I love writing about Thai Massage. I have been practicing and teaching it for one and a half decades. And I live in Thailand, the homeland of Thai Massage, which gives me a very different perspective from the western one.
I could write nice sanitized, politically correct massage articles that pass muster with the American regulatory agencies and professional associations. However there is great value in opening our minds to other perspectives as well.
Let’s be politically incorrect for the moment
Here in Asia there is a different world, different standards apply. Nobody cares about what is correct in America or Europe. Nobody takes any courses in ethics, draping, anatomy, physiology, or therapist-client psychology. And Thai Massage has been flourishing here for many hundreds of years regardless.
Here massage, social life and cultural values mix freely. They create a unique and colorful potpourri of experiences that just do not happen in western countries.
So I take the liberty to write about the entire spectrum of healing arts and Thai Massage in Thailand, even if it does not pass the politically correct standards in the western world. But it tells the story as it is here in Asia, it makes for a good read, and it opens your cultural eyes.
Massage from luxurious to slightly bizarre
I have received many wonderful Thai Massages here. Some of them have been in classy massage establishments, and some have been under a sagging tin roof without any walls around the place in plain view of everyone. The spectrum of massage services is much wider here than in western countries.
The world is not a perfect place, and neither is massage therapy. Clearly not all sessions are created equal, and some therapists are better than others.
Recently I went to a bustling market in downtown Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand and the place with the biggest concentration of massage shops in the entire country. I decided to go for a Thai Massage, for better or for worse.
A slightly weird Thai Massage adventure
Normally I don’t just walk into any old shop for a massage, since that reduces my chances of getting a good session considerably. I prefer to go to a therapist whom I know and trust.
But this time I threw all caution to the wind and just walked into one of many massage shops that lined the market. Actually “shop” is an exxaggeration. Massage mats are put up just about anywhere – on the sidewalk, in an unused driveway – wherever there is some room.
So I was lying on a massage mat with a sheet on it that had suffered through many clients without the refreshing benefits of a washing machine. Pop music was blasting out of nearby speakers at top volume, and the din of thousands of noisy tourists filing by a few feet away filled out the rest of the soundscape.
Slightly distracted therapists
On the mat next to me was a Thai man whose maybe 5 year old son was huddling on the mat next to daddy. His therapist and mine were engaged in lively discussions while they were working on us.
The therapist next to me sometimes had to interrupt her chatting when her mobile phone rang. But no problem, she did not miss a beat, but kept working on her client with one hand while talking on the phone with the other.
Not surprisingly, my massage consisted of mostly mechanical pressing and rubbing, and I was not able to shut my mind off for a minute since I was busy trying to anticipate any unexpected surprises.
The silver lining of this Thai Massage experience
Also I tried to count how many times in one hour the loudspeaker system blasted out the Eagle’s “Hotel California”.
Anyway, at least I escaped the crushing crowd that was steamrolling through the busy market which takes up at least half a mile of a blocked off city street.
There were lots of people getting massages, and nobody seemed to think that there was anything wrong with the entire scenario. So I decided that there was nothing wrong with it either. It was just another colorful experience in Asia.
Massage as a cultural experience
As long as you don’t compare it with how it “should be” based on your home country’s standards, you can actually have fun and take it for what it is – an exotic, spontaneous, unsanitized and colorful experience.
Of course, if you want a private, classy, peaceful, and high quality Thai Massage session, you can get that in many places in town.
You just can’t go to Chiang Mai’s weekend market looking for it. But then you might miss all kinds of fun and excitement. Tell me, where in the world can you go shopping in a crowded market and get a one hour full body massage pretty much on the sidewalk – for five dollars?
How often do you see someone getting a massage while playing with his kid and his therapist massaging with one hand and talking on the phone with the other? Where else can you get a foot massage on the side of the road in the middle of a market and watch the world go by?
You might not be getting the greatest massage in the world under the circumstances, but you sure are getting a wonderful cultural experience.
The author, Shama Kern, is a long time resident of Thailand. He is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the producer of 20 home study video training courses for Thai Massage.