Where to go in Thailand for a massage

And relax... Whether you're looking to develop your spirituality, to experience or learn alternative healing, or just to savour a little pampering, Thailand can provide for your needs. Here is our guide to Thai massage and where to go to enjoy it.
Massage at Northern Traditional Healing Hospital, Chiang Mai.  Photo: Peter Stuckings/APA
Massage at Northern Traditional Healing Hospital, Chiang Mai. Photo: Peter Stuckings/APA

In addition to fantastic weather and idyllic palm-fringed beaches Thailand offers everything required to provide Asia’s top spa experiences. Here we take a look at the history and philosophical origins of Thai massage, where to go for a massage in Thailand and what to expect, as well as selected urban and luxurious resort spas.


Massage in Thailand

Thailand's spiritual and philosophical connections to elements of what the West might refer to as 'alternative treatments' provide strong emotional links to the past. Travelling monks arrived in Thailand in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, bearing not only Buddhism, but also nuad paen boran (ancient massage), which legend says was developed from Indian Vedic treatments by Shivakar Kumar Baccha, the Buddha’s own medical adviser. Nearly 2,000 years later, the world now calls it simply Thai massage.

This association with the country’s religious philosophy means that the most dedicated masseurs still perform massage services within the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Before they start, true adherents will make a wai – a slight bow with hands clasped together – to pay respects to their teacher and focus on metta (loving kindness), which is thought to be the ideal state of mind in which to give massage.

For centuries throughout Thailand, temples were places of healing (many still have hospitals located next door), and they employed many of the treatments we now associate with modern spas, such as herbal compresses and herbal medicines. Massage is such an inherent part of life in Thailand that you will see friends casually massage each other’s backs and shoulders as casually as they might offer a cup of coffee. It is these elements that make spa treatments such a natural part of the Thailand experience.


Where to get a Thai massage

Thai massage is the shining light in Thailand’s spa spectrum. It is a quintessentially Thai experience that can help you to quickly get into the rhythm of the country, as well as relaxing your mind and soothing away any aches or pains you might have.

The most common operations are run in small shophouses and consist of little more than simple mattresses in cubicles curtained-off from each other in the same room. Available on many streets, and numerous in tourist areas, they provide exquisite relaxation for as little as B300 (US$10) an hour.

In central Bangkok, Sukhumvit Road has many shops, as well as the Silom district, where a reliable option is Arima Onsen offering good massages from skilled and friendly masseurs. Unsurprisingly, the Khaosan Road is home to a number of budget operations. Charlie Beauty Salon Massage and Spa (178 Khaosan Road) is an affordable choice where you can try a foot, back, shoulder and head massage over the course of a relaxing one and a half hour visit. 

The centre of the northern city of Chiang Mai is packed with shops, with many clustered around the Night Market. Loi Kroh Massage includes hot herbal compresses, where a hessian bag filled with oil and herbs is heated before being used for massage, as well as hot stone massage, which employs heated stones covered in oil. They say one stroke with a stone is worth ten by hand.


Traditional Thai massage. Photo: ShutterstockA traditional Thai massage in Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock


What to expect

When you walk into a massage shop, there will be a menu usually offering Thai massage, oil massage and foot massage. For Thai massage you’ll be given pyjamas to change into. Oil massage is customarily carried out on clients who are naked apart from some strategically placed towels.

Before starting, the masseur (usually a woman) bathes your feet; then the massage proceeds in a standard sequence, from the feet, with you lying on your back. Legs, arms, hands, fingers, back, neck and head will all be treated.

Most shops outside red-light areas give only traditional Thai massage, but to avoid misunderstandings regarding the country’s infamous sex industry, it’s best to steer away from places advertising ‘soapy massage’ or displaying possible euphemisms such as 'teen' or 'pretty girl.'


The massage technique

As it is based on ancient Indian teachings, Thai massage includes stretching elements of yoga alongside acupressure and reflexology. There should also be a meditative quality, although low-budget shops may have music playing or a television switched on which can spoil the mood.

The massage principle revolves around ten energy lines, called sip sen, that are believed to carry physical, emotional and spiritual energy between meridian points around the body. When the lines become blocked, it causes illness or emotional stress. It is the masseur’s job to reopen these lines.

The experience is usually vigorous, employing push-and-pull stretching of tendons and joints and deep tissue kneading with elbows, knees, feet and fingers, so it is not suitable for people with back, neck or joint problems. Bow bow, kap/ka is a useful phrase, meaning ‘softer please.' Sometimes an ointment is used on painful muscles – Tiger Balm is the most famous brand – but generally there are no oils or ointments involved.

If you’ve enjoyed the experience, depending on the length and quality of the massage, it is usual to give a tip of between B50 and B100.


In Thailand, Thai massage is commonly advertised.Masseurs advertising their services on the street, Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock


Urban spas

If you prefer to enjoy your massage with the mood enhanced by candlelight and soothing music, a good option that is available without breaking the bank is a visit to an urban spa. These recent additions to the cityscape are often set in traditional teak houses, with private rooms and sympathetic decor featuring Asian objets d’art. They offer more treatments than merely massages, including beauty therapies, such as body scrubs and facial treatments, bundled as 'half-day' or 'full-day' packages. A popular Bangkok venue with several outlets is Divana Massage & Spa (7 Sukhumvit 25). 


Resort spas

To truly indulge yourself, make a reservation to stay at one of Thailand’s luxurious resort spas.

Beachside retreats are epitomised by Evason Hua Hin & Six Senses Spa at Paknampran Beach, Pranburi, with its palm-fringed setting that combines cute thatched-roof villas and infinity pools with massage, body scrubs, yoga and t’ai chi.  

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Rai offers a different take on romance, with massages, facials and body scrubs offered in teak houses in the mountain jungles near the Burmese border. To the south, the Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai is housed in a gorgeous reproduction of the ancient Burmese Palace at Mandalay, where the classic tumbling tiers of the roof represent the seven steps to Nirvana. 

The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok houses a spa in a traditional teak-furnished space, that harks back to the Indian origins of Thai treatments with its comprehensive holistic menu of Ayurvedic therapies. 

But perhaps the most impressive range of holistic treatments in Thailand is available at the pioneering resort spa Chiva-Som in Hua Hin, a beachside retreat where the full range of wellness options runs from massage to traditional Chinese medicine, reiki, meditation, spa cuisine, hypnotherapy and New Age options such as crystals and flower essences. 


Ready to take a trip to Thailand?

Insight Guides can help you plan incredible trips to Thailand. Simply get in touch to let us know your ideas for the trip and when you would like to travel. Our local experts will then create a tailor-made itinerary especially, which you can amend until it's exactly how you want it. You can browse our pre-planned itineraries for inspiration, and keep in mind that they can all be tailored to suit your own specific requirements.


Updated 10 April, 2019