What You Need to Know About Thai Massages
Thai massage is not your average wellness practice. If you make an appointment for a Thai massage expecting to passively lay on your stomach while relaxing, you'll be sorely disappointed.
Unlike other massage styles, Thai massage requires your active participation and is more concerned with actually alleviating body aches and pains than relaxation. Not that you won't feel relaxed afterward, but in the moment, the experience is a bit more intense than most people expect.
So what makes Thai massages so special? And why should you book one as soon as you can? Here are the five most important things you should know about getting a Thai massage.
1. UNESCO Deems Thai Massage Intangible Cultural Heritage
The practice of Thai massage goes back over 2,500 years, and is credited to a famous doctor named Chiwaka Komaraphat.
In principle, this style of massage is a combination of assisted yoga, Ayurvedic practices and acupressure, all of which originated in India thousands of years before they were combined in Thailand. Other physical and spiritual wellness practices from China, such as reflexology, have also been added into it over time.
Despite its old age, the yoga massage — as Thai massage is also known — continues to be an important part of Thai culture and is very much present in everyday life, and not just for the sake of curious tourists. Because of its undeniable significance and long history, Thai massage was added into UNESCO's List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019.
2. Being a Legitimate Thai Massage Practitioner Takes Commitment
There are certain stereotypes about massage parlors in Thailand and abroad that leave people skeptical to the practice. And while, yes, some places engage in sketchy activities, it's definitely not the case for the vast majority of establishments.
The fact of the matter is that being a certified Thai massage practicioner is no joke. Thailand's Ministry of Public Health has a whole department dedicated to developing and regulating traditional medicinal practices that are still prevalent in the country. Both venues and practitioners that want to be licensed must adhere to the ministry's guidelines.
A licensed massage therapist will have had to complete at least 800 hours of training from accredited courses. It's not illegal for a parlor to offer massages without a license and, frankly, unlicensed practitioners still know exactly what they're doing — you can't get away with being bad in a country where everyone knows better.
But if this is your first experience with Thailand's massage style and you're nervous, just look for an establishment that has accreditation from the Ministry of Public Health.
Outside of Thailand, regulations vary, but most practitioners will still have had to study at a legitimate school to know how to do it correctly.
3. Thai Massage Is Unlike Other Types of Massages
So what exactly is the big deal with Thai massage? As we mentioned before, this isn't your typical Swedish-type massage where you lie semi-naked on a bed as someone kneads your muscle knots away.
The whole idea of this Thai tradition is to stretch the muscles to achieve relaxation, much as you would do when you do yoga. You won't be naked, and you definitely won't be on a bed.
Instead, the parlor will likely hand you a pair of loose and comfortable clothes, similar to loungewear. Or, in some places, you can wear your own, though it will have to be different from the street clothes you come in with, for the sake of cleanliness.
Once you've changed, you'll go into a room with mats on the ground. Sometimes they are padded, but they can also be more simple bamboo mats. You'll sit and wait for your practitioner to start positioning your body in different ways, targeting several areas of the body that need to be stretched.
Fair warning: You will have very little personal space. By nature of the practice, the therapist has to move your body, and to assist with the stretches, they'll need to put their arms, hands and feet on you. They'll also likely kneed specific pressure points in your body, particularly your feet and hands, which are the main reflexology areas.
You may experience some discomfort, and some positions will take some effort — you are getting stretched after all — but it shouldn't be painful. A good practitioner will be able to tell your limits, but you can always communicate if you feel like it's too much.
Once the massage is over, you'll completely forget about any discomfort, as you'll feel light, airy and thoroughly relaxed. Because you stretched all major areas of your body, it will be an overall feeling of wellness, rather than a relief of pain or stress in a single area of your back.
4. Is It Worth Getting a Luxury Thai Massage?
Hopefully, you're convinced to try a Thai massage as soon as possible. But where should you get one?
In Thailand, you'll have several options that cater to different preferences. Massage parlors are as common as Mondays. In a big city, you won't be able to walk a couple of blocks without running into at least one, probably several.
There are also luxury spas in hotels or independent buildings that offer an ambiance closer to a Western spa.
Finally, certain Buddhist temples have spaces for massages, continuing the millenary tradition of incorporating them into a wellness practice that includes the body and the mind.
All in all, a Thai massage is a Thai massage is a Thai massage. What we mean is that you can expect similarities and homogeneity in the way any place does it.
The difference has more to do with the aura of the place. Luxury spas may offer you tea as you wait, play relaxing music and provide other perks. If this is important to you, then, yes, it's worth going for a more upscale experience.
In our opinion, the coolest place to get a Thai massage is in Bangkok's Wat Pho, a temple best known for its large golden reclining Buddha.
5. Are There Any Risks to Getting a Thai Massage?
Like all massages, this Thai tradition provides numerous benefits to the body. Stretching relieves stress, reduces pain and increases flexibility.
But can there be any negative side effects? Yes, but not any that aren't present in other types of massages. Mainly, it is not recommended for pregnant women, especially during the first trimester and only with caution afterwards.
Doctors also specify that people who have had recent surgery, heart disease and burns should be wary of massages. But, overall, if you're good to get a Western type of massage, then there is no reason for you to worry.
The real risk, in our experience, is becoming addicted to Thai massages.