She can’t have been more than five feet tall, but when she asked me to turn onto my back I did and closed my eyes exhaling and suppressing a “this is the life” smile. Suddenly, in one swift unexpected movement she was sat astride me and had placed the palms of her hands on either side of my pelvis. She pushed down. Hard. And she didn’t move for 10, 20, err, 30 seconds…

This was the moment when I realized there was more to Thai massage than just a way to find some indulgent shade from the blazing sun while travelling around Thailand. Considering Thais are a painfully shy people who would always rather laugh and smile than confront or disagree, I was slightly taken aback by this rather forward and intrusive contact during this my first Thai massage experience in Thailand.

What exactly was the significance of getting so close to my lady-bits and pushing down for so long? And then why did she go on to flick the tops of my ears? And prior to this had it really been appropriate to put her foot in my armpit and later in my groin?

Well, yes is the answer. Though it can leave you feeling very relaxed a Thai massage should not necessary be a relaxing or sensual experience at the time. Quite the opposite seeing as traditionally it is a treatment that is intended to stimulate and invigorate the immune and nervous systems and improve blood circulation.

Though most massage parlours in tourist resorts in Thailand will offer a range of different massage techniques, including the more western Swedish, oil and sports massage, it is the oil-free Thai massage, which as well as having considerable health benefits it is an important Thai tradition. Referred to by Thais as “nuat phaen boran”, literally “pressure in the ancient way”, Thai massage is one of many of Thailand’s big pulls for travellers, tourists and who are we kidding, Travelettes. Ancient isn’t an overstatement; the origins of Thai massage can be found over 2500 years when it was believed a man called Shivago Komarpajn introduced massage to the Buddha, thus adding a spiritual element to the practice of Thai massage.

Traditional Thai massage focuses on stimulating pressure points all over the body with the application of rhythmic force, as well as moving the recipient into yoga-like positions, which helps improve blood circulation. The masseur uses all of their limbs to do this and a full treatment will typically last over two hours. Thai massage is considered one of the government-regulated Thai Traditional Medicine (TTM) treatments and is used to treat many common ailments including headaches, arthritis and sciatica, though the chances are most tourists will only experience the abbreviated “beauty salon” style Thai massages prevalent in beach and island resorts. That said, the technique is roughly the same though diluted and often offered with oil to appease those used to a more Western style of massage. It is also worth noting, and experiencing if you’re lucky enough, that techniques also vary within different regions of Thailand.

A few indicators that you are receiving a truly traditional Thai massage include being given loose, cool clothing to wear, having your masseur walk or sit on top of you to apply pressure and hosting your masseurs foot in your armpit, groin, back, etc. Yes, really. And despite appearing slight, most Thai masseurs will have the skill to apply considerable pressure though despite what some say this shouldn’t cause pain unless you are already injured or have previous muscle ache.

An excellent massage is only one of many things you can enjoy at a very reasonable price in Thailand and it is one of the many things that keeps pulling in tourists, travelers (and Travelettes) from all over the globe. However, if you are seeking a Thai message to specifically treat a medical condition you would do well to research practitioners who are recognized by the Thai Ministry of Public Health.

That’s not to say that even tourist resort Thai massages can’t have benefits and here are five top tips to get the most out of a traditional Thai massage at home or abroad.

  1. You can keep your clothes on. If they don’t provide you with appropriate clothes, feel free to ask if you can keep a top on as a proper Thai massage has considerable flashing potential if you’re not lucky enough to have a private cubicle, which is often the case in busy resorts.
  2. Relax. The easier the masseur can move and manipulate you the more you will get out of a Thai massage and the less it has the potential to hurt. If the pressure is too much you can ask them to go easy by saying “bao-bao” or if it hurts you can say “jèp”.
  3. Breathe. Practitioners of traditional Thai massage believe that the rhythmic pressure technique should move the air inside your body, which is called “lom”, and in line with yoga and pilates this makes breathing an important element of the treatment.
  4. Rehydrate. Most massage treatments can have a dehydrating effect on the body and Thai massage is no different and there is evidence to suggest that you can burn an impressive amount of calories during this so-called “lazy massage”. These are all good reasons why you should drink lots afterwards (no, not Singha) and most practitioners will offer water or green tea after a treatment.
  5. Have another one. Believe it or not the origins of Thai massage were not to satisfy Western tourists in Thai resorts, but were taught to generation after generation of families whose fathers and husbands returned from hard days of heavy physical labour in fields and farms or at markets. They often had a massage each day after returning from work, thus suggesting treatment is most effective when applied regularly.


.*photos by Katja

frankie-in-ljubljana

This post was written by Frankie Thompson who was a Travelette from 2012 – 2015. Originally from London, UK, Frankie was nomadic for several years before settling in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she lives with her Australian partner and baby boy. She spends her time buying vintage dresses, riding a rusty old bike around the canals and writing books inspired by her travels. Frankie blogs about travel, writing and motherhood at As the Bird flies blog.