Thailand is the land of massage, some of them naughty and most of them nice. Thai massage is different from the deep tissue or Swedish massages we typically experience in the US. Thai massage is lot more active. The practitioner stretches, rocks, and contorts your body into various poses, often using their elbows or feet to position you. There is no oil involved, and you remain clothed.
On my recent visit to Bangkok, I resolved to get a massage every day at a different kind of location. From temple massages to rubdowns at the movie theater, here are my top five picks for Thai massage in the order I received them.
Massage #1: Temple
I was exhausted after taking in many of the the 1000+ Buddha images at Wat Pho. Wat Pho is the home of the 150-foot reclining Buddha and is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples. It also happens to be the birthplace of Thai massage and houses the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School.
After a quick change into what appeared to be prison-issued pajamas, I was escorted to a bed where my massage therapist, a student at the school, contorted me to my heart’s content. If you’re not comfortable with someone sitting astride you and wedging their elbows and feet into the nooks and crannies of your body, then Thai massage is probably not for you. And I should probably mention that you’ll be receiving your massage in a room full of other people. Space is tight and you’ll be close to your neighbor, but you’ll soon be lost in the haze of your own massage bliss.
60 minute full body massage = 420 baht (about US$12)
Massage #2: Storefront Shop
Jim Thompson was an American who helped save the Thai silk industry from extinction in the 1950s and 1960s. Thompson also worked for the OSS (the CIA’s predecessor) and disappeared under murky circumstances in Malaysia in 1967. But his stunning house (made from six traditional Thai-style houses) is a now a museum displaying his collection of Asian antiquities and legacy of silk designs and goods.Though the mystery of Jim Thompson’s disappearance may never be cracked, the case of my aching feet was solved literally down the street from his home. Gold Hand’s Massage is a humble storefront that I spied while hoofing it to Jim’s house. Knowing that this was my first stop and that I had lots of touristing ahead of me, I decided to take a break and pay some strangers to rub my feet.
Gold Hand’s set-up consisted of pedicure chairs and I was the only person in the joint at 11 am. I opted for the foot/shoulder/neck combo, and they did not disappoint. In fact, it was here that I realized just how easy they’d gone on me at Wat Pho. When it comes to massage, I am quite kneady (Ha!).
60 minute foot/shoulder/neck massage = 400 baht (around US$11)
Massage #3: Western-style Spa
Infinity Spa is currently ranked as the #2 recommended spa in Bangkok on TripAdvisor, so I decided this was my best bet for a western style spa experience. Though prices for other services are on par with the US (probably because they use brands like Dermalogica and OPI), the prices for Thai massages are comparable to local shops.
Infinity Spa is located in an upscale retail complex in Silom, and it was the first area I visited where I noticed foreigners who actually might live in Bangkok. Since I arrived without an appointment, the only service available was a foot massage. I had spent the day exploring, so my embarrassingly grimy feet and I happily accepted the appointment.
I was greeted with a cup of tea and an extensive client history form by a very cheerful greeter. She led me upstairs where my feet were meticulously bathed and then a soft-spoken Thai woman used a little nubbed stick to torture my feet in a most delicious manner. Every once in a while she would look up at my grimaced face and asked gently “This OK?” before pushing the end of her stick of agony into a pressure point that I didn’t know I had. Not even my toes were spared. But she knew what I needed and all I could do was nod in agreement. It worked. I walked out of Infinity Spa on a cloud.
60 minute foot massage (with a little shoulder and neck) = 400 baht (around US$11)
Massage #4: The Cinema
Towards the end of our trip, my friend and I decided to head to the place where actual Thai people congregate: the mall.
Siam Paragon is one of the biggest shopping centers in Asia. It has just about every luxury store you can think of, as well as the biggest aquarium in Southeast Asia, an exhibition hall, an art gallery, an international food hall, and an opera concert hall. It also has 15 movie theaters. Seeing a movie in Thailand was on my list because I had heard it was a cultural experience – before the movie they play the Thai national anthem and show a short film about the king. Everyone stands up as a sign of respect. In this case, everyone was my friend and me, who were the only movie patrons at 11 am on a weekday.
For the movie, we went all out. We bought tickets for the movie Everest at the Bangkok Airlines theater. It was expensive – about US$25 – but the perks were amazing, including:
- A swanky private lounge to hang out pre- and post-movie
- Our choice of wine, coffee or a soft drink, along with a snack
- Reclining leather seats with blankets, pillows, and a call button for the theater attendant
- A FREE MASSAGE!!!!
We had a choice of foot or neck and shoulder massages. We were led back to a dark room with pedicure chairs and the massage therapists got to work. I chose the neck and shoulder option. The massage was OK and, per the usual, all too brief. It was really hard not to nod off in our cushy leather seats after such pampering.
15 minute neck and shoulder massage = free with purchase of a movie ticket, but the ticket indicated a 300 baht value (around US$8)
Massage #5: The Airport
It was 4 am as I wandered through the international terminal of Suvarnabhumi Airport with an hour to kill. I sleepwalked toward the massage shop storefront, drawn by the prospect of comfy pajamas and a place to lay down. Little did I know, this would be my best massage in Bangkok (and that I would be tempted to steal the adorable PJs).
My massage therapist was a woman on a mission. The knots in my shoulders were her enemies, and she would vanquish them at all costs, using pointy elbows as her only weapons. Tears welled in my eyes, a combination of pain and bliss. With both of my hands pressed behind my head, she linked her little arms through my elbows, lifting the front half of my body off the bed in a pose I can only describe as Leo DiCaprio’s “I’m the king of the world!” from Titanic. My muscles trembled and popped. She dropped me on my face and announced, “OK. Finished!” as she exited through the sliding shoji screen door, closing it behind her. I laid there, stunned and enraptured.
45 minute full body massage = 700 baht (around US$20)
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