Tok Sen Massage


‘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.

import toksen

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:

Here’s a set of tools I found for sale on Amazon:


Ex-prisoner Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand

prison3 I must admit I was a bit apprehensive at first at the idea of an ex-convict massaging me but the reviews online were good so I decided to give it a try.

There are several places where you can try ex-prisoner or ex-inmate massages in Chiang Mai. I was originally going to try one of the ‘Lila Massage’ treatments but there was a long lineup at the shop I tried, so I moved down the road to one on Phapokklao Road just south of the Chang Puak gate on the north ‘wall’ of the old city. It was called ‘Women’s Massage Center by Ex-prisoners.’

It was about 10 a.m., a time I like because the masseuses will be fresh, strong, and not yet worn down by a long day of massages. It’s also not busy and it’s usually easy to get an immediate walk-in appointment. A half dozen women in their 30’s and 40’s were sitting in front at a table nibbling on a variety of bagged treats and fruits.

‘I’d like a Thai massage, please.’ A woman produced a rate card. A ‘Thai’ massage was 200 baht, an oil massage 380 baht (quite a bit more than elsewhere). My feet were washed in a bowl with some mildly abrasive soap, then dried off and I was led inside


About a dozen raised beds, all covered with clean sheets and Thai fabrics, stretched out in front of me. The place was plain but pleasantly decorated with a large golden Buddha overlooking all. There were no dividers between the beds for privacy but I was the only one there so that wasn’t an issue. There was a small loft where I presume more private oil massages could take place.

I was pointed to a change room and given a loose-fitting cotton top and bottom to change into. My street clothes went into a small wicker basket which was placed under my bed. I noticed some lockers at the back where you could leave your clothes as well.

The masseuse, whose name sounded like ‘Mui’, had me lay down on my front. She began by applying pressure to my legs, 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. She was giving me compression with fists and knees simultaneously.

Fists and palms continued on my back, working into my upper arms and neck periodically. There was more kneading, twisting, and pressing on the backs of my legs as well as some bending, sometimes mildly painful but in a good way. The stretches that are part of Thai massage are. to me, something like an assisted yoga. To finish off the back side, she had me grip her wrists tightly while she pulled me backwards so that my back arched as much as my aging body would allow. This was a bit tricky for her as I’m a pretty tall guy at 6’4″ and she was half my weight but she did a good job.

Next, it was 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. Again, this got amusing at times, due to our vast size differences, but Mui got the job done. 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. She used her heals as well to push into my inner legs. Finally, the arms and hands got massaged. My arms got stretched behind my head in yet another pretzel-like yoga 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.

She was quiet and professional throughout the massage. There was no light chitchat you commonly get in other massage shops. It was obvious that she’d had some sort of training as you might expect in a prison rehabilitation program. I’d expect that all of the women here will have had some training from a reputable massage trainer (unlike some of the other shops where girls are often trained ‘on-the-job’ by their ‘sisters’).

After getting dressed, I went out front where a cup of tea was waiting for me and I was invited to sit at the table with the others and relax. I was curious about what these women had done to get into prison in the first place but I didn’t ask.

It appears that there are other establishments running this kind of massage. The most famous in Chiang Mai is the ‘Lily Massage’ chain. It was established by Naowarat Thanasrisutharat, former Director Chiang Mai Women’s Prison to reintegrate newly released inmates into society. Prior to their release, these carefully screened inmates go through an extensive training program which allows them to make a living and contribute to society. The Prison and the Institute of Skill Development developed a 180-hour massage training course for these inmates.

lila massage

Unfortunately, these detainees often encounter discrimination from employers who refuse to hire them, despite their advanced skills. Sadly, du to lack of employment opportunities some return to a cycle of crime and find themselves back in prison. The Lila Thai Massage was established to help eliminate this pattern of crime and lack of opportunity. For more information, check out:

Apparently, you can go right inside the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution as well and get massaged by a ‘soon-to-be-released’ inmate (carefully guarded!). It’s located roughly in the middle of the old city. It’s very popular and you have to book early to get in. I don’t think you get any special luxuries such as lotions, etc., just a basic massage. I would go to one of the other places previously desribed, the ‘post-release’ places, and get there early in the day if you can. Mid-afternoon is typically the busiest time of day.

