Thai Massage: Benevolent Torture

Here’s my confession: My trip to Thailand last week actually marked my second visit to the country. And the first time I went, I didn’t get a Thai massage.

Not even one.

(Insert gasp here.)

Inexpensive, ubiquitous, and uniquely invigorating, Thai massages are probably the thing to do in Thailand… at least for those not looking to indulge in the shadier side of tourism. But my husband and my first trip to Thailand was short and last minute, leaving me without time to research where in Bangkok one should go for the ideal massage experience. And as Thailand is (tragically) rife with sex tourism, my paranoia about inadvertently entering a “massage” parlor kept me from wandering into any of the many spas I saw lining the streets of Bangkok.

So this go-around, I was determined not to miss out a second time. Thus I used my previous lapse as an excuse to indulge in not one but two Thai massages.


Pinnacle Hotel Spa, Mae Nam Beach, Ko Samui, Thailand

My first introduction to Thai massage was a coconut oil massage on Mae Nam beach in Ko (or Koh, if you prefer) Samui, a small island off Thailand’s east coast. Truly, this massage fulfilled my fondest fantasies of what a massage in Thailand could be. The pressure was firm without being painful and the treatment encompassed my entire body, from my forehead to the soles of my feet. Before last week, I didn’t known palms could be over-wearied. But after my masseuse worked my hands–which she did by interlocking her fingers with mine in an intimate hand-hold–I suddenly realized: I’ve been living with stressed hands all my life!

My massage bed was situated in the open-air upper story of my resort’s spa. A peaked wooden roof in the Thai style provided shade that kept me miraculously cool despite the 90+ºF weather. The smell of the coconut oil being massaged into my limbs was nearly as soothing as the physical manipulation of my muscles. A soft breeze bore the rhythmic sound of the ocean to me and when I wasn’t catatonic with relaxation, I could open my eyes and see the sea, its turquoise meeting the gold of the sand mere yards from where I lay.

But every once in a while, an irreverent smile crossed my lips. Probably because the sound of two little German boys having a burping contest in the swimming pool below was just as audible as the ocean’s melody.

The fiscal damage? 500 Thai Baht, or approximately $15. For an hour long, FULL BODY, ON THE BEACH MASSAGE. My last massage was right before my wedding in 2010 (What? I have some relaxation prioritization issues!) and that baby cost $85 for 50 minutes of back, neck, and shoulders alone.

I have but one regret about my Ko Samui massage experience: that at 15$ a pop, I didn’t get one every day.


Asia Herb Association, Sukhumvit Avenue, Bangkok, Thailand

After I repeatedly asked–pressured? nagged?–my husband about whether he’d like to get a Thai massage, he finally succumbed. A bit of research led me to book at the Asia Herb Association spa. Though I’ll readily admit the spa’s name makes it sound more like a drug den than a massage parlor, its appearance on two different lists of the best Bangkok massage parlors left me fairly confident in my gamble.

We made the almost-mistake of walking to our 9AM appointment. Since the temperature was already well into the 90s, our mile and a half trek meant we arrived at our appointment sodden with perspiration.

But Asia Herb Association had us covered. Before our hour-long session of “Traditional Thai Massage” began, we were able to shower–fortunate for us, even more fortunate for our masseuses–in beautifully tiled bathrooms pre-stocked with lemongrass soap that smelled far better than I did after my morning hike.

We then changed into our spa-issued, one-size-fits-all massage ensembles: voluminous tops and draw-string waist pants. I was laughing at my husband’s attempts to wrangle all the extra fabric… until I realized I could fit about 3 of me into my own pants and that they were double the length my 5′-nada frame required.

Trying not to trip over my clown pants, I waddled to our massage room. Dark and cool, it was the perfect antithesis to the broiling Bangkok temperatures outside.

But the relaxed atmosphere of the setting belied the vigor of the treatment. In this massage I experienced the legendary intensity of traditional Thai massage. My limbs were hauled about and tugged. My joints were manipulated. My knuckles popped. My hip flexors were stretched to their limit. I’m pretty sure my masseuse used both her knees and her elbows on me, not to mention a considerable amount of her body weight.

At times, the effect was incredibly pleasant, even sigh-inducing (though I tried to keep the weird noises to a minimum.) At other times, all I could think was:

If someone was beating on me like this on the street, they’d be arrested. And here I am, paying for this….

But after our session was over, I touched my shoulders and suddenly realized my muscles no longer felt like immovable rocks beneath my skin. Even now, six days and an intense work week later, my shoulders and back feel more relaxed and pain-free than they have in….

Maybe ever.

The grand total for a stress-free body? 1000THB (30USD) total for an hour long couples’ massage with targeted treatments (before our session, we ticked off on a list the parts of our bodies requiring the most focus) in a private room.

So here, in a nutshell, is my take on Thai massage: It’s every bit as good as rumored. Should you ever mosey over to the Thailand, make sure your trip includes a spa visit.

Just don’t be a hero: Select the “light pressure” option if you’re aiming to leave bruise-free!

*Credit for this post’s title image goes to Pinnacle Hotels, Samui.

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