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The Art of Learning Thai Massage in Thailand

Tell anyone (your best friend, dentist, ex boyfriend's mom, etc.) that you're going on a trip to Thailand, and I bet they'll bring up Thai massage. Whether they're speaking based on first-hand experience or heard-it-through-the-grapevine anecdotes, they'll say with absolute certainty that Thai massage is A). Unfathomably therapeutic, and B). Cheap AF. No exception to said theory, my friends and family were adamant about me going all in on massages during my two week trip to Bangkok. But I did them one better—opting for a 3-hour Thai massage course at the original Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School. Here, everything I learned along the way.

A Brooklyn-based writer and editor, Chelsea's work has appeared in Matador Network, The Huffington Post, the TripAdvisor blog, and more. When not planning her next trip, you'll usually find her drinking way too much iced coffee (always iced—she’s from New England) or bingeing a Netflix original series.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart

On my second day in Bangkok, I’m in a van whizzing through tuk-tuk-crowded streets in what seems like a ritzier part of town (see: noticeable uptick in international restaurants, trendy-looking bars, and fashion boutiques the further we go). My destination? A spa in Thonglor where I’ll get my first traditional Thai massage—as in ever. I’m psyched because after 27+ hours of traveling—from JFK to BKK (with a layover in Hong Kong)—I’m in dire need of a refresh.

From the second I step into the Let’s Relax Spa, I sense that the place is on its A-game. Bliss is pumped out in the form of an airy, entirely-blonde-wood reception room and immediately I’m handed a chilled green welcome drink garnished with an orchid. As I go for a sip, someone’s already slipping off my sandals and gingerly replacing them with bamboo flip-flops.

As soon as I’m moved into a room, a tiny masseuse motions towards a change of clothes—a silky button-down shirt and one-size-fits-all Thai fisherman pants (a less-than-sexy way to ensure total mobility). Ambient music now on, the masseuse guides me to lie down on the mat in the corner of the room, comfortably cocooning my head with a pillow and placing her hands first on the sole of my right foot.

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Over the course of the resulting two hours, my diminutive masseuse delivers methodical push after pull and twist after turn with the Herculean strength of a mother lifting an overturned car to save her trapped children. Repeatedly shocked by the brute force she’s somehow applying, my muscles involuntarily tense up like no one’s business—leading her to pat me on the back and whisper "relax" more than once.

By the conclusion of the massage —which finishes with a much more bearable (but still quite forceful) hot compress pat-down—my muscles are in knots that even the highest-ranking Boy Scout couldn’t undo. With possibly the worst Charley horse of my life in my right calf, I limp back out to reception—completely dumbfounded by the unforeseen plot twist. Prior to my trip, friends and family had nothing but rave reviews for Thai massage, setting me up to believe I was about to undergo some sort of transformative experience. Since the massage didn’t quite sell me on that just yet, I sign on for a Thai massage course at Bangkok’s Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School to really delve into the technique the following day.

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Anyone familiar with the Wat Po Buddhist temple complex would probably first point to it as the home of the Reclining Buddha—a mammoth 151-foot gilded Buddha which lies calmly on its side, entering Nirvana. While they wouldn’t be wrong, Wat Po is also the home of traditional Thai massage —a much lesser-known (but more likely to appear on Jeopardy) fact.

Under King Rama III, the Wat Po complex was transformed into Thailand’s first public university and it served as ground zero for Thai medicine and massage. During his time, a collection of 1,431 stone engravings and illustrations were scattered throughout Wat Po’s grounds in an effort to preserve ancient Thai knowledge and educate the public on things like science, medicine, religion, and massage. Among the inscriptions are 60 anatomical diagrams representing the energy pathways (sen) of the human body.

Walking through Wat Po, one can piece together the importance of sen in Thai massage, but what’s also worth knowing is that the practice is a combination of acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga positions. Every movement works one of the body’s energy lines (the discipline believes there are thousands) to release blockages and reroute the flow of energy to prevent illness and promote wellbeing. And as I learned quickly, in order to do this, no gentle rubbing or kneading will do. Thai massage is all about rhythmic stretching, rocking, joint cracking, and pulling (ears, toes, fingers, arms, legs—you name it).

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As we wait in the Wat Po Traditional Thai Massage School lobby the next morning, my group – a couple other writers and myself – wonder aloud about how our course will go down. Mainly, we joke (with an edge of seriousness) about pinching nerves and compromising life-sustaining internal organs should we be asked to perform what we’ve gathered on actual human beings, or—worst-case scenario—each other.

After completing some necessary paperwork (and signing our bodies over to the process), we’re each handed a tote bag full of supplies. While I was previously curious as to how we could possibly fill three hours of class time, I’m now thinking we might run over as I unearth a 159-page instructional booklet and a photo-driven condensed pamphlet called the Original Wat Po Massage Procedure in Brief.

For the remainder of the course, the pamphlet is my Thai massage bible; but contrary to its name, there’s nothing brief about it. The booklet consists of 5 key areas of concentration (and their hundreds of corresponding steps), including:

  1. Lying on the back (32 steps on the left side of the body, then repeat on the right)
  2. Lying on the side (18 steps on the left side of the body, then repeat on the right)
  3. Lying on the stomach (21 steps on both legs, alternating)
  4. Lying on the back (8 steps, repeating 1-5 on both sides of the body)
  5. Sitting position (23 steps, repeat 19 and 20 on both feet)
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Tote bags and light reading materials in tow, we’re ushered into a room full of 50 or so student-teacher pairs—all dispersed among two rows of floor mats. The students here aren’t part of a three-hour course like we are, though. Our guide tells us they’ve come from all over Europe to take a five-week course to earn their Thai massage certification.

Luckily, our class starts simply by receiving a massage and following along in our booklet—paying particular attention to the difference between using your thumb vs. heel of the hand vs. forearm, etc. The instructors at Wat Po have been teaching for decades, and this is something that becomes immediately clear as they work their way through the steps as swiftly and confidently as one would rattle off the ABCs.

My instructor doesn’t speak English, but he points to each move before he does it, so I follow along just fine. Much to my (read: my Charley horse’s) relief, he has a lighter touch than yesterday’s masseuse, so it’s much more enjoyable.

Just before the end of my massage, I realize we’re already 1.5 hours into our session. After the final crack of my ankles and a parting pat on the back, I’m moving to the side of the mat so someone else in my group can have a turn. With a little less than half of our class left, I’m given the choice between following along on paper or trying my moves on another stranger in the room. Though I feel like I’ve definitely picked up some skills, I’m nowhere near confident enough to implement them on anything living and breathing. With everyone’s best interest in mind, I stick to paper and try tracing the sen pathways of my own arm as the class wraps up.

While I sadly wasn’t transformed into a Thai massage master—that would take far more than three hours—I have a much clearer understanding of the method behind yesterday’s madness and I do feel pretty guilty for lamenting a single sore muscle. (Which, come to think of it, was probably self-inflicted because of my unwillingness to relax.)

Thai massage truly is an art form; a deeply-rooted one that’s been passed generation to generation, preserving ancient Thai culture and wisdom through spirituality, healing, and mindfulness. One that was so important to the people, that it was preserved in ink and stone on one of the nation’s most sacred sites. All this considered, I’m more than willing to give it a second go the next time I find myself in Thailand. Maybe—just maybe—an additional three hours will be enough to get me testing my skills on something other than paper.

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