I can heartily recommend a massage from any of the ‘ex-inmate/ex-prisoner’ establishments. On top of getting a good massage for a reasonable price, you’re supporting a very worthy cause. These women have little chance of getting meaningful employment otherwise.


Mandara Massage & Beauty in Chiang Mai

mandara thai massage

One of my favorite massage spas in Chiang Mai is the Mandara Spa (located inside the Top North Hotel compound near the Thapae Gate of the old city).

Address: Top North Hotel, 41 Mun Mueang Rd. | Thapae Gate, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand. Phone: +66 90 671 3316

I’ve visited a number of times and have always had a very pleasant, relaxing massage. There is a wide list of services available and the prices are very reasonable (for instance: only 200 baht for an hour-long Thai massage). I’ve come for Thai Massage, Oil Massage, as well as the 90 minute Thai/Oil combo. They usually have promotions going for various combos for longer pampering sessions!

I’m always warmly welcomed by Chin, the friendly manager and her staff. They remember past customers and welcome you back like you’re family.

mandara staff

Two of my favorite masseuses are Oo (not sure about spelling but that’s how it sounds) and Tanya. Both ladies are surprisingly strong for their size. Oo gave me a great 90 minute combo that started out with strong but relaxing pressure work, running her palms up and down my legs and back and doing some light stretches, then finishing off with a great oil massage.

All of the staff are capable of doing all types of massage but if you’re looking for something a little different, try a Thai massage with Tanya who’s of Burmese descent. She adds a bit of Burmese flavour to her Thai massage, meaning less painful stretches and more pressure work along meridians using her palms, thumbs, elbows, and knees.

One floats out of the room and into the main salon where little jam cookies and tea are served. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend you check out Mandara Massage.


Read more reviews on TripAdvisor:

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Massage in Burma/Myanmar

Balloons at sunrise at Bagan

Myanmar is a lovely country with tens of thousands of pagodas and very friendly people. But the massage situation definitely leaves something to be desired! Maybe the conservative culture doesn’t encourage public massage businesses or maybe it’s because the tourism infrastructure has not developed enough yet but it literally took me more hours of searching for a massage than the time I spent lying on a massage table! I found a few places and will share my findings below. In short, Burma is a very interesting country but massage is not the reason to come here.

Finding a massage is best accomplished by asking your hotel staff or your local taxi-driver. You can also search on-line (TripAdvisor, for instance). The places I did find were almost always full and that tells me that there is a demand that is not being filled. As tourism increases in coming years, we should see more massage providers. For now, though, it’s only a few basic massage spas and foot massages, as well as more expensive hotel massage spas.

Here are some initial observations:

  • Burmese massages are very much like Thai massage but with less pressure and pain
  • Massages are very quiet with no conversation
  • Private rooms are darker than usual
  • Long continuous strokes are often employed
  • Thumbs are used a lot in pressure work.
  • Lots of working along meridians with presses from thumbs, palms, and elbows
  • It’s a conservative country where clothed Thai massages are the norm and oil massages are harder to find
  • I saw no sign of any naughtiness in any of the places I visited (although I hear some extra services such as happy endings are available in certain hotel spas).
  • There is a huge shortage of massage spas in Myanmar and anyone who starts up a decent, affordable foot and body massage establishment in Yangon, Bagan, or Mandalay, is going to have a very successful business!


Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk
Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk

I walked literally dozens of streets without finding a single massage place. I had to finally go on-line and go to Tripadvisor’s top recommendations. There are a few places listed but they’re spread around the city and a taxi will often be required.

