Samui Wining & Dining
With therapists ‘bending’ their clients into positions resembling a pretzel at times, what exactly is Thai massage all about?


It’s not something you’ll see every day in London, New York or Berlin. But on the streets of Samui and the rest of Thailand, glass-fronted shops reveal rows of lazy-boy chairs, holding tourists with trousers rolled up, lulled into a semi-conscious state as their feet are being prodded and rubbed. Beyond that, low, padded mats contain yet more tourists, this time getting the full force of a traditional Thai massage. If you’ve never experienced Thai massage before, it can be a little daunting, as it’s completely different to Western-style massages.


So what exactly is Thai massage? Well, it blends styles from Asian neighbours, including India and China, passed down through the generations. Unlike the kneading and continuous strokes of Western massage, the Thai method uses pressure points, muscle stretching and compression, done in a rhythmic movement of gentle rocking. In Thai massage the therapist uses not just her hands to free tension from your body, but also her feet, forearms, knees, and elbows too.


The holistic benefits of Thai massage (known locally as Nuad Bo-Rarn or ancient massage) include relaxation and heightened awareness. It frees blockages in energy flow, invigorates the nervous system, relieves pain and muscle tension and improves circulation. The techniques also increase flexibility by way of the passive yoga postures used, and give a general feeling of wellbeing, helping to balance body, mind and spirit. Thai medical massage can move deeper into the mechanical functions of the body, working with deep muscle tension and joint mobility as well as nerve, muscle and ligament balancing. Which means that it can be particularly helpful in relieving headaches, arthritis, whiplash pain, numbness, back pain and other conditions.


Sound like something you want to try? Well, here’s what to expect whether you go to a beach or a fancy spa for your treatment. Thai massage is usually done on a padded mat on the floor. No oil is applied, so you are fully dressed. You’re usually asked to wear comfortable clothing to the massage, or sometimes the spa provides fisherman’s pants and a loose top to wear. Thai massage is more energising and rigorous than other forms of massage. If you’re flexible, you’ll find it relaxing – if not, your first treatment can be a little painful the next day as muscles are stretched more than they’re used to.


A typical Thai massage lasts one to two hours. Once dressed appropriately, you will be invited to lie down on the mat or bed and the massage will begin, starting with your feet and working towards your head. While undergoing a massage, try to relax as much as possible. Work with your masseuse by synchronising your breathing with the rhythm of the massage. For example, when she stretches a part of you, inhale as she does, then exhale as she relaxes the tension.


Although things are a little more laid back with a beach massage, there are a few things to keep in mind no matter where you go for your massage. Don’t eat a heavy meal before the massage and be sure to let your therapist know if you have any medical conditions, particularly back and neck problems or recent fractures. Pregnant women should check with their doctors first before getting a massage, and it’s not advisable to have one soon after surgery. Some Thai massage therapists are certified in pregnancy massage, so expecting mums should look out for spas offering this treatment to ease pregnancy aches. If you’re prone to blood clots, best to avoid Thai massage too, as there’s a risk of blood clots being dislodged. And if you have heart disease, check with your doctor before having a massage. If you feel discomfort, let your therapist know. Most Thai people are much more flexible than Westerners, so she may be unwittingly pushing you beyond your limits.


You’ll often see Thai people randomly giving each other a massage. And there’s a reason for this. The art has been passed down from generation to generation, and it plays an important part in Thai culture and lifestyle. Traditional Thai massage is a unique form of bodywork that incorporates Hatha yoga, acupressure and reflexology with origins dating back about 2,500 years. The roots of Thai massage are traced back to the founder of the practice (known as ‘Father Doctor’) Shivaga Komarpaj, a doctor and friend to The Buddha. Ancient medical texts were carved in stone in attempts to preserve the tradition of Thai massage and these stone inscriptions still sit within the walls of the Wat Po temple in Bangkok.


If you’ve ever been temple-touring in Bangkok, chances are you’ve been to Wat Po, the most photogenic temple and home to the enormous Reclining Buddha. Wat Po was built by Rama I in the 16th century and is the oldest and largest Buddhist temple in Bangkok.


The temple is considered Thailand’s first public university. Long before the advent of literacy or books, many of its murals and sculptures were used to illustrate and instruct scholars on the basic principles of religion, science, and literature. But why does the giant Reclining Buddha appear so relaxed and at ease? Well, he’s probably just enjoyed an authentic Thai massage as Wat Po, which has also home to one of the earliest Thai massage schools since 1955.


A certificate of learning Thai massage obtained here is held with high regard, and spas around the country are proud to display their masseuses’ certificates for clients to see. If you have 30,000 baht and 28 days to spare while visiting Thailand, you can do a professional Thai massage course at Wat Po Massage. You can experience a massage at the Wat Po Massage School too. But forget luxury – as here you’ll line up with others dressed alike in a uniform of loose Thai clothing, and get the real-deal here of traditional Thai massage – partly painful, partly pleasurable as you get poked, prodded and stretched.


Considering it’s been around for more than a couple of millennium, Thai massage is no passing fad, so it’s worth giving it a try while visiting the land of smiles.


 Rosanne Turner


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