I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of massage, though that’s probably grossly over-inflated. As a legacy of a car accident 8 years ago, I have muscle pain in my right shoulder, arm and neck, which is alleviated by massage and soft tissue manipulation (which means I’m also a connoisseur of osteopaths, physios and various other health practitioners, but let’s stick to massage for today :-)).
In Thailand and Cambodia, I’ve had massage about twice a week since I’ve arrived, and I’ve tried all kinds of styles from on the floor in a studio to on the beach on a portable massage table. To my surprise, not everyone here is taking advantage, some nervous of more…intimate approaches…than they are looking for. Which given you can have a full body massage here for between £3-5, is a real shame – it’s the perfect place to have a massage for the first time. This post aims to demystify all things massage, by sharing some of my not-at-all x-rated experiences, and providing some personal tips to make sure you have a great massage.
10 unforgettable massage experiences
1. Back in the UK, I have regular deep tissue massage from the lovely Karl at the Bodyworks (don’t be put off by his picture ;-)), who I would strongly recommend to anyone with specific body issues you need to work on (as long as he doesn’t become too busy to see me when I return!). Karl has a great sense of the body and what’s going on with it, and can really target problems and aches and pains. I hear he and Bodyworks also do a more gentle style of massage too!
2. I combine this with a more relaxing and less painful massage from the amazing Lush Spa, an all-senses experience which is probably the most indulgent massage I’ve ever had. They have designed in colours, scents, and even a soundtrack for their massages. I usually float out of the door!
3. My first massage experience in Thailand was in a massage shop, ‘Nina Massage’ off a street in the backpackers area in Chiang Mai (Soi 9, Th Moon Muang). I had my first full-body massage there from the very pretty and in many ways delicate Lily, who had a deep husky voice, large hands and feet, and an adam’s apple. I was mildly disconcerted as these facts filtered into my consciousness, but she gave a great massage deftly finding knots and pains, and this is now where I go for ‘regular’ massage in Chiang Mai. It’s a fairly strong massage style, and I am usually a bit sore the next day, but it definitely loosens things up. It also, unlike the UK, uses most parts of the masseur’s body – hands, elbows, knees, feet, forearms. Sometimes you feel like a pretzel tied in a knot with the masseur, arms interlinked, their feet in your back, as you bend backwards. Don’t be scared. It’s all doing you good…
4. My amazing team in my old UK job gave me a voucher for a massage at one of Chiang Mai’s nicest and most upmarket Spas, the Peak Spa as a leaving present. It’s a place where they send a car to pick you up, ensuring end-to-end luxury. There’s complimentary tea and some unusual asian sweets, lots of coo-ing attendants, and a room of your own for the treatments (which as you can see from Nina Massage above, is not a given here). There’s a great shower for you to prepare yourself, and disposable undies as I had an oil-based massage. The undies were definitely more of a ‘nod’ to decency than anything else, as they didn’t have the same taboos I’m used to about the muscles they were massaging (I guess I did have quite tight glutes…)! But all was done deftly and appropriately, at no time did I feel uncomfortable. I had both a body and a foot massage (their massage tables are huge, so the masseur can get on them with you, it’s all very friendly!), and I was *extremely* relaxed by the end of the pampering.
Update: Since writing this post, I’ve been back to Peak Spa many times, and I’m super excited to share that I have negotiated a 15% discount on any Spa Packages booked online. Decide what you want from the Packages HERE, and then book through this form, and make sure you mention either ‘Ellen’ or ‘Whereverthewindtakesme.com’. Let me know what you think!
5. The Chiang Mai institution of the Sunday Walking Street Market includes massage available on every corner. Outside and in full view of those browsing the market, you can sit in a chair and have a foot massage (very popular) or have a head massage, or lie on a mat in the slightly-more-hidden temple grounds nearby. Be prepared to lie next to someone else within arm’s reach – privacy isn’t part of the offering here, but prices are highly competitive.
6. I tried a Supermarket Massage as an experiment – the supermarket is the closest place to my accommodation that I have found which does massage, and I visited them on Christmas Day. It was as generic as the supermarket, with a lackluster masseuse who talked to her friend massaging someone on the next bed the whole way through. I didn’t feel nurtured and wouldn’t recommend it!
