Thai massage: So what’s the difference?

Front room of a Thai massage parlor, Bai Tong

Massages are a big deal in Thailand. We’d seen signs and brochures everywhere, often multiple storefronts per block. Prices varied wildly, with fancy places near expensive tourist hotels many multiples of the crazy-cheap prices quoted in small, local massage parlors. Some of these little places were “mass production” affairs where we could watch through windows or open walls as customers, side-by-side with each other in un-air-conditioned rooms, were manipulated and prodded… an experience which didn’t appeal in the least. Still, we wanted to try a real Thai massage and see just what that entailed. How was it different from a Swedish massage or an “massage with oil” which often cost twice the price of a “Thai massage”? We decided to dedicate some free time in Chiang Mai to finding out.

The kind of Thai massage we didn’t want: no air conditioning and no privacy

After doing a quick scan of Tripadvisor reviews, we chose “Green Bamboo,” a small place not too far from our hotel which offered 1 hour Thai massages for 200 baht/hour ($5.71). How could we go wrong? Our hotel called and booked us a reservation for 2pm, giving us time to wander the streets a little and have lunch beforehand.

Following Google Maps through the winding streets of Old Chiang Mai, we arrived at Green Bamboo ten minutes early, but were greeted warmly and showed a list of available massages. They didn’t ask about our reservation, but that didn’t seem to be an issue. Scanning our options, I decided on the 1.5 hour foot and Thai massage for 350 baht ($10) while David really went hog-wild with a 450 baht ($12.86) 1.5 hour foot and Neck, Shoulder & Head massage.

To start things off, two ladies brought tubs of warm water in which lime slices floated to the “waiting room” chairs in the little main room.

Our Thai massage starts off with a foot scrub

They gave us a delightful foot scrubs before leading us upstairs to a darkened, sweet-smelling room with two pallets on the floor.

Side-by-side pallets ready for our massages

Crisply pressed cotton shirts and pants were laid out for us to change into. The pants were similar to the mahout clothes we’d worn with the elephants: a tie in the back being wrapped around the huge waist and tied, bag-style to hold them up. My pants were big enough for two or more of me!

Baggy pants for my Thai massage

The stairwell had been worryingly warm, but an air-conditioner ran in the upstairs room, quickly bringing things to a comfortable temperature. Several other similar pallets lay behind a curtain drawn to make our area private. (I peeked!)

Dressed for our massages, David and I lay down on our side-by-side pallets and the ladies returned, draping cloths over our eyes as they began our foot massages. For 40 minutes, the sturdy lady who worked on my feet pressed and kneaded (with oil) and flexed my feet in all directions. It was heavenly and just what my overworked feet needed.

Ready for my massage

With the foot massage over, the ladies began our two different types of massage. David had the more familiar massage using oil on neck and shoulder muscles. My Thai massage was a new experience: The masseuse began by raising and bending one of my knees and extending that leg slightly. She then began a firm pressure-point technique along the adductor muscles and the tendon of my inner thigh, manually stretching the muscles and tendon for me. It was painful in places, but I deliberately relaxed and the result was good and not uncomfortable. She proceeded to cross the bent knee leg over my other leg and press the knee inward and outward to further stretch things. Eventually, she raised the leg straight up and leaned her body into it, pressing the knee in the direction of my chest. She applied firm pressure, but there was no pain after the initial inner-thigh pressure points. The masseuse repeated the entire procedure on my other leg before directing me to roll over onto my stomach.

She pressed firmly on the various pressure points along my calves and back, kneading from time to time. When she got to my shoulders and neck, she quickly honed in on a knot near my left shoulder blade and worked long and very hard on the spot, forcing the muscle to relax. It hurt so good! She didn’t skip the glutes, something I appreciate.

Finally, she had me roll back over and sit up. She sat behind me with her legs on either side of me, then had me lean back against her where she’d placed a pillow while she worked my neck from that angle and then my scalp. As is often the case with a massage, it’s oddly personal contact with a stranger, but this lady really knew her stuff and I was happy to place myself in her capable hands. Beside me, the end of David’s massage was proceeding in the same fashion. My masseuse wrapped things up with sweeping motions across my face and brow, releasing any lingering tension.

An hour and a half flew by and it was time to get dressed again. Downstairs, the ladies had laid out warm sweet tea and crackers. Different than the plain or citrus water usually offered at home, but we tried both in the spirit of doing the full experience. Just in front of us, two men were in the chairs by the front window to the tiny establishment, just beginning foot massages. I could get used to this!

Post-massage refreshment (with the common toilet paper “napkins”)

It wasn’t until I started to blog our Thai massage experience and look at photos to upload that I realized we’d made a mistake: We’d accidentally entered Bai Tong, the establishment next door to Green Bamboo! (I did mention how Thai massage parlors are everywhere, right? :)) Oh well. I’m sorry we blew off our reservation at Green Bamboo, but I can’t regret our great experience at Bai Tong!

David in front of Bai Tong…with Green Bamboo just to the left in the photo







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