From a $7 local spot in Bangkok to the Four Seasons Koh Samui, our Green Guy discovers a newfound love for Thai massage.
I have a confession. Until I went to Thailand in September, I had never received a Thai massage. This decision was mostly rooted in self-defense. I had heard that you walk away from a Thai massage feeling more beaten up than when you arrived, so when given a choice, I always opted for Swedish. After 10 days of traveling all over Thailand, I realized I was right about the pain—but then I learned to love it.
Before my trip, I was vaguely familiar with the concepts of Thai massage: You’re stretched and pulled and walked on until, somehow, all of your muscles relent and you feel amazing. The first stop of my Thai Massage Tour was in Bangkok. Instead of jumping right into the ultra- luxe Four Seasons spa experience that I would be enjoying for the rest of my trip, I asked around and got a recommendation for a local place that I could use as a baseline. Upon entering Nillada, I felt a little daunted. It was essentially a multi-story house converted into a massage emporium. The ground floor was completely silent as a long row of people received foot massages. I pointed to the sign that said “1 Hour Thai Massage” and was led upstairs to the massage rooms.
This is where I should pause and say that “massage room” is being very generous. I had an elevated mattress on a wooden platform sur- rounded by sheets. Not exactly the most upscale affair, but for the equiv- alent of $7, who was I to complain? After an hour of being worked like a rag doll, I started to get in the spirit of Thai massage. Was it odd to have an aging Thai woman climb on top of me? Sure. Did I leave completely relaxed? You bet I did. My Thai Massage Tour was off to a great start.
The next stop was the Four Seasons Tented Camp in the northern-most Golden Triangle re- gion of Thailand. Magical doesn’t even begin to describe it. The entire place is an all- inclusive tent camp (with the most wonderful tents you’ve ever seen) and the spa is more like a cottage in the forest. I half-expected Thai elves to welcome me into their home. Instead, I got a “Ruak Ritual,” which mixes Thai massage with heated ruak (aka bamboo) used like human rolling pins. Just as the massage was about to begin, rain started to fall and since there aren’t any walls in the open-air treatment room, I got to listen to the sound of the rain as my therapist kneaded me like sourdough.
While “massage in the middle of a Thai rainforest” may be on some people’s bucket lists, it was actually the next treatment that made me a true believer in Thai massage. Down at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, in a spa inspired by the Lanna Kingdom that used to rule the area, I got one of the best massages of my life. It was Thai, but a different kind of Thai: They call it Ytsara Samunprai, and it remains unchanged since the 18th century. Using poultices made from lemongrass, kaffir lime, camphor, ginger and banana leaf, my pores were opened, my muscles soothed, and my mind reset. I was in such a state of bliss that I felt like I was having a lucid dream. Now that’s a powerful massage.
I didn’t think anything could top it, but after journeying to the Four Seasons on the island of Koh Samui, I found a master of Thai massage. Jimmy came highly recommended and while I normally eschew male therapists, I was promised that I wouldn’t regret my choice. I’m happy to report that I don’t. As I looked over the cerulean waters of the Gulf of Thailand, Jimmy gave a master class in Thai massage. The goal seemed to be to crack every joint on my body, and he succeeded. I felt like a mari- onette being controlled by a puppet-master with almost no free will of my own. It felt incredible.
And just like that my tour came to an end. I started off a Thai massage neophyte, but now I feel like an expert. Go ahead, therapists of the world, crunch me, pull me, poke me, and prod me—I can take it. As it turns out, I have a new confession: I love Thai massage.
JASON KESSLER is a lifestyle writer/columnist for Bon Appetit, Food Republic and a slew of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @TheHungryClown.
Photographs courtesy of Markus Gortz