The lovely torture: Thai massage

I love Thai food. I like Thai people. I enjoy Thai weather. But what I really miss when I’m away, is a Thai massage.

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Sculpture of a Thai Massage in the temple garden.

Unlike most Western-style massages, the classic Thai massage is done fully dressed. The less fancy places let you keep your own clothes. Others will give you a tunic and a pair of fisherman’s pants. They wrap around you, loose enough to allow for full mobility.

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You lie on a firm mattress, often on the floor.  The masseuse starts by washing your feet, then she closes her eyes, joins her hands and prays for a successful, healing massage.

You pray to stay in one piece.

If passive stretch and deep pressure massage had a baby, Thai massage would be it. It’s forceful enough to stretch not only your tendons but also the deep fascia attaching your muscles to your bones. Every single part of you gets pressed, pulled, stretched and rocked. They’ll squeeze and ring every muscle as if trying to debone your legs.

It starts with the feet. They get twisted and squeezed to their limits and slightly beyond. Then it’s up to the knees, thighs, and hips. They start the massage with their hands, but the masseur’s forearms, elbows, knees, and feet soon get involved. They will contort themselves into positions which challenge their flexibility almost as much as they challenge yours.

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Every joint gets hyper-flexed and over-extended to within an inch of dislocation. If it’s not at least subluxed, it’s not good enough. Knees that wouldn’t bend, must. Backs that wouldn’t strengthen get whipped into submission.

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Shoulders get stretched until they crack or give up. Same with the hips. The more resistance they provide, the more thoroughly they get disciplined.

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There’s relief whenever the masseuse moves from one body part to another as the bruised, tortured area is set free. It doesn’t last long since the next one follows.

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Bending backward is mandatory. The masseuse pulls your hands back while pushing you forward with her feet. You get pulled, stretched, pushed and squeezed like a defective lump of pizza dough. Finally, they reshape you into human form, slap your back, neck and head a few times and you’re done.

You count your limbs. You shake them to make sure they still work. You feel upgraded.

Torture chambers….err…massage parlors are ubiquitous and diverse. There’s one for every budget and for every interest.

The Blind Massage School in Chiang Mai offers an hour massage for 160 baht (about $5) shared with seven more customers. You suffer on a clean, firm mattress on the floor.

The Women’s Prison Massage Center has uniformed guards watching over convict ladies. They get trucked in at eight in a locked bus. An hour massage costs 200 baht and comes with a cup of herbal tea. The young ladies have varying skill levels, but they all wear pink uniforms and a smile. The training will provide them with a profession, so they don’t end up back in jail. The tips go to a common purse to help them when they get released. Most of them are in for drug-related offenses.

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The women’s prison massage center. There’s a little shop with their artifacts and a garden cafe where they cook and serve delicious curries and ice teas.

At the other end of the spectrum, five-star hotels have elegant spas targeting spendy westerners. An hour massage with incense, rose petals and golden buddhas will set you back around 5000 baht, not including tips. There’s something for everybody.

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Wat Pho, the holiest temple.

Wat Pho, in Bangkok, is the most famous temple in Thailand and the resting place of the celebrated Reclining Buddha. It hosts the oldest,  most prestigious massage school in Thailand. A massage: a couple of hundred baht. The experience: priceless.

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Wat Pho massage school. Two experiences, Mathilde’s and Nico’s. Image courtesy of talent.paperblog.fr

You don’t have to go far to get a massage. Stop by for a foot massage on the Saturday walking street. You’ll sit on a bamboo recliner watching the crowd, while a skilled masseur rejuvenates you dusty, achy, feet with a combo of massage and reflexotherapy, ending with a little love for your hands and neck.

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There are back-and-shoulder massages waiting for you in little salons in supermarkets or airports. Tiny iron fingers will crush your kinks and pull out the tension in your neck like they’d pull out a rotten tooth.

Face massages are wonderful, relaxing and beautifying. Soft fingers, cooling masks, and rough brushes will whip you into the last decade, mailing back your youthful complexion and relieving your fear of mirrors.

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Luxuriating at the Dhara Devi spa. Image courtesy of healinghotelsoftheworld.com

Aromatherapy oil massages soothe your naked body with smooth slow sensuous strokes and scents of jasmine, rose or lavender.

A vigorous massage of the stomach is a must. “ABDOMINAL ORGAN MASSAGEGreat for emotional tension stored in the gut, impaired digestion, or to help the detoxification process. It is an effective treatment for digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, gas and constipation as it eliminates toxins in the gastrointestinal tract and promotes lymphatic drainage.”

The oil massages may get really interesting, especially around the chest and inner thighs. It gets really close and personal, more so than Westerners are used to. Friends told me that for a little extra fee, some places will even offer you “a happy ending”

It’s heavenly, the Thai massage. It’s an upgrade to a better you. It will make you happy, happy ending or not

Rada Jones MD. is an Emergency Doc in Upstate NY and the author of three ER novels: OVERDOSE, MERCY, and POISON.