7. In Siem Reap in Cambodia, I had a foot massage in my hotel room, and to my surprise, it’s been one of my least enjoyable experiences. It was just too strange having someone in my room, and felt uncomfortably intimate. It was also very quiet so all the noises of the massage were magnified, and I found it difficult to lose myself in relaxation. The masseuse herself was very nice, but the set-up was all wrong for me.
8. In Sihanoukville (Cambodia) on the beach there were roaming masseurs with their own little kit in bucket offering to massage you in your deck chair. I had a foot massage, which was a little sandy but nice in the circumstances.
9. In Phonm Penh, Cambodia our guide recommended the ‘seeing hands’ massage, that is, massage by the blind. The shop (which has outlets in Phonm Penh and Siem Reap) employs blind or partially sighted massuers, providing valuable employment for a group of people who find things very difficult in this developing world country. This was another excellent massage, where I was given cotton trousers and a top to wear, and had a shiatsu style massage, which included stretching, pressure and kneading. Both this and thai massage don’t include as much of the gliding style of massage that techniques such as oil based or Swedish massage includes.
10. I enjoyed this massage so much I went back the next day for a foot massage in the same place. This was the most firm foot massage I have had, or my feet were particularly tender at the time, as I found this one of the more painful massages I have had. I’d definitely visit them again, but I’d stick with full body or head/neck/shoulders as I get more value from that.
6 tips to get your perfect massage
1. To find the right spa/massage/masseur for you, personal recommendations are often the best way to start. Then your friend can talk you through the style before you even go. This is the way I found my first massage in Thailand.
Don’t be afraid to ask what’s going to happen, and what you want to happen. Some things you might want to ask your masseur (also known as massage therapist, or masseuse):
2. Do they want you to remove your clothing? If so, which items (I’ve definitely had times when I haven’t taken enough off, or perhaps worse, have taken too much off!)? Will they give you something else to replace them? For example, in Thai massage you are usually massaged through your clothes, or you are given loose trousers and a shirt to wear.
3. Which way up/down should you lie? If it helps you feel more comfortable, ask them what other positions you will use – in the UK I usually just lie on my front or back, but in Thailand I have also lain on my side, and with my head on a pillow in the lap of the masseur. In cheaper places here also be aware that you might be lying face down directly on a mat on the floor. The best thing I have found to do here is to use the pillow under your chest or under your forehead to give you space to breathe. Or you can turn your head to the side if this is comfortable for you.
4. Will oil or any other substance be used to make your skin easier to work with? I have had all sorts used on me: aromatherapy or other oil (sometimes choosing which one you want is all part of the massage); nivea body lotion; nothing; or tiger balm. In some massages a great deal of oil can be used, for example, in some hot oil massages the oil is literally poured onto your head, and you definitely don’t want your own clothes on for these, so you might want to ask what and how much will be used.
5. What pressure is likely to be used? In the UK, I would always personally go for ‘hard’ as I have a subconscious belief that if it doesn’t hurt it’s not doing anything, but in Thailand I would usually say ‘medium-hard’ as they use much stronger pressure than in the UK.
6. Are there any particular areas you want to focus on? In the UK, we often spend most of the hour focusing on my right hand side neck/shoulder/arm/hand where my issues are. In Thailand and Cambodia, I’ve mixed up having a head/shoulder/back massage, a full body massage, or a foot massage depending on what’s going on with me at that point. Have I been doing a lot of walking? Working on the computer? Yoga? These all might make my muscles tight in different ways.
Getting the most out of a massage
The most critical thing is to make yourself as comfortable as possible before you start. The massage that works for me might not work for you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions (or gesture if the language barrier is a problem, I have managed to get across all the above concepts in countries where all I can say is ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’). There’s no point in being tense or stressed about the massage itself as this will just make your muscles tighter to start with – believe me!
Let me know your massage experiences or tips from styles around the world – I love massage and think everyone should try it – it’s a true luxury to have someone else caring for your body in such a physical sense.
And watch out for this rather unique style of massage:
(Thanks to my cousin, MusicfromBlueSkies for sending me this clip!)