Asian Massage: A novice’s guide

Foot massage in public: Chiang Rai

It’s hard to walk down a street in the big cities of SE Asia without seeing a huge number of massage establishments. In some places massages are even available in the public squares or in the doorways of buildings. I’m not talking about the seedy image of massage parlours, but regular places where both tourists and locals can relieve the stress in their joints and muscles. (That being said, the seedy Asian massage places are present everywhere too and sometimes the distinction between the two is maybe less obvious than appears from the surface)

On our recent trip to this part of the world we indulged in a massage on an almost daily basis. It seemed like a very pleasant way to spend an evening, and at an average of $5 for an hour it was a cheap night out; and we were helping local businesses too! During the course of our time in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia I pretty much went through the menu of standard massage services available, so I thought I would list the types of massage normally on offer and share my experiences.

Foot massage. A good place to start, but be warned that the masseuse is unlikely to stick to the feet. In my first foot massage in Bangkok the lady worked up to my knees and lower thighs, and then later on my back and shoulders too. A nice way to drift away while being massaged, and you will usually get a drink of tea to enjoy while you are receiving your massage.

Back and shoulder massage. One hour on the back and shoulders is a long time, not only for the masseuse but also the recipient. It was amazing how a small person could inflict such pressure on my back! I tried this once, and then resolved to have an all-over experience. As with most of our massages, Sam and I were laid in adjacent beds so we were able to stare across and see what the other was going through, while the girls were able to laugh at us with great amusement, knowing that our lack of Thai, Lao or Khmer meant that they could say what they wanted without any fear of us understanding. My size 11 feet seemed to start the jokes off every time.

Lao massage. The Lao equivalent of the Thai massage, but softer. Or so they said. Someone didn’t mention that to the girl who pounded away on my back and pulled my arms through angles they had never seen. I was asked to put on a pyjama suit for the session at the start. About half of the massage involved me lying on my front while the masseuse worked on my back and my legs, and the other half while she worked on my front. Everything (apart from private areas of course!) was fair game for the massage, and I came out feeling like I’d been in a fight- and lost.

Khmer massage. The Cambodian variation on the all-over massage, but this one was sold as being gentler than its Lao/Thai equivalents, and indeed it generally was. We took 1.5 hours for this one, and I was so relaxed after 45 minutes that I may have fallen asleep at some point just before she threw her full weight onto my back with no warning. I don’t know if it was the loud slap on the back that woke me or the sudden pressure of having someone pounding away mercilessly on my back, but there was no chance of sleeping after that.

Oil massage. Like the Khmer massage but with oil, this one is not for the shy or sensitive. I was asked to shower first, and coming out of the shower with my towel the masseuse asked me to lie face down on the table, and then immediately pulled away my towel. For the next hour it was strategically used to hide my modesty while she worked away on my arms, legs and shoulders with copious amounts of oil. An initially uncomfortable experience, but probably my favourite massage in the end, and certainly the most gentle. It was also the only time the lady giving the massage spoke any English, and she was able to give me a little insight into her life. She didn’t like the job at all, but worked to pay for her studies in hairdressing school. She studied from 8 till 2, and then worked in the massage parlour from 2.30 till midnight, 6 days a week, and had a strong ambition to own her own hair salon.

4 hand massage. A final night indulgence, where two masseuses work on you at the same time. I have heard from others that when done properly it is a carefully synchronised operation that is wonderful to experience. I guess I don’t know, as I had two young girls only one of whom was taking it seriously and the other was busy chatting up the Kiwi guy on the next bed who had just announced that he was single. “You want Cambodian girlfriend?” was her only English line, but one she was determined to use to full effect. The massage was forgettable, although the hilarity that ensued from us ribbing the Kiwi guy made up for it!

Seeing Hands massage. Without doubt the best massage of the trip, and the only one performed by men. We both had an hour session with the blind men of Siem Reap. With no social care system in place, the disabled are left to fend for themselves, and Seeing Hands is a venture that gives the blind a means of self-support in an otherwise hopeless situation. The masseur found his way effortlessly around my back and shoulders and the pressure he exerted was a world away from that of the 45kg young girls. In fact it was frightening at times, knowing that he had so much strength in his hands to do me serious damage. I needn’t have worried, as he worked expertly on my spine before pulling my arms through controlled contortions that brought tears to my eyes. Paying the men is of course a act of trust, as they cannot see how much money is put into their hands, but their skills and bravery deserve the highest praise.

Back home now I wouldn’t dream of paying western prices for such a service, but certainly next time we are in Asia I will look forward to more sessions of pain and torture, delivered with a good price and a beaming smile.

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8 Responses to “Asian Massage: A novice’s guide”

  1. Found it interesting you didn’t really mention traditional Thai massage, except to compare it to other types. It happens to be my very favorite, although Balinese massage is also great (but pretty aggressive, which is my preference). All in all, this is the best list of massage modalities available in SE Asia I’ve ever read.

    January 5, 2010 at 7:12 pm
  2. I agree with Barbara – this is a great list. Massages in Asia are the best in the world — the therapists have an incredible knowledge of the human body and pressure points.

    We always capped a day of touring with a long massage and sometimes (when we were feeling particularly indulgent) I would try to squeeze in two!

    January 6, 2010 at 5:53 am
  3. @Barbara We had planned to have a Thai massage before we left but time ran away from us and so ironically we had all the massages that a Thai massage was compared to, but never the real deal itself! That one will have to wait for next time. Like you Barbara, I like to feel some real aggression!
    @Jennifer Two massages in a day sounds wonderfully indulgent: good on you :-)

    January 6, 2010 at 10:03 am
  4. Great! ….Now I am going to India, there are a lot of places where to take ayurvedic massage

    January 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  5. the best list of asian massages I have ever come across…very impressive the story about the blind men in Siem Reap. As you say, you can really call them sessions of pain and torture :)….I had my first Thai massage years ago during my travel in Tasmania, when I was looking for some kind of relief from my back ache… had no clue what I was going to face!! .. the little Thai girl was exerting such a pressure on my back and on my thighs…I was literally screaming ….and to my greatest surprise it was the most effective method to bring my back into balance again! 2 days after that “torture” I was feeling like a new born person!!

    June 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm
  6. Thanks Michela, I wonder if it’s a good idea to scream, or does that encourage the masseuse to exert more pain! Funny this, we still go back for more. Blind men are worth a visit to anyone in Siem Reap (or Phnom Penh)

    June 17, 2010 at 4:13 pm
  7. I found it very difficult to read this post. I long for Thai massages on a daily basis and now my longing is so much more intense. :) Asian massages are the best!
    I had a blind massage in Chaing Mai and it was awesome. It’s an incredible experience.
    Have you tried a traditional Thai massage at Wat Po in Bangkok. They are well-known and very intense.
    The best I ever had was on the beach in Koh Lanta.
    Oh dear- now I’m really dying for one!

    June 30, 2010 at 8:54 pm
  8. Sorry Caz, you’ll just to go and get yourself a massage! :-)
    Didn’t get one at Wat Po, although we did hear about them – ran out of time in Bangkok. Next time!

    June 30, 2010 at 9:41 pm
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