that would be giving me a massage? There was a guy giving a gentleman a foot massage. When he looked around at me, I said ‘Tok sen?’ He called out and soon after, a 30-ish woman emerged from the shadows and led me into a side building of the temple. I was given some cotton pants to change into as well as a bag to put my clothes in, then directed upstairs into a large open room with about a dozen mattresses on the floor.
There were already a couple of people getting ‘tokked’ with a steady, rhythmic tapping of wood on wood. My masseuse took out a couple of simple tools: a small, wooden mallet and a thick, wedge-shaped stick like a pestle. She had me lay down on my stomach, then began by applying the pointy end of the stick to my upper back and gave the other end a good rap with the mallet. The sound was a rather pleasant, steady rhythmic ‘tok tok tok.’ She hammered in synch with the other masseuses so smoothly that you couldn’t tell how many hammers were going.
The hammering force is fairly hard and the body gets a good jolt. A shock wave of energy radiates out from the point of the wedge. It was lightly painful but in a good way and I soon got used to it. In fact, after a while, I rose above whatever pain there was and started to actually drift off. She followed some meridians (‘sen’) longitudinally up and down my back, continuing down a line along my buttocks and on to the back of my legs. The tapping line ended on the soles of my feet. I did find the hammering along the backs of my legs to be a bit more painful. That might have been because she thought I, being a big tall fellow with sturdy legs, needed more pressure, or maybe my skin and muscle is more sensitive there.
The tapping seemed to strike in ‘triplets,’ sometimes staying in one spot for three strokes, and sometimes sliding along a bit for three strokes. I believe she ran up and down four meridians along the length of my body. After the first ten minutes or so, she put down the hammer and pestle, and started more of a Thai massage routine, pressing along various spots of my back and legs with her elbows and palms of her hands. This part was more painful but probably didn’t need to be. She seemed to revel in causing me as much pain as possible because she was laughing as she did so. She would jab me hard and ask ‘jep mai?’ Any pain? I’d reply ‘jakajee’: you’re tickling me! Which was the wrong thing to say because now she redoubled her efforts to inflict some pain, but in a fun way. Being a stubborn, proud sort, I wasn’t going to give in so it’s my own fault it hurt so much. If you find yourself getting too much pressure, just say ‘baw baw’ (softer) or let out a plain ‘ouch’. The other two ladies didn’t seem to be undergoing any pain stresses so I’m going to conclude that I had a sadistic woman! (I think a lot of times, masseuses assume that if you’re a large person you want harsher pressure).
Soon it was time to turn over. She returned to tapping along meridans of my upper legs, arms, hands, followed by more direct hand kneading and the usual bending of legs in impossible angles and stretches with some more pain.
It finished off with sitting upright and getting a bit of tapping on the upper shoulders followed by standard hand kneading of shoulders, neck stretches, and a head massage. Like they say with painful events, it feels good when it stops!
The rate of hammering was about 2 beats per second. The rhythm is hypnotic and it’s not hard to follow along and get in synch in a kind of meditation. That makes it more relaxing. Waves of energy follow the meridians with each strike. The name of this massage, by the way, means ‘strike meridian.’
Promised benefits advertised are pain relief, improved blood circulation, removed energy blockages, and relief from sore tendons, pinched nerves, and numbness.
I gave my masseuse a 100-baht tip and she was pleased. I thought I’d be covered with bruises from all the hammering but later when I checked, there were no marks. I would imagine that if one bruised easily, one could expect to get a few marks, but nothing lasting, I’m sure. All in all, I can highly recommend one try the ‘tok sen’ massage at least once. Just don’t be stubborn like me: if it gets painful, don’t be a martyr and say something! Massage is supposed to be an enjoyable event. It was an interesting massage and I will try it again someday.
The practise dates back many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years and originated in the Lan Na region of northern Thailand. The tradition is taught orally. It was supposed to have been originally prescribed as a way for wives to give their tired and aching husbands some relief after working all day in the fields. The tools for this practise are made from the wood of a tamarind tree after it has been struck by lightning. The wood is then blessed by a monk. All of this special treatment makes the tools better for removing negative energy from our bodies. I’m not sure if those things get done anymore but it sounds like it can’t hurt! Wedges and hammers vary in size and even come with buffered ends to make them quieter for night-time use.
If you want to learn the art yourself, try getting some training at: http://www.thaitoksen.com/
Here’s a set of tools I found for sale on Amazon: