I remember my first Thai massage. It was Khao San Road, so we’re talking a genuine Thai person doing a genuine Thai massage, a decade ago. I was led through a wood panelled room to a waiting area while hushed girls wearing immaculate make up and the most gorgeous silk busied themselves with preparing the room.
Being a young, naive girl, I had no idea what to expect. Why were my feet being washed? And just how the hell was I meant to wear those trousers?
A traditional Thai massage experience will depend on whether you’re paying for luxury in a hotel spa designed for tourists, or a side street off Phuket’s seedy strip sharing bed space with a stranger. Both will leave you feeling relaxed, and perhaps a little bit mystified as to how the tiny Thai lady got you more contorted than a circus performer. It’s more like assisted yoga, really. And yoga’s good for the soul, right?
Want to know what happened when we sent a writer for a London Thai massage? Click here.
What to expect from a luxury Thai massage
A team of friendly, silk-robed, softly-spoken Thai women will greet you at the spa’s reception with the traditional wai, placing their hands palm to palm held at neck height and giving you a little bow. It’s a traditional Thai greeting, and given that you’re in the Land of Smiles, one that you’ll see wherever you end up.
Your therapist will lead you to a chair in a little room to have your feet washed and perhaps oiled with jasmine and orchid scented lotions. Warm water is poured over your feet to help remove the dust that will have inevitably covered your soles. This is the start of the experience, and one designed to get you relaxed and ready.
Once your feet are cleaned they’ll be tightly and expertly wrapped in a towel and dried, and you’ll be given dainty slippers to wear as your therapist leads you to your bed. You’ll very rarely be in your own room – unlike in the UK massages in Asia seem to be a far more social experience whether it’s a Thai massage on a beach, or in your own luxury wood panelled oasis.
You’ll be asked to undress as a curtain is pulled around you. On the bed will be your attire for the massage, Thai silks. These are a top and a pair of trousers that’ll probably seem massive. If they do, they’ll more than likely be Thai fisherman pants, one of the most comfortable items of clothing a person can wear.
To tie them, put them on with the two long bits of string at the back. Hold the front upper edge so its taught against your back and your arms are slightly outstretched. Bring your left arm and the material toward your right hip so it sits comfortably around your whole body. Do the same with the other hand and other hip, so the material’s folded over. Hold the pants up and grab the left bit of string, bring it to the front, then the right. Tie them together, and fold the material above the belt down. Voila!
Traditional Thai massage isn’t about soothing oils and superficial body rubbing. Your therapist will begin by loosening your muscles up. She’ll use her entire body to contort yours into shapes you never knew existed. You back will click, she’ll slap you, climb on top of you and hold your hands behind your head while seemingly trying to snap your spine in half. This part’s the same, regardless of how much you’re paying. There will be much stretching, slapping and bending. She’ll hold your arm and bend your knees and you’ll hear all kinds of pops and cracks in your joints. It’s not relaxing at the time and you’ll probably wish you’re dead, but it’ll leave you feeling amazing.
After the massage she’ll end with a head rub and leave you laying down to relax and get ready. Once you’re done you’ll wander back to the waiting room, sit down and be given a herbal tea to complete the experience.
You’ll leave feeling refreshed and full of energy, and itching to get your next one soon.
What to expect from a cheap Thai massage
These massages are held anywhere. More than likely it’ll be in a patio door fronted small shop with florescent lights and communal beds. The ladies will be sat outside heckling you to come in with cries of ‘masaaaaaaa for you!’ You can barter a bit, but over the last couple of years I’ve found you can never get more than 50p to a quid off.
Now, I’ve read loads of posts about people being naked and fingers being put in places, boobs being touched, and happy endings. As someone who’s had loads and loads of Thai massages in pretty divey places, this has NEVER happened to me. If you’re worried about your masseuse offering a seedy service, head to one of the fairly open rooms on a main road and see how many other people are having a massage. Sure it’ll be a conveyor belt of people in and out, but if you can see them with their clothes on, you’re a goodun.
Basically, this massage will be exactly the same in routine as the posher massages. Your feet will be scrubbed briefly (shoes are left outside) and you’ll stay clothed in whatever you’re wearing. Wear a bikini if you fear nudity being imposed on you as there’s no reason it can’t be done without it.
A coarse towel will be placed over you and the process will begin, with the back cracking and spine popping.
At the end of the massage she’ll probably give you a friendly slap or shake you awake, and you’ll be on your away feeling lithe and limber.
Thai people are known for their welcoming and friendly demeanour, and their smile is a natural gesture to them. So whether you’re getting a massage costing £200 in a spa designed by a world famous architect or a £2 on a beach platform knocked up by the locals, you’re going to be getting the same service and warm, friendly smile.
I’m going to Bangkok. Where should I get a massage?
Shewa Spa, off Susie Walking Street is great. They have a few floors and offer everything from manicures to waxing too.
Do...wear loose fitting clothes. Ideally, buy a pair of cheap fisherman's pants as you'll be able to have the full massage in these
...give your masseuse a tip - it doesn't have to be much but the gesture will be appreciated
...tell them if you suffer with back pain. They'll modify the massage slightly
Don't...eat much Larb Gai before a massage. Or anything. Just trust me on this.
...insult the staff. It's fun to barter, but remember you're in a developing country and a lot of girls don't get paid if they don't have customers - and even then they give half to the boss
...worry about what you look like. Chances are if you've almost been pulled apart by a tiny woman with super strength, the girl on the next bed over has too.
Images via Shutterstock.