Traditional Thai Massage: Your Guide to Benefits, Tips and More

19 Dec, 2023 | Travel Experience

Learn everything you want to know about Thai massage including its history, what to expect, and its benefits for wellness.

A Thailand vacation offers plenty of excitement: dancing in nightclubs, watching the thrilling spectacle of Muay Thai (Thai boxing, skydiving, rock climbing and more. But you are going to want to take a break from all of that action to relax and unwind at a spa offering the healing benefits of traditional Thai massage.

How was Thai Massage Created?

Traditional Thai massage is known as nuat phaen thai (“Thai-style massage”) or nuat phaen boran (“ancient-style massage”). As that second name implies, the history of Thai massage dates back for thousands of years.

According to lore, the Buddha’s personal physician, Jīvaka, is the one who invented Thai massage during the 5th century BCE. That said, we cannot really claim that a single person invented traditional Thai massage. It is a complex discipline that unites elements of yoga, acupressure, Ayurveda, and Buddhist and Hindu religious practices. According to the book Traditional Thai Medicine: Buddhism, Animism, Ayurveda by C. Pierce Salguero, these traditions likely merged in the 19th century.
 
Much as massage varies in the west from practitioner to practitioner, the same is true in Thailand. You will also notice that even the region where you get a massage will have an impact on the specific features and practices. The variety in the traditional Thai massage experience speaks directly to the rich and diverse cultural heritage it represents.

What to Expect from Thai Massage?

Western tourists may expect that Thai massage will be similar to the massage services they receive in their home countries. But Thai massage is very different. To get the most out of the experience, it is important to walk in with clear and realistic expectations.
 
When you visit a Thai spa for a traditional massage, expect a deep pressure massage with the therapist not just using hands, but also feet and maybe even elbows. As you might guess, Thai massage practitioners are especially skilled in working out “muscle knots,” and use acupressure to guide them in tackling these stubborn pressure points.

This part of the massage is closest to what you would expect from a Western massage. But the massage therapists may also stretch your body or use rhythmic movements.
 
Will the Thai massage hurt? That depends on whom you ask. Some people find deep pressure too intense for comfort, while others love it and find it feels good. You probably already can guess based on your previous massage experiences whether Thai massage is right for you.

Thai Massage Etiquette

Oils are typically not applied to the skin during Thai massage. That means that you are able to remain clothed for your treatment. To maximize freedom of movement and circulation, you should wear loose attire.

Some massage places will offer loose clothing you can change into. But in case this is not available, you should bring your own. Aside from that, Thai massage etiquette is pretty basic. Communicate to your massage therapist what you want them to work on when you arrive, as well as any health conditions to be aware of or tender spots to avoid. During the massage, you should stay communicative too. If the massage therapist is going too deep for you, say so.

Benefits of Thai Massage

Now that you know more about what to expect from Thai massage as well as the best etiquette, let’s go over the special advantages of this type of massage.

1. Recover from fatigue.

After you spend the day exploring town or hiking in the wilderness, you probably are going to be suffering some aches and pains. You might also just be feeling drained and in need of rest.
 
Spending an hour or two getting a Thai massage is the perfect way to get that rest. By the time the massage is over, you will feel refreshed and restored, ready to take part in more activities.

2. Increase circulation.

Massage helps to move blood around your body, especially in muscle tissue that has been tight. As the blood circulates, it can bring nutrients to areas that have been suffering from restricted blood flow, and remove toxins.

3. Decrease pain.

Like other forms of massage, one of the chief aims of Thai traditional massage is to help reduce pain. That not only includes pain from a day of hiking, but also other pains from a wide range of health conditions.
 
Say you come down with a headache during your Thailand tour. That is a prime example of a scenario where a massage might be just what you need to start feeling more like yourself so you can get back to your itinerary.

4. Relax to the fullest.

If relaxation is one of the main goals of your Thailand trip, then it makes sense to relax as much as possible.
 
Imagine lounging around in a hammock on a Thai beach, gazing out at the waves. Now picture having just received a Thai traditional massage. Your muscles are soft and a delicious sense of wellbeing suffuses your entire body, combining with the soft sea breezes to lull you off to an afternoon nap.

5. Increase flexibility.

Thai massage can help increase your flexibility in a couple of ways. First of all, softening tight muscles may enhance your range of motion. Secondly, Thai massage involves passive stretches. While you relax, the massage therapist will move your body through a number of different poses.
 
This can be a big help if you have a physical activity lined up like yoga or rock climbing that demands flexibility.

6. Get better sleep.

Sleeping on vacation is easy for some, but hard for others. Disruptions to your routine, unfamiliar settings, time zone changes, and the sheer excitement of your trip can all combine to keep you wide awake when you need to be catching some zzzzzzz’s.
 
Try getting a Thai massage. Many people find it easier to fall asleep the night after a massage, and discover the quality of their sleep also improves. After a deep, restful night of sleep, you can wake up ready for tomorrow’s adventures.

7. Instill feelings of serenity.

Finally, Thai massage is not only good for your physical health, but for your mental health as well. Receiving a massage can lift up your emotions, helping you discover a deep and abiding inner calm.

FAQ

Q: Is Thai massage different from Swedish massage and Balinese massage?
 
A: Yes, Thai massage is quite different from both of these types of massage. Swedish and Balinese massage are both gentle techniques, whereas Thai massage is energetic and deep.
 
Q: Who should not get a Thai massage?
 
A: Most people can safely get a Thai massage. But if you have a cardiovascular disease, bone problems or cancer, you should avoid it. You also should not get one if you are pregnant, or if you recently had a surgery.
 
You may not want to get a Thai massage if you do not like it when massage therapists go deep, or if you are concerned that a stretch could pop something out of alignment (if you have hypermobility, for instance, or a recent injury).
 
But remember, with some of these issues (i.e. a recent injury or an overly-mobile joint), you can often just tell the massage therapist beforehand and they will avoid that problem area.
 
Q: Tips for the best Thai massage for first-timers
 
A: To enjoy the best Thai massage, follow these tips:

  • Know what to expect (if you read this whole article, you have already done this).
  • Research the different techniques used by various massage therapists, and pick someone whose techniques are a good fit for your individual needs.
  • Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path. In fact, a lot of the best Thai massage parlors and spas are those that are not located in major tourist hubs. Consider asking locals which massage spas they are using.
  • Dress comfortably in loose clothing, as we discussed previously.
  • Communicate throughout the appointment. While skilled practitioners can figure out a lot on their own, voicing your needs politely and assertively really will get you the best results.
  • Do not tense up during the massage. You may instinctually do this if the deep pressure catches you off guard. “Check in” with yourself routinely to see if you are doing this.
  • Drink water and rest after your massage is over. Even though Thai massage is good for you, you are putting your body through an intense experience. That means that some recovery time is expected.

 
Q: How much is a Thai massage in Thailand?
                                     
A: Typical pricing for a Thai massage in Thailand is anywhere from 250 baht to 300 baht per hour.
 
For reference, that is the same as around $7-9 USD per hour. Contrast that with massage therapists in the west, who typically charge around $30 per hour at the lower end, and frequently a lot more than that. Thai massage is incredibly affordable, so it is an experience you will not want to miss, no matter your budget.
 

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