I’ve sampled both a Thai and Laos full body massage, and here’s how they compare:
My sister and I signed up for a traditional Thai massage in the reggae-infused town of Krabi, Thailand. We’d spent a day climbing clay cliffs and swimming in caves at Railay beach, and after a few long bus journeys felt we needed a muscle detox. I made the retrospective error of striking a deal with the owner, paying 550 Baht (£11) for the both of us to enjoy an hour long massage against the marked price of 650 Baht (£13). It was accepted with a smile, and we were led directly into the parlour and given partitioned beds to lie down on.
In Luang Prabang, my boyfriend and I opted for different treatments after a 22 hour frog-leaping bus from across the Thai/Laos border. Having never received a massage, he wanted a head and shoulder massage for just 30mins at the set price of 30,000 Kip (£2.40), fearing boredom at sitting there for longer. I opted for a full hour oil massage at 50,000 Kip (£4), hoping to shake off the ache of fever that had followed me through a week of trekking, sliding down waterfalls and riding as the passenger (read: mudguard) on the motorbike in mountainous Pai.
In the particular parlour we visited in Krabi, the walls were painted deep purple and incense was drifting in from another room. Popular Thai ballads were playing from a radio outside, and beyond the red velvet curtains, an American man receiving a manicure insisted that it was his first time too many times to be convincing.
The massage house in Luang Prabang offered a simple setting, with eight white padded mats on the floor covered in red frayed towels. The floor was laid with dark bamboo and bright daylight streamed in, filling the room despite the falling rain. The massage room was upstairs which felt more private. No music played, and only the herby tamarind aromas of the oil danced with the senses (I’ll cover pain receptors shortly).
As my sister began to doze off, our Thai masseuses entered and began on our shoulders. My sister received a different set of moves although the general order remained the same. My masseuse started down my spine, isolating each vertebrate and squeezing the muscles around it. Her fingers disappeared deep into my flesh and I worried they might resurface with my organs attached to her fingers. She brushed the muscles over my shoulder blades, clicking them slowly in sweeping arcs. After holding and pushing my back in order to crack it, but failing to as I was unwillingly tensing against her, she moved to my arms. She tugged down, rubbing in between the muscles so that they separated, working all the way to my wrist. My fingers were each pulled in turn, but had no pop to satisfy her so she repeated to no avail. My neck was pressed into the pillow, my face temporarily becoming smothered. Her forearms were used heavily up and down my body, before she fully kneeled her whole body weight on my legs. My knees were bent so that my toes touched my bottom, and she repeated the heavy pressure down my thighs to my ankles. The massage finished after a short head massage, where she sat behind me and looped her hands under my arms. Her fingers, not moisturised, made the Golden Arches on my forehead, starting at the middle of my brow and completing in a firm temple grip.
The Laos massage was not intended to be a traditional Laos massage. I have been poorly and achey so I asked for a gentle warming oil massage. I think my request was lost in translation. I laid down and she started at my feet which was unexpected. She tapped the palm of her hand so hard on to the balls and arch of my feet that I actually turned expecting to see her wielding a hammer. She began crawling up my legs, but my tight calf sent a twitch down which cramped my foot and I had to concede. She then applied oil and ran up each leg in long washes, applauding herself along the way (or rather removing the excess oil in claps). She sat on me as she pulled at my neck in the Vulcan grip, and I couldn’t help realising how vulnerable I was as she whipped away my ponytail. My shoulders were clamped between her fingers and thumbs in turn, and threatened to migrate north of my body. Not forgetting my arms, I was asked to roll over so that I faced the ceiling. Each finger was stroked, yanked, and each nail pressed in between the fast click of her fingers meeting. My hand were flexed and the tendons slid across in a Mexican wave. My forearm winced as she found the edges of each muscle group, and took this knowledge to my upper arm. The whole arm was treated to strong downward forces, before a playful punch or ten. This applied to all my limbs. I was sat upright and treated to what felt like donkey kicks down my back. In my suffering, I was cradled from behind, before being swung 120 degrees to the side. One rotation was accompanied with a pleasing twig branch of cracks from my spine, but the other side held fast and would not make a sound. To complete the hour, her dry fingers massaged my head and entered my temples, before circling the origin of my jaw and finishing once more with the Vulcan grip.
I suspect that my middle-aged Thai masseuse was also well trained in the arts of the popular Muay Thai judging by the force of the locks she was getting me into. She tried to tear off my arm, then had a go with the other. I realised I was tensing and breathing irregularly, so I began furiously exhaling at every painful move but soon became lightheaded. I knew relaxing would make it more enjoyable, but was flinching almost constantly as she shifted my muscles around. My sister on the other hand enjoyed hers immensely, and found only some parts uncomfortable!
I am ashamed to admit that I chose a teenage girl to massage me this time, based on the fact I didn’t want a deep tissue massage. How wrong I was to assume that this girl did not have the strength in her hands to inflict damage! She absolutely laid into me, punching and slapping, grabbing at my shoulders and quadriceps with powerful crab pincers. It made me giggle, hearing the sound of a tenderiser softening a steak, but at the same time I wished I too had signed up for 30mins.
The traditional Thai massage left no lasting impressions or aches. My muscles did not feel tight, but I would be lying if I said that I felt relaxed and better for it.
The oil massage in Laos left me feeling a bit tender, with my sides feeling like I’d done too many hulas with a hoop. Considering the amount of punching involved, it does my masseuse credit that I have no bruises or lasting aches elsewhere.
Set price? Some friendly advice
Never haggle for a Thai massage unless you want to resemble Stretch Armstrong and have your arms hang down past your knees.
Want a relaxing massage?
If you want to be coaxed into a dribbling gooey mess, opt for a more expensive Swedish massage. Some massage parlours are open plan, so if you prefer privacy or want to avoid chafing against your clothes choose one with curtain partitions. Make sure you ask for some kind of oil as they do seem to try to massage you dry otherwise. If you are brave enough to try a traditional style massage, don’t be afraid to tell them to stop or go easy on you if it is causing you pain. Otherwise breathe, relax and smile!
History of the traditional Thai massage, http://www.thaimassageworx.com/traditional_thai_massage_2.html