One of the first things I always do whenever I land in Southeast Asia is to find a good massage. As soon as you step out onto the streets that there are hundreds of massage shops, parlours and clinics looking to draw you in.
Over many years I have had some good, some OK, and some terrible experiences with these places all over Thailand, and other parts of Asia. Unfortunately, some of the bad experiences include my sister getting a broken sternum after a Thai massage therapist walked on her back, and when I had a massage therapist who painfully overworked an area around my ankle causing ligament damage, which left me limping in pain for 6 weeks.
I mention these things not to generate fear but to generate a sense of caution.
There are so many reasons to err on the side of caution when seeking out a massage in Thailand more so than in western countries simply because the industry is unregulated and therefore tends to attract all sorts of shop owners and workers, many desperate just to earn a meagre wage more so than having any real interest in the healing professions.
As a means to reduce risk and harm, I have put together a list of ways to help avoid ending up in hospital or acquiring an injury from an unskilled massage you may get while in Southeast Asia.
1. Pay More.
Some places drop their prices extremely low to entice foreigners through their doors. I have seen $4 for an hour massage which is super crazy. Such low prices generate alarm bells in my mind. The only ways they can offer such low prices are:
1. They undervalue their staff and pay them poorly;
2. The staff are not trained in any way; and
3. They are desperate and the business is not going well.
All of these reasons are a sure sign to stay away. Therefore, I always go to places that cost more than the local industry standards. In Thailand right now, it’s around 300 baht an hour for a massage, which is just over $10 AUD. I would be wiling to pay around 500 baht minimum, which is still very affordable ($17 AUD). These slightly higher prices usually indicate that the staff are paid better, the staff probably have had some training, it’s generally a better service and the business is so confident in their service that they don’t hesitate to charge a higher price.
2. Speak up if it hurts or it’s too strong.
If you ever find that the strength or pressure is too much on your body, don’t put up with it; say something! Keep your English simple and to the point, such as “not strong” is often enough. Don’t worry if it sounds rude, you’re paying money for the service and it’s your body and your health we are talking about here – your most precious and valuable asset!
3. Look for qualifications.
This is good in theory yet due to unregulated training in Thailand and all over Southeast Asia, it’s unlikely many people are qualified. However, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for it. Last I heard, there was a Government association set up to oversee accredited courses; they are called The Union of Thai Traditional Medicine Society.
4. Look for therapists trained by or working alongside a westerner.
Having a westerner as part of the team or business usually, but not always, indicates a higher level of service and training. In Cambodia I came across a clinic operated by a French physiotherapist who clearly stated that he personally trained all of his massage staff. It is fair to say that it was some of the best massage treatments that I have ever received in Southeast Asia. The business is called “Samata Health and Wellness Studio.” (link is provided below)
5. Jump in, feet first.
If your unsure about the place you have selected or you have a medical condition, it is better to try a foot massage first. This will give you a chance to suss out the place, the massage therapists and it is also a very powerful way to treat the body as a whole. A while ago, I asked a very experienced massage therapist when she would recommend a foot massage rather than a full-body Thai massage; she said – for chronic conditions, foot massages are better because they go deep into the body. For other more acute conditions, try Thai massage.
6. Word of mouth from expats.
It’s worth asking around or at least checking reviews and recommendations on the internet before walking into any massage shop. The best treatments I have received were usually from word of mouth referrals.
7. Blind massage therapists
In Southeast Asia there a lot of blind massage therapists around. They tend to be very skilled with their hands due to their acute sensitivity developed through their sense of touch. Blind massage therapists have a lot of experience because they tend to be taken into these kinds of professions from a very young age. As well as getting an awesome massage, you will also be supporting them and their families.
Here are a few places in Southeast Asia that I recommend:
Bangkok, Thailand – Centre Point Massage
Koh Phangan, Thailand – Siam Healing Centre
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Samata Health and Wellness Studio