Destination TBD

Back to All Travel Essays »

Learning the Art of Thai Massage
Get a 'deeper feel' for Thai culture while you travel...

Thailand - an evocative name that conjures images of spicy food, sultry nights, sparkling beaches, sordid nightlife. It's a place that lives up to its reputation, but there is more to the Land of Smiles than holiday-making. To understand the spirit of the Thais, I looked beyond the glitz and glitter of Bangkok and the white sandy beaches of the South. I enrolled myself at a Thai Massage school.

The roots of Thai massage actually lie in India - the founder of the art, a doctor known as Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha, kept good company; he was a contemporary of the Buddha. Although he's considered the father of Thai massage, the origins of the practice remain obscure: in the old days, knowledge was passed by oral tradition and what was written down, on fragile palm leaves in the Pali language, was destroyed when the Burmese invaded and plundered Thailand's ancient capital city, Ayutthia. Lucky for me, Buddhist monks who practiced this ancient form of healing for the Thai communities they served have continued the tradition and today, massage schools abound in Thailand.

Thai massage is based on the belief that 'sen', or invisible energy lines, and acupressure points influence the body and its functioning. The background of this belief is Indian in origin, based on the yoga philosophy that life energy, or prana, is absorbed in the air we breathe and food we ingest. Thai massage removes blockages from these lines and thus improves health. This may all sound like hogwash to the Western mind, but scientists have recognized that the lines and acupressure points do have validity. Get a Thai massage and you will feel energized and light... free from stress, heavy limbs, fatigue. It's not uncommon to see Thais massaging a family member or friend's arm, shoulder, back, or hand while sitting outside their homes and shops. To give a massage to another is to give them a gift.

There are two styles of massage in Thailand: the Southern Style is considered more vigorous and rough, while the Northern Style is described as 'gentle', though you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would describe the massage as such. By nature, Thai Massage is tough, though not punishing. The Northern Style has been and remains a way for villagers to keep their farmers healthy and happy. The practice is also known as   'yoga massage' because of all the stretching involved for the recipient; some describe it as 'applied yoga'. It's very physical work, takes place on the floor, and requires stamina and serious concentration. In fact, practitioners often perform the massage in a meditative state and each session is started with a prayer.

Over the course of 10 days, with 60 hours of class time, I learned over 100 Thai massage postures and techniques, practiced the art of energy balancing, and learned how accupressure points relieve ailments like headache, insomnia, arthritis, and more. I was taught how to use my feet, hands, elbows, knees, thumbs, and body weight to work the muscles and energy lines of my 'victims', the other students participating in the class. I was constantly on my knees or squatting, flowing from one position to the next while balancing on my toes. It's fun to give a Thai massage, but it's also a bit of a workout. The best part about taking the course was that I got a daily massage for two weeks; students practice on each other, with close supervision, for at least 4 of the 6 hours of class time each day. I returned to my guesthouse each night feeling invigorated and after several days, I became as flexible as pretzel dough.

In Thailand, you might pay 200 Baht (around $5.00) for a 2-hour massage. In the States, a similar massage will run between $60.00 and   $120.00. I can't legally practice Thai massage back home, not without training from a Western massage school and licensing by the state. I won't be making big bucks as a Thai masseur - but no matter, according to the 'rules of a good Thai masseur', I am not to hope for "any gains... material profit nor glory or fame." And in the process of learning Thai massage, I have come closer to understanding the Thai culture, history, and people.

Thai Massage Courses

There are many more courses than listed here and each school has their own philosophy and methods of teaching. Search online before deciding on one that fits your needs.

Southern Style
Wat Pho ( Bangkok),

Northern Style
The Sunshine Massage School (Chiang Mai),



Back to All Travel Essays »

© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan