Art of Thai massage

By Jan Schauseil

Thai massage is a relaxing way to unwind in Samui

Thai massage is a relaxing way to unwind in Samui

Anyone who has been to Thailand for more than a few days will be familiar with the sight of rubdowns, which appear to be part of everyday life here. Apart from the many signs advertising different types of massage - legitimate or just plain hanky-panky - mothers massaging babies, teenagers their grandparents, motorcycle taxi drivers each other while waiting for passengers or even foot massages performing openly on the pavement are all common sights.

Originating in India over 2,500 years ago, the Vedic science of therapeutic massage was imported to Thailand by Buddhist monks and like herbal healing, practiced in temples around the country. It is said to have been invented by the Buddha's physician, Shivaka Kumar Baccha.

To this day, the leading and most prominent school for this healing art is at Wat Pho in Bangkok. Many disciples wishing to learn the gentle art of kneading, Thai and foreign, also come to Chiang Mai. Here, a growing number of more or less reputable schools teach the softer northern massage style. Where to get a massage.

Mainly practiced by women, traditional massage is also a major profession for the blind. “Women can massage any clients regardless of age or gender, but male masseurs who can see may unintentionally be seduced by their visual perception”, says Aree Sanyaluck, massage teacher in Chiang Mai. “Unsighted masseurs are able to concentrate better and have purer intentions”.

But massage is not solely confined to stationary parlours. Roving practitioners stroll along beaches frequented by tourists to offer rubdowns. Thai Airways provides massages in-flight. Japanese automatic massage chairs chew 10 baht coins in airports and shopping centres, offering welcome relief for weary shoppers. Petrol stations along major inter-provincial highways give quick rubdowns to tired drivers. And then of course, there’s the toilet massage.

Newcomers going for a quick stand-up pee in a Thai restaurant or nightclub may be literally taken aback when suddenly a hot towel is placed on their neck and an attendant starts massaging their shoulders. This can easily result in wet pants or a slippery floor. If you don’t fancy this intimate therapy, just wink off and say “No massage”. However, after a few drinks too many, a quick kneading can work wonders and wake you up. Don’t forget to tip.

A massage on the beach is unbelievable

A massage on the beach is unbelievable

Mention Thai massage to any outsider and you’re likely to get a knowing wink. Thailand indeed has two massage cultures, one with clothes on and one without. Unfortunately, the latter is what the country is best known for and this image also somewhat limits the potential of the genuine service. Visiting an establishment offering ‘ancient massage’ will likely involve stretching muscles, loosening joints and potentially painful acupressure along the 10 invisible energy lines.

But behind the grand entrance doors of a ‘massage’ parlour, a world of different pleasures awaits the almost exclusively male clients. Many a drinking night among groups of friends may end with a visit to a ‘Pandora’, ‘Aphrodite’ or ‘Poseidon’. Until pre-marital sex became more common place and accepted, these kinds of establishments were also popular venues for young males ‘gaining experience’ and losing their virginity. In the countryside, less classy places offering more than massage are located on the outskirts of towns.

Both types of massage typically tend to be social, with groups of men visiting together. In a genuine parlour, chatter may go on while being tended to as sessions usually take place in common rooms or with only curtains separating individual mattresses on the floor. The masseuses themselves are also eager to chat to relieve their boredom and fish for tips.

At times, the line between traditional and naughty massage are fluid. Some positions and pressure points are located very near to private body parts and hands have been known to slip or extras offered after the real session is over. Even blind practitioners may occasionally grope the wrong extremity, hoping for an extra tip or dessert order. They, of course, have the perfect excuse which will immediately quell any offence. In genuine establishments, this is completely up to the masseuse’s or masseur’s discretion and negotiated directly with the client.

Naughty massage establishments have a long history as outlets for men’s urges and their discretion make them socially acceptable and preferable to men taking minor wives. While prostitution is technically illegal and everyone knows what goes on behind the doors of these glitzy palaces, politicians, businessmen and even police frequent them to curry favour with clients or collect their monthly payoffs in cash or services rendered.

Indeed, like so many aspects of life in the Land Of Smiles, massage, just like the smile itself, is ambiguous and therefore socially safe.

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