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Thai Massage Culture Shock

Open air Thai massage shop
Open air Thai Massage shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I love writing about Thai Massage. I have been practicing and teaching it for two 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.

massage shop in parking garage
A Thai Massage shop in a parking garage during the Saturday market in Chiang Mai

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.

foot massage at Chiang Mai's  Sunday Market
Foot massage in Thailand at Chiang Mai’s Sunday Market

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.

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The author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, is a long time resident of Thailand. He is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy and the creator of 20 online Thai Massage training courses.

17 thoughts on “Thai Massage Culture Shock

  1. Yep, that just about says it all. Brings massage into the everyday world. Such a part of life here. My usual Sunday evening is to go to the Sunday market, get a foot massage for an hour and watch the world go by. And sometimes I nudge the masseuse if she’s chatting a bit too much back to paying more attention to my feet. That’s ok too.

  2. Nice to read something that sounds like the Thailand I live in, not the one I usually read about but never seem to find! You might also wear old clothes when you go for a street massage, the oil used will finish a good shirt.
    Another piece of advice: Treat cross walk’s as pop art, not as traffic control, and you should make it through tonight.

  3. Thanks Shama for the cute story. For me the Sunday Market massages are for taking a break from the crowds and as you say “watching the world go by”. I like people watching and what better place than from a relaxing chair having a foot massage.

  4. What a wonderful description of a very unique massage experience, cell phone and all! I love your description of the massage sheet: “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.”

    The energy of the article reminds me of one of the first times I did sports massage for Lance Armstrong’s Ride for the Roses at the finish line. We had a tent, we had water, and things were sanitary. The riders were a little late finishing because they had a headwind!

    What surprised me most was the blaring music from the loudspeakers at the Finish Line! I’d never massaged to Rock ‘N Roll or Country and Western music at a finish line before.

    It was quite an adventure.

    Bicyclists came from all over the United States and parts of Europe to participate in the race. I had a great time.

    Every time I see Lance’s yellow jersey, I think of that afternoon.

    Your description of massage in a Chiang Mai market is very interesting. I’d love to come visit someday.

    Maybe I’ll even get a massage in a market and it might even be with two hands if the therapist’s phone doesn’t ring!

  5. That sounds like a similar unusual massage experience. I think it is really beneficial for us therapists to have some massage experiences “out of the box”. It helps our minds to remain open and flexible. Of course here in Thailand that kind of experience is just an everyday occurrence.
    I am sure you would have fun here in Thailand!

  6. Well you can in fact get an onsite chair massage at Blochairn Market in Glasgow Scotland. Bit cold at this time of year though need to be able to massage though your Duffel coat!

    • Hmm, maybe I better stay in Thailand then. It never gets cold here. Our problem is that it is often too hot. All the massage shops have big fans blowing on you.

  7. Great article, Shama. I hope you don’t mind if I link to it and include an excerpt. You exactly recreate what I like most about getting a massage in Thailand – it is part of everyday life, not separated from it, not set apart. In fact, this is the type of massage I prefer in almost every case, as compared to the “classy” massages you speak of. Good job!

  8. I really look forward to the experience in October Shama, like you said, just for fun, the experience must be priceless, great story, thank you, Coco

    • It won’t be much of a novelty experience for you, since it is not much different from Samui. All in Thailand, samesame but different:) But I am glad you liked the story.

  9. I was reading and imagination the picture on my mind that made me had smiling face.
    Yes it is! It is Thai massage in Thailand. Thank you for wrote this story. I miss Thai massage in Thailand so much.
    I thinking about Thai massage in the five star hotel. Did you ever go to the five star hotel for the thai massage in Thailand? I wonder how different you will comparative to the market. I will appreciate it if you would like to writing about The Thai massage service in five star hotel in Thailand someday.

    • Yes, I did get a Thai Massage in a five star hotel in Thailand (once). The price was 15 times as much, but the actual massage was really not different from many cheap massages which I have received in Thailand. Sure, the environment was really fancy, and the service was first class, but honestly I can’t justify paying 15 times as much for a massage which I can get for cheap and with a similar quality. So I’ll pass on the 5 star hotel massage.

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