What It's Like Getting a Real Thai Massage

Stretches during a Thai massage
Stretches during a Thai massage | © Poznyakov / Shutterstock
Sarah Williams

Having a traditional Thai massage is one of those must-do things for anyone visiting the Land of Smiles. The nation has many massage shops, catering to different budgets and comfort levels. People are usually shocked during their first Thai massage; here’s what having a real Thai massage is like.

Enjoy this picture of a massage… and then forget it!

Almost everyone has seen pictures of blissful-looking people having a massage in Thailand. This scene usually includes frangipani flowers, tucked behind a female’s ear or affixed in the lady masseuse’s hair. Traditional patterns cover exquisite fabrics to lie on, candles are often burning, and there may be decorative stones, incense sticks, along with dainty cups of tea. The whole scene looks incredibly relaxing. Many people can’t want to experience a massage, especially when they read that it’s possible to have a genuine Thai massage for less than 10 USD. Where can I sign up?

Stop right there.

While there are plenty of high-class luxury spas around Thailand that offer pampering experiences, a real Thai massage is significantly different to a soothing oil massage or a hot stone massage. For starters, it can (and often does) hurt! Thai massages are not designed to be relaxing.

Statue depicting traditional Thai massage

Depending on where you go, and how much you pay, the first shock might be the privacy levels. Basic massage establishments have a number of beds (or mats) crammed into a small space, with no curtains separating the customers. Spaces are clean and professional, but everyone can watch as you’re having your massage. While this setting wouldn’t perturb many Thai people, it can make foreign visitors, especially those who’ve been salivating over an idyllic Thai massage, feel uncomfortable.

Some establishments give you loose-fitting garments to change into. Some don’t. Wear comfy clothes just in case. Ladies—forget going for a massage wearing a short dress or skirt. You may only be given a small towel to protect your modesty. And things can get a bit active!

Being pulled and stood on during a real Thai massage

Okay, so you’re fine with the (potential) communal arrangements, are wearing suitably comfortable attire, and are now laying down waiting for the bliss to start flowing through your body. As you anticipate soothing hands on your body, you’re jolted by an elbow digging into your shoulder blades, or a knee pressing down dangerously close to your groin. Or possibly, you find a foot pressing so hard into the back of your legs that you fear your knee may pop right out of its socket. You might get lucky and have a therapist that prefers to start by robustly kneading various muscles with his or her hands. Each therapist has a certain style, and all Thai massages are different.

Both men and women work as massage professionals. You can usually say whether you have a preference. Don’t be fooled, however, if a masseuse looks dainty and petite—these ladies are often super strong!

Massage therapists can be fierce!

Therapists work your muscles using various parts of their body. From their fingertips to their feet, you’ll find yourself pummeled in a variety of ways. To really loosen up muscles, it’s not unusual for massage therapists to stand on you, pressing down on your spine (or other parts of your body) with all their weight, as they grab hold of something above to stop them from falling.

You’ll be pulled and stretched in all manner of positions, finding yourself in poses that you never really thought were possible for anyone who wasn’t a professional gymnast, yoga enthusiast, or contortionist. At the point where you feel you’re going to break, or at the least be caused some serious damage, the pressure will ease. Thai massage professionals know just the amount of pulling and pushing that a person can bear, adjusting their techniques for each individual.

Massage therapist at work

Therapists also have a knack for finding knotted muscles you didn’t even know you had. If they identify a problem spot, you can bet they won’t leave it alone until they’re satisfied they’ve made a difference. Grit your teeth, and accept it’s for the greater good!

All parts of your body will be massaged, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Even chests and behinds will be worked on. Your genitals will never be touched, though, in a real Thai massage. The so-called happy endings are for different establishments entirely!

When the massage is over, you may feel a bit beaten. That’s normal! A traditional Thai massage is all about overall health benefits and long-term wellness rather than short-lived relaxation. Many Thai people visit massage shops as part of their regular healthcare regimes. Some massage shops offer a cup of herbal tea for customers to enjoy while taking a few moments to sit peacefully after a massage.

Thai massage chart of the body

It’s common for people to feel a bit achy for the rest of the day following a Thai massage. After a good night’s sleep, though, you should start to feel the benefits, with looser muscles and a greater spring in your step.

Nobody will judge you if you decide that you prefer the soft and soothing massages offered in the high-class spas around the country, but you really should experience an authentic massage at least once on your travels around Thailand.

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