With its golden temples, floating markets, lush tropical landscape and idyllic beaches, journeying to beautiful Thailand is a bucket list experience worth traveling for. Add to that, at the heart of Thai culture, there’s also delicious food, sacred rituals and traditional Thai massage, an ancient healing practice passed down through generations.
Traditional Thai Massage — Cultural Symbolism
Legend has it Thai massage originated in India 2500 years ago when it was developed by famed physician Shivago Kompara, a contemporary of Buddha who had deep knowledge of healing medicine. Buddhism and the healing massage technique were thought to have reached what is now Thailand around the 2nd or 3rd century B.C and today is a national treasure, along with a global phenomenon recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Today you will find traditional Thai massage offered throughout the country’s villages and luxury resorts as well as on the treatment menu of top global spas. Many rural children master the art of Thai massage — which incorporates the Buddhist teachings of loving kindness, meditation and devotion — from an early age to help ease the sore muscles and aches of their parents and grandparents who labor in the fields and markets.
Thai Massage — The Treatment
Worlds apart from your typical Swedish, deep-tissue or aromatherapy massage, Thai massage or Thai yoga massage is a treatment performed on a mat on the floor that combines acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles, and assisted yoga postures to promote energy flow and physical and emotional healing. Oil is never used and therapists use their hands, feet, elbows, forearms and even knees to stimulate acupressure points, and compress, pull, stretch and rock your body in a yoga-like rhythmic motion. While western medicine ascribes to quick fixes, lead therapist, trainer and Thai massage guru for Anantara Chiang Mai Spa Resort Panissara Chaokhelang (aka Noot) who learned the healing technique as a child, believes massage treats the root cause of physical ailments such as back pain and headaches as well as reducing stress, increasing energy, circulation, flexibility and improving overall sense of health and wellness. “I talk to our guests to learn their concerns, habits and day-to-day activities and educate them to have a better understanding of their aches and ailments and also recommend activities they can do at home to extend the benefits of their massage.”
Thai Massage — Where to Indulge
We scoured Thailand — from the north to the south — to curate a list of the best Thai massage treatments:
Spa Resort: Anantara Chiang Mai
Hugging the banks of the Mae Ping River, the luxury Anantara Chiang Mai (formerly The Chedi) marries contemporary chic with Thai Old World. The spacious rooms and suites overlook the river and come with private terraces, rain showers, freestanding tubs, and special touches like yoga mats and Lanna-Kingdom-style artwork. The hotel is also home to Anantara Chiang Mai Spa Resort, where there are devoted Thai massage rooms, as well as steam showers, terrazzo bathtub, rooftop relaxation deck and indoor relaxation lounge overlooking the resort’s riverside pool.
The Treatment: Under the guidance of Thai massage expert Noot, guests indulge in time-honored healing Lanna rituals like the 90-minute Lanna Thai massage Ritual, a holistic full-body massage that incorporates Thai, Burmese and Chinese techniques, a herbal foot bath ritual, cleansing of negative energy in herbal water, making a wish on a golden heart Bodhi leaf and awakening to the sound of a singing bowl.
Spa Resort: Kimpton Ma-Lai Bangkok
One of the hippest hotels in Bangkok, Kimpton Ma-Lai is a Zen-like sanctuary that honors the vibrant pulse of the city, while offering complete relaxation and tranquility. Think soft, natural, organic materials, a divine pool overlooking a lush Langsuan oasis and a cocooning spa created in partnership with beloved local spa group Harnn that offers modern takes on traditional Thai massage and rituals.
The Treatment: Office Syndrome Fighter at Amaranth Spa by Harnn is an interesting 120-minute twist on traditional Thai massage that as is customary throughout Southeast Asia, begins with a soothing foot bath ritual followed by full-body herbal scrub. Then comes the massage — a 90-minute bliss-out — that incorporates traditional Thai massage stretches originating from Muay Thai (aka Thai boxing) and martial arts.
Spa Resort: Ritz Carlton, Koh Samui
A tropical nirvana, located on the northeast coast of the island Ritz Carlton, Koh Samui is renowned for its ocean swimming pool and snorkel reef filled with over 50 species of colorful fish. The hotel, a former coconut plantation with stunning waterfront views looking onto the Gulf of Thailand, is also deeply rooted in wellness and local healing traditions, coconut, indigenous herbs and indi flowers are used in spa treatments and their pre-spa ritual, the joyful throwing of water, is adapted from the annual Songkran festival.
The Treatment: Inspired by the Thai saying, “plod ploy pai kab say nam,” which means “letting go with the water flow,” the spa’s Thai Aquatic Freedom treatment offers a creative variation of Thai massage, poetically combining the traditional massage with the dance-like grace of aquatic therapy. The series of in-water stretches works to soften muscles, relieve stiff joints and quiet the mind.
Spa Resort: SO Bangkok
Designed by fashion icon Christian Lacroix and a team of Thai designers, the vibey SO/ Bangkok takes its cue from the five elements of nature: water, earth, air, fire and space. Guestrooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the skyline and park. While the spa is inspired by the Thai folklore of the mythical Himmapan Forest, the setting is sleek and urban and the treatments blend traditional rituals with high-tech techniques and massages.
The Treatment: The So/SPA’s signature 120-minute treatment, So Siam So Sabia transports guests through Thailand’s three most popular treatments — Thai massage with focus on stretching and kneading the body, traditional herbal compress to soothe sore muscles and foot bath.
Spa Resort: COMO Point Yamu, Phuket
This stunning oceanfront resort in gorgeous Phuket lies at the tip of Cape Yamu overlooking the Andaman Sea and dramatic limestone rock faces of Phang Nga Bay. Blending luxurious European and traditional Thai design influences, the property is also home to a wellness retreat where you’ll find an extensive menu of traditional holistic Asian-inspired therapies and treatments including Thai massage.
The Treatment: COMO Shambhala wellness retreat and spa has a signature Thai Massage (Thai Pajamas are provided) that focuses on unblocking trapped energy by maneuvering the body into yoga-like stretching positions, applying pressure along the meridians and mobilizing joints. They also offer a Thai Abdominal Chi Massage.
Spa Resort: Zemi Beach House, Anguilla
OK, this luxury boutique resort is not in Thailand but Anguilla, but the stunning Zemi Beach House located on Anguilla’s Shoal Bay, is home to the award-winning Zemi Thai House Spa, which is inspired by ancient Thai rituals and features a 300-year-old traditional Thai home that was transported from Thailand to Anguilla in the 1990s.
The Treatment: The 80-minute Nuad Thai Pra-Kob signature massage in the traditional Thai house, followed by tea in the rice barn is as close as you can get to experiencing Thailand in the Caribbean. We also love the spa’s exclusive five-step restorative Taino Bathing Ritual created to pay homage to Anguilla’s native Taino Indians who layered their bodies with herbs, fruits, muds, and salt, then laid in the warm sun to nourish and toxify their bodies before bathing.