To celebrate 25 years in the massage industry, the Institute of Somatic Therapy held their annual corporate retreat in Thailand this year. Director of Education, Judith Koch, wanted an opportunity to find ways to better market Thai massage and Thai massage continuing education courses in the United States, and to explore the Thai massage establishment model to see what aspects, if any, might be incorporated into the United States.
Massage therapy in Thailand is everywhere. It is not unusual to see two or three massage establishments on a busy block. A typical hour-long session is in the 250-300 baht range. At approximately 31 baht per dollar, that makes an hour session roughly eight to nine dollars. Most massage businesses have a full menu of services, with the two most popular being the one-hour foot massage (which also includes the arms, neck, and upper back) and the traditional Thai floor massage and bodywork session. Variations of these include some oil massage combined with Thai stretches and pressure points. Most facilities also offered pedicures, manicures, and facials. The photo of one such menu was taken at one of the higher priced locations.
In the course of our visit, Judith had three traditional Thai massages (one with coconut oil massage incorporated), by three different practitioners, and six Thai foot massages (five of which were one hour) by six different practitioners. She also had a facial massage with clay treatment the final day, when she was feeling too overworked from all the bodywork to be able to comfortably receive any that day.
The first session was held at a massage school located at the famous Wat Po (“wat” is the Thai word for temple), home of a famous enormous side-lying Buddha. This temple is located next to the Grand Palace, which is a major tourist attraction in Bangkok.
The massage school here (www.watpomassage.com) has four affiliated schools in other areas of Thailand. Founded in 1955, and the first approved Thai medical school accredited by the Thai Ministry of Education, it offers courses in massage as well as in Thai pharmacy, Thai medical practice, and Thai midwife nurse training. The two basic courses are General Thai Massage and Foot Massage, both of which are 5 day courses. Advanced courses include Thai Herbal Compression (3 days), Thai Medical Massage (10 days), Massage for Women’s Healthcare (5 days), and Oil Massage and Aromatherapy (5 days). Their professional Thai massage course is 165 hours (tuition roughly $1,000 American dollars), spa body treatment for 120 hours, and a professional Thai massage therapy program for 200 hours (tuition roughly $1,400 American dollars).
At Wat Po we opted for a 30 minute foot massage, which included an approximate 15 minute wait due to their popularity. This was the only facility where we had to wait for a therapist. We also paid more for a student massage than we did for established therapists the rest of the trip, and had also paid admission to get into the temple area. Of the six foot treatments I had, this was in the top two as far as skill of practitioner. It was also the only location where we had (or even saw)male therapists.
A typical Thai foot massage includes some warm-up strokes, and the deeper work is done with the use of a small wooden tool. The tool was about six inches long, about half an inch around at the large end and a little smaller on the tapered end. The therapist would grip it so that the tip of the tool was right along their thumb, almost making it difficult at times to tell if they were using their thumb or the tool. The tool was also used perpendicular to the skin to perform light strokes along the top and sides of the foot.
One foot was thoroughly massaged, both by hand and with the tool, then cocoon-wrapped with a hand towel while the other foot was massaged. Strokes were generally restricted to the foot area, with some strokes extending all the way to the knee. It was very common to start with a double tapotement “thump, thump” with the little finger side of their closed fist. This would be done on the bottom of the foot or the middle of the calf muscle as a warm up and closing stroke. During the hour-long foot session, the foot work is extended to around 40 minutes, with the remaining time on the arms (with the therapist approaching from the side), the head and neck (with the therapist standing behind the lounge chair), and then the client would move to sit on the footstool with their back to the therapist for the final back work. Some therapists included arm stretches at this point, while others did not. They always ended with a series of tapotement strokes.
Our second session was in a private establishment, where we had a traditional Thai massage on a floor mat. Judith felt this first Thai-styled massage session was the best she experienced, or maybe it was just the many miles she had walked the day before. It definitely helped loosen up her sore legs. The first practitioner seemed to have a smoother flow to her technique, and a better sense of limitations on stretches, which is why it was rated the best. Since our standard of expectation was set by the enormously talented Michael “Mukti” Buck of Vedic Conservatory as seen in his video training courses that we offer, we were disappointed at the “pushy” lack of flow that several of the therapists displayed. To receive traditional Thai massage, the patron was given a two-piece cotton outfit, much like a pair of pajamas, to wear during the session, regardless of how loose and comfortable the clothes being worn at arrival.
The best foot massage was done so smoothly that Judith had difficulty determining at times if the therapist was using her thumb or the wooden tool. (It was the wooden tool.) She held it so close to the tip of her thumb that they almost become one. Some therapists who were not as proficient with the tool either had too much tip exposed, which felt rough, or not enough depth of pressure, which felt more tickling than therapeutic. In addition to using the tip of the tool to make a series of vertical and horizontal passes along the bottom of the foot, the side of the tool was used to stroke along the top of the foot and whirled between the toes. Many therapists would wrap the tip of the tool in a towel or cloth (to prevent slipping) and apply pressure to various points along the top of each toe and along the side of the big toe, likely corresponding to reflexology points. Unfortunately most of the therapists did not speak much English, to it was difficult to have a detailed conversation with them about their training and practice.
Most of the facilities were set up in a similar fashion, with several reclining chairs in the front area for the foot massages, and several individual curtained-off areas in the back or upstairs for the Thai sessions. Privacy was minimal. For the oiled sessions, some establishments had large wooden tables (approximately four feet wide, about one foot off the ground) while others used the same mat as for traditional Thai bodywork. I saw no American-style massage tables in any of the establishments.
Massage therapists who were not working on a client would solicit in the street, calling out to passersby with their laminated schedule of services in hand. Rumor has it that the locations where the women were wearing a certain color of t-shirts was a code that they offered services of a sexual nature, although prior to hearing that rumor we had not encountered any establishments fitting that description, and we avoided the one we saw afterwards just to be on the safe side. One establishment in Phuket had a “no sex” sign on the front door, which was the only open reference we saw to sexual services. A newspaper article in the Bangkok Post that same week discussed governmental efforts to reduce sex tourism and human trafficking, so hopefully that aspect is being addressed, although the article seemed to indicate that it was the women victims who were being humiliated and arrested instead of the patrons.
One of the establishment owners was interested to know what massage establishments were like in the USA. He was curious if the Thai model would work here. As we discussed the logistics, we both agreed that we did not think that it would transfer well, except perhaps in high tourist zones like a beach or riverfront boardwalk, busy shopping malls, or airports. Most of us don’t have the needed amount of foot traffic to bring in a significant number of passersby off the street without an appointment. But even in high foot traffic zones, considering the high rent that would accompany such locations in the states, and the typical wage paid to massage therapists, the prices would be so much greater in the US that they would probably not do a fraction of the business. A $10 service is an easier impulse decision than the same service for $60 and higher.
Overall, while I enjoyed the low cost and the variation, I must admit that I’m looking forward to getting back on my local therapist’s soft table in a private room to receive an American style massage. As the old saying goes, it was a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
For students interested in learning Thai massage, we offer two continuing education courses to choose from. The first is the traditional style on a floor mat, the second is modified for American-style massage tables:
Thai Yoga Massage
Thai on the Table
For therapists who would like to earn continuing education credits through Michael Buck’s training titled Four Attitudes – Nuad Borarn Thai Massage, we offer a “test only” option. You will obtain the DVD series through www.vedicconservatory.com and then when you are ready to earn your continuing education hours, you can take the test through our online system.