My first experience was at the new Sapel Foot Massage on 16th Street (near Mahabandula Road). It bills itself as a traditional Burmese foot spa. There are several comfortable chairs where one sits and gets a standard foot massage. I was warmly welcomed by a young lady who spoke very good English. I signed up for the Head-to-toe combo (about 20,000 kyat) which included about 1/2 hour massage on the head and back (while sitting upright on a stool fully clothed) and 1/2 hour of foot massage. My girl, Gigi, used her fingers exclusively for my feet, not using a hard plastic stick as many others do. Jasmine tea was provided. At the end of the massage, she asked me if I wanted some ‘thanaka’ (this is the creamy paste that women all over the country apply to their face). This seems to be one of their trademark extras. I said ‘yes’ so she fetched a large round stone, applied a bit of water, then began rubbing a piece of thanaka wood on it to produce some paste. This paste she applied to my cheeks and to my legs. The receptionist said the age range of girls working here is about 18-24. They seem to be well-trained and everything was very professional. A very pleasurable experience.

The next place I visited was Health Blessing Massage and Spa on Street 19 (63&58). I had two massages here, back to back with the same woman. First I had an hour-long Thai massage which was practically indistinguishable from one you’d get in Thailand. I was given long pants and a shirt to wear. For the oil massage, I was asked to strip everything off and drape myself with a large towel. The oil used was nice and slippery and smooth. Part of her style was to give long strokes, such as a stroke starting at the bum, travelling continuously up the back on to the arms and all the way down the hands, and back again. I’m not sure if this is a personal thing or if it’s a Burmese style but another masseuse later on did the same thing elsewhere. Very pleasurable. Similarly, she would work from the thigh down to the foot, massage the foot a bit, then return to the thigh in one continuously unbroken manoeuvre.

Later, I discovered the ’19 Street Spa’ on the north side of Mahabandula Road. They, too, were busy, and I had to wait 40 minutes to get an opening. Like all of the other masseuses in Burma, she did her job quietly, no conversation. I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing or if these girls just don’t know much English, but they seem to be the quietest workers of all the countries I’ve visited. That’s not a bad thing, in fact, many people prefer to have a quiet massage session. One hour Burmese/Thai massage was 7,000 kyat and a one hour oil massage was 12,000 kyat.

For my final Yangon massage, I stumbled upon a beauty salon on 49th street, north of Mahabandula that offered massage. A half dozen girls doted on me as I was the only customer in the salon, offering me tea. I took a one hour oil massage which was somewhat pricey at 20,000 kyat but it was pretty good. There was no bum or chest/belly massage, however. A waif of a girl, Piu, gave me a very strong massage. She, too, did some long continuous strokes up the back and down the arms to the wrists and back again. It was a dark space space, on a massage table without sheets (it looked like a clean place so hopefully they were wiping down the vinyl table surfaces down). There was some quiet music and absolutely no talking. I asked her her name but that was the end of the conversation. I heard her speak some good English later so I have to conclude that it’s not shyness but a cultural thing that they conduct massages in silence. She was very intense in her craftsmanship, working slowly with lots of thumbwork, keeping continuous contact.

A search for Massage in Yangon on Tripadvisor will reveal a few other places. Probably the most expensive one is at the Strand Hotel where an hour will run you $75 US or more (needless to say, I didn’t get to sample their wares).

From what I’ve read on the internet, the massages in these downtown shops aren’t really Burmese but are a local form of Thai tourist massages. That may be but they still do a good job. I read in one place that there are traditional Burmese masseurs and masseuses who travel to local Burmese families and will give massages to everyone in the house (but they are not available to the average tourist). If any Burmese citizens have inside information for me, please let me know!

Nowhere in these downtown Yangon massages (or anywhere else in Myanmar) did I experience a hint of any naughtiness. I hear that happy endings are easy enough to get in the upscale hotel spas, the kind you have to ride an elevator up to.


After a hard day of exploring Bagan’s thousands of temples and pagodas, one deserves a nice massage! But finding a place is not easy! Yes, there are a few spas in high end hotels but these places will cost you $30 an hour or more for just a foot massage and $75+ for an oil massage! (the well-heeled can check out the following

  • Aureum Nature Spa at Aureum Palace Hotel
  • Blossom Spa at Amata Boutique House
  • Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort
  • The Hotel at Tharabar Gate

I found one that was a little more affordable at the spa at the Bagan Thande Hotel Spa and signed up for a ‘Thai’ style body massage ($20 US). I had a very competent massage here in a quiet, clean space.

Halfway down the main road between Old Bagan and Nyaung U town, I found three massage shops. At the first, they offered an hour for 20,000 kyat but unfortunately, they would only provide me with a male attendant (which didn’t interest me). Across the road was a cheaper place at 10,000 kyat an hour but again, no ladies were available for me, only a male masseuse. Finally, I found a simple sign on someone’s house saying ‘Myanmar Traditional Massage.’ I jumped right in and was led to a large hard bed in the front of the house. It was only 7,000 kyat an hour and an older woman gave me a lacklustre pressure massage while I was fully clothed. On the other side of the curtain, the rest of the family was cooking and watching TV. The massage wasn’t the greatest but I was desperate!

All in all, I found Bagan to be a big disappointment as far as good, budget massage goes. Anyone who starts a decent foot and body massage place here is going to make a killing!


Irrawaddy River
Irrawaddy River

Again, I sweated a lot searching along dozens of roads, finding no massage places. A search in the Yellow Pages yielded only one foot spa and no massage shops. Undoubtedly, they are out there but in my brief visit, I was only able to find two, one with the help of a moto taxi driver. The first was Miki Beauty and Health on 28th street near 81st street (across from M3 Hotel). They had an open room with several massage tables. On offer were Shiatsu/Body massage and Reflexology/foot massage at the very reasonable price of 7000 Kyat each per hour. I opted for the Shiatsu and got a pretty good massage (fully clothed). There was a lot of the usual pinching with thumbs and forefingers as well as presses up and down meridians. There were no real bends and stretches though. The worst part was a local guy who came in and laid down a couple of beds away and as soon as his massage began, started loudly snoring for the next half hour!

Oba foot massage
Oba Foot Massage in Mandalay

Not far away, I stumbled into the ‘OBA Beauty and Spa’ with a big foot massage sign outside (84th Street between 34 and 35 street). I dashed in and got a really good foot massage for 10,000 Kyat. I was led upstairs into a large dim room with a dozen reclining chairs and a half dozen masseuses working on various customers. My masseuse had very strong hands and fingers. She proceeded to give me well over an hour’s worth of massage. It began with a foot soak for five minutes, then she massaged my calves for another five minutes while my feet soaked some more. Then, came a good strong foot and leg massage for about an hour. I was then asked to turn over on the nearly horizontal reclining chair and got another fifteen minutes of back of legs and back massage. The whole process was nearly an hour and a half. Highly recommended! I gave her a 3000 Kyat tip although that may have been too much.

Undoubtedly, there are more massage places in Mandalay but I ran out of time. Your best bet is to ask a taxi driver to take you somewhere. They are the ones to ask, as well, if you’re looking for naughty massages.


Exchange Rate: about 1200 kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) = $1 US dollar

Kanchanaburi, Thailand: Lemongrass Oil Massage

Just in from one of my roving massage field reporters, Susan H., a review from  Le Best Massage in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

“Just outside a back-packer hotel and down a dead end street (so quiet atmosphere) is a small massage parlour called Le Best Massage which is owned and operated by Tan – a very vivacious and friendly Thai.
She has a friend from Bangkok bring her lemongrass aroma oil which she mixes on-site to give lovely relaxing oil massages which not only work out muscle knots, but also surround you with a lovely aroma that also relaxes you.
Her massage therapists are ladies who work all over town so she calls and arranges for one to be there when you wish to wander over to her little place.
Not only is her place clean, but also, the masseuses there are very skillful and give you your money’s worth – services which by the way, are very reasonably priced.
A one hour lemongrass oil massage is 300B and a Thai traditional massage for two hours is also 300B.
Value, service and nice music make a massage in this place very enjoyable.”

Address: 28 Soi Mae Num Kwai 1

kanchanaburi thailand le best massage
Le Best Massage, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

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!

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Loi Kroh Road Massage

Loi Kroh Road streetside massage

Loi Kroh Road runs east-west between the east side of the moat of the Old City wall at Kotchasan (Kotchasarn) Road to Charoen Pratet where the night market area is located. It’s a fun road with lots of great restaurants, bars, and most importantly, almost two dozen massage establishments! The food alone makes the street worth the visit and I eat here often but it’s good and cheap massage that really keeps me coming back.

Here’s a quick review of what’s available. Three or four places have a dozen or so chairs out front streetside for foot massages. These are cheap and fun, let you relax while watching doing some people watching or talk to fellow travelers. There’s a constant flow of ‘foot’ traffic as tired tourists get there feet worked on for 150-200 baht an hour. At these same places, you can also go inside for a more private Thai or oil massage (oil massage is about 250-300 baht per hour.).

Then there are the more regular massage shops which usually have three to six or more girls sitting out front, beckoning you in as you pass by with their calls of ‘Hello welcome’ or ‘Hello massage.’ Here’s where you need to be a bit careful. There are respectable shops with ‘good girls’ and there are somewhat more ‘naughty’ shops (some might call them sleazy). If you’re a male and are out for a ‘normal’ massage, be aware that many girls will want to make some extra money by offering you a ‘special’ massage (and the extra service might cost you from 500-1000 baht more).

How can you tell which is which? I’m reluctant to give you names of places as ownership and names change constantly. Here are a few basic guidelines:

  1. If the girls are aggressively grabbing you and pulling you in, they’re probably ‘naughty.’
  2. A couple of shops have a lot of ‘ladyboys’ out front and they’re probably ‘naughty,’ too but I’ve never tried them.
  3. If they’re seductively dressed or not dressed in matching uniforms, they’re probably ‘naughty.’
  4. If you’re not sure, ask. Tell them that you want a normal massage, no extras, no happy endings. They may say ‘Go somewhere else’ but if business is really slow, they may give you a massage (and probably still try to ‘persuade’ you to take the extras when they get you ‘in hand.’ Some of them can be very pushy and persuasive, so if you’re definitely not in the mood, don’t follow them in).
  5. If you choose a ‘Thai’ massage, your chances of getting asked for ‘extras’ is reduced but not necessarily! Asking for an oil massage to many of these girls is almost an automatic signal that you might be interested in extras.

All that said, there are plenty of respectable places where you can get a decent massage without ‘extras’ pressure. One place that’s been consistently professional is the ‘White Orchid’ (down about 60 metres or so from Kotchasan Road (the ‘moat’) where a dozen or so girls work and they’ve told me that there is definitely no hanky-panky allowed.

Even in the respectable shops, though, there might be some girls who might try to make a few baht if they think they can get away with it.

By the way, these girls are only making about 50-100 baht per massage, the rest goes to the house, so a good tip goes a long way to enhancing their difficult lives (some of these girls actually sleep in these shops to save money and most send their earnings home to their families.


I’m back in Southeast Asia!

Hi everybody! I’m back in Southeast Asia and busy doing research. I will have a report for you soon on the massage shops of Loi Kroh Road in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I will be visiting Vietnam, Cambodia, and hopefully Myanmar this winter and will update as soon as possible! Let me know if you have any questions. Got to go for a massage now!

Advice on getting a great massage at the best price!