Massage in Thailand is sometimes solely associated with 'extracurricular' services, but this is only a partial truth. There are many varied ways of massage, and there are distinct categories. There is the traditional Thai massage, with its recent add-ons of oil massage, and reflexology (foot massage). There are the mostly upmarket and flashy massage parlours. An altogether different segment are the spa health retreats and resorts. Thai massage in general (though not the massage parlours) is now actively promoted, and certainly the spa resorts are proliferating and doing good business.
By courtesy of Stephff, the Nation newspaper's cartoonist
Thai Traditional Massage
Not that many years ago one had to travel through Bangkok to rearch a suitable place for a traditional massage. Some places were providing male blind masseurs, besides masseuses (with normal eyesight). Nowadays, you will find massage venues at almost every street corner. Most places are small, with about 5-10 almost exclusively female staff. The venues are mostly just basic and not overly fashionable. Massages are given in a common room, with curtains in between customers. The recommended time for a massage is 2 hours. This is now mostly priced at 300 baht, but your should give a tip of 50-100 baht to the massage girl separately.
Hardly any Thai people themselves use these services, and you will only see Westerners and Asian people from outside Thailand. Strangely enough, very few females seem to be interested in getting the service. To open a massage venue, the masseuses need to be certified (at least some will be). Many girls will claim to have learned their profession at Wat Pho, although that is very doubtful.
There is one easy way to figure out whether someone has been trained properly. At the beginning of the massage (which starts at the legs), the masseuse will pressure your femoral arteries both sides for about 15-30 seconds. If done properly, you will feel your arteries pumping vigorously against the girl's wrist. If this does not happen, it means they are not capable to find the proper location, and just pressure in the vicinity.
Thai traditional massage is quite different from massage you will mostly get in expensive massage places in the West. It is based on 'pressure points', and a lot of stretching. If you are not used to it, some treatments might be painful. They will ask you from time to time how it all feels, and if you feel pain, you should tell them. Once you have done it a few times, it will all be more comfortable, since you will be used to the stretching of your tendons and ligaments.
A lot of time is spent on the legs (probably dating back to the time most people did a lot of walking). Then the arms are massaged. The last and most pleasurable part of the massage will concentrate on your back and neck. Lightly built girls will walk all over you and massage you with their heels. When they make you sit up, they will probably want to crack your spine. If you are uncomfortable with this (I am), you should tell them. Body language will usually be understood, and some of the girls will ask you whether they can do it. Be reminded that masseuses are not exactly chiropractors.
Whether the girls are fully qualified and certified or not, overall it is a good experience, recommended to all visitors to Thailand. But continue reading to see some caveats.
Traditional Thai Massage outlets have proliferated throughout Bangkok. Close to where we live, in soi 23 of Sukhumvit Road, there are at least 10 different venues, all small in size. When you walk down the street, you will be invited to enter, since there are always some masseuses seated outside to woe potential customers. Soi 19 Sukhumvit Road has also a few venues at the beginning of the soi.
Over the past few years, most massage places, will now also offer reflexology. Reflexology could simple be called foot massage. For a full hour you will get attention concentrated mostly on your feet and lower legs. So if you had a long day of sightseeing, it may look very appealing. Prices are at about 250 baht for an hour.
Luckily, at the end of the session, your arms, shoulders and neck, will also get a treatment.
Foot massage is done usually in the large room you enter from the street. You can usually see the massage chairs from outside.
If you are apprehensive about retiring with a woman to the upper floors and getting a Thai traditional massage or oil massage, foot massage (or reflexology) offers a good alternative. You will not get unwarranted propositions.
Recommendation : Health Land
If you want to avoid all hassles, head for a branch of Health Land. There a about 8 (rather huge) branches around Bangkok, one located in the connecting street between Asoke road and Sukhumvit Soi 19. You can get traditional massage, reflexology, and a wide variety of exotic massages and spa treatments there. While the 'special' spa treatments tend to be quite pricey, traditional massage will cost you only 100 baht more or so than in the small sometimes dubious outfits around town. A small drawback is that you sometimes have to wait a bit (like 10 minutes) to get your massage arranged and during the weekends it tend to be very busy there.