Thai Massage: Relaxing or Voluntary Torture?

A spa room in ThailandA spa room in Thailand
Courtesy Sia Ling Xin,

This article was written by Sia Ling Xin, who travels and writes about it for, a blog and online community focused on travelling in Asia. You can also find her on Twitter.

Thailand, known for her islands, cheap food, and friendly locals, is also famed for massages. You may have heard horror stories of crazy poses, crackling spines and vicious masseuses bearing their full body weight on your naked back. Is the quintessential Thai massage experience really so scary, though? Sia Ling Xin, a massage addict and avid beach holiday lover, explains the various types of Thai massages commonly offered. No Thai experience is complete without a visit (or three) to the massage parlours. Remember, there's no need to be afraid of Thai masseuse lady!

Thai Massage (with Oil)
Pain factor: 2 stars

This massage requires you to get naked and lie stomach-down on a bed. The masseuse starts applying oil on your back and rubs in long, gentle strokes. She may apply more pressure when kneading your shoulders, but overall, it's not painful or demanding. In fact, most people doze off and only wake up towards the end of the session, when the masseuse prompts you to sit upright, and proceeds to gently swing your head a few times... until she manages to 'pop' your neck. Expect the same swinging and popping for your spine and toes, but while you may hear scary sounds, it doesn't hurt at all. If you're looking to be pampered and fussed over, this is the massage for you.

Traditional Thai Massage
Pain factor: 4.5 stars (if you ask for a strong masseuse, give it five stars, and bravo to you)

You may be asked to change into a loose fitting outfit provided by the parlour, usually a pair of knee length drawstring pants and a t-shirt. This massage is fast-paced, demanding, and by far my favourite type of massage to get in Thailand. When in Thailand, forget about Swedish oil massages. Get kneaded as the Thais do! And boy, do they do it well. Expect lots of cracking (fingers, toes, spine, neck), lots of elbow and knee jabs (on sensitive points like the small of your back) and even some body-to-body contortion. It all sounds and looks a lot scarier than it actually is. My suggestion is to find a 'medium' strength masseuse and tell her to take the pressure down a notch if a while into the massage, you find it too intense. There is some pain involved, but only for areas that are stiff. And the pay-off is feeling wonderfully relaxed, almost like an out of body experience, after an experienced masseuse has had her wicked way with you.

Relaxing Foot Massage
Pain factor: 3 stars (one star for the massage stick)

If you're in the mood for a gentle foot rub that gets the blood circulation going, opt for this. You may see the masseuses whip out a black pen-like stick. Made of teak, this stick will be used to press on certain acupuncture points on your foot and toes, and you may feel a slight pinch. Overall, however, it's calm, gentle, and a great chance to practise your Thai with masseuses or just catch forty winks. About 50 minutes will be spent on your feet, and the last ten minutes on a quick shoulder and head massage. (This quickie will give you a taste of a full-blown traditional Thai massage.) Don't expect intense foot aches to disappear. The relaxing foot massage is great pampering while you're in the parlour, but it does not quite invigorate. If you like it hard, ask for the Oriental Foot Massage, which is a notch more intense.

Aloe Vera Massage
Pain factor: 1 star (from the shock of cold aloe vera gel)

This is the go-to massage for those who had a little too much fun in the sun and forgot protection (SPF 30 at least!). Sunburns can get nasty, and the pain sometimes lasts for days. If you're in the mood for a massage but your skin is too tender to be subjected to any kind of kneading and rubbing, opt for the Aloe Vera Massage. You'd be asked to strip down to your undies, and a masseuse will apply liberal amounts of aloe vera gel on your scorched skin. It is very gentle, and instead of a massage, may feel more like a spa treatment—not a bad thing for those with painful, inflamed skin! Those strapped for cash can duplicate the experience on their own—just bring a large tube of aloe vera along on your beach trip (or purchase one locally at a marked up rate), chill it in the hotel mini fridge, and apply it every night. If you have a significant other or good friend with you, the application at hard to reach areas should be no problem at all.

Sports Massage
Pain level: 4 stars (you sporty folks can take the heat, I know)

Yes, a beach holiday may take a lot out of you... especially those who like to go kayaking, rock climbing, or engage in other sporting activities. In this case, you may want to opt for the sports massage, which usually targets often-used areas such as hamstrings, shoulders, and arms. Somewhat of a cross between an oil massage and a Thai massage, the sports massage usually uses some form of heat rub to relax your aching muscles, which are then kneaded with ferocity. It may sound daunting, but a session or two may just be what you need to relax those stiff muscles!

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