Thai massage: it's better in Bangkok

The blueprint for Thai massage is written on stones in the walls of Bangkok's Wat Pho. Inside, skilled masseurs practice the art on rich and poor. Andrew Spooner put himself in their capable hands

Bangkok is synonymous with indulgence, its streets a steamy hive of brazen parlours and wild times. Some come here to lose themselves among the sinful pleasure domes of the Thai capital. Others to hark back to the dreamy imagined days of exotic Siam, temples and palaces.

With a dodgy back that causes perpetually knotted muscles, I am in Bangkok to get a massage. And no, it is not the kind born from the orientalist fantasies of balding, middle-aged Western men. There will be no scantily-clad females, nor any "extras". This is, for the record, purely medicinal.

It is my first, fuggy, jetlagged morning in Bangkok as I walk out into an astonishing heat and soaking humidity that works up an instant sweat. The combined heaviness of heat and befuddled head reduces me to a stumble. I need a cold drink. I need to sit down.

My destination in this city of sin is not some nefarious back-street joint but the legendary temple of Wat Pho. Founded in 1788 after the Burmese sacked the ancient Thai capital at Ayutthaya, this temple became Thailand's first university. The king, Rama III, in an effort to preserve his nation's cultural heritage from the marauding Burmese, decided to gather together all the knowledge of his empire.

Texts and teachers, healers and doctors, recipes and potions were all summoned to the great temple. This combined wisdom was inscribed on to stones that were then built into the structure of Wat Pho. They were left in public view so that the knowledge could be easily disseminated among Rama III's subjects.

Inscribed on the stones set in one of Wat Pho's sub-buildings are a number of human figures. Lines and markings run the length of each figure with instructions pointing to particular points on the body, the places where specific ailments can be treated and healed. These temple carvings have provided the blueprint of what is now widely known and practised as Thai massage, and today, within the confines of Wat Pho, it is still possible to get the most authentic Thai massage in Bangkok.

To get in the spirit of Thai-style massage I'd spent the previous day attempting to learn how to do it. The Soi Phen Phat massage school was established by a Chinese family, the Tangtrongchits, in the early 20th century. With an eye for a good deal, the Tangtrongchits bought up the rights to teach Thai massage. And, as the spa industry booms, Soi Phen Phat is beginning to attract attention from Western practitioners eager to gain an authentic education.

The basic introductory course lasts for five days. The class I attended was held in a large open room where rows of students - mostly Japanese and Western backpackers - were stretched out on thin mattresses, kneading and pressing each other into contorted grimaces. My teacher was a jocular Thai called Suchat. "I want to show you where the 'sen' are," he said. "They are quite powerful lines of power." He giggled and gave me a gentle poke in the leg that sent a pulse of numbing nerve energy through my limb. "See?"

Suchat's teaching method was to show me a series of massage movements, each focusing on particular "sen" and combining into a full programme. First Suchat would practise the moves on me, then I'd have to replicate them on him. Suchat reduced me to a state of dozing bliss each time he demonstrated a certain massage position, and being semi-comatose doesn't make for a diligent student. My day ended with sore wrists and slight bemusement: what exactly is a Thai massage, I still wondered.

Back in the temple, as I made for a small pavilion where the masseurs ply their trade, I was about to find out. I would be in good hands, as the Wat Pho masseurs are famed for their skills. Powerful politicians, businessmen and wealthy middle-aged Thai women often park their Mercedes and BMWs in queues outside the temple's gates. Poor street cleaners, mechanics and labourers attend along with throngs of tourists.

Wat Pho is also a living place of worship. When not being massaged, visitors are free to wander the temples and stupas (pagoda-like monuments associated with the veneration of relics) taking in plumes of incense smoke and the serene ambience. Many Thais, given Wat Pho's connections to the venerated Thai royal family, see it as a particularly auspicious place and come to supplicate before the endless array of golden Buddhas.

Before I enter the massage pavilion, I decide to get myself in the right mood with a visit to one of Wat Pho's sub-temples, Viharn Phranom. It is home to an astonishing reclining Buddha. The gigantic gilded figure is 46m long and comes complete with 3m feet and a 15m face. The giant Buddha lies on its side, eyelids drooping, limbs languid. He looks as if he doesn't have a care in the world.

Suitably inspired, I return for my massage and opt for a one-hour session at 300Thai baht (£4.50). Dozens of people are already being massaged into a variety of states, from agony to delight. My masseuse hands me a pair of baggy cotton trousers, pointing me towards a small cubicle. I return feeling sartorially chastened, holding up my hippy-pants with one hand. As I lie down on the mattress the masseuse kneels, clasps her hands together and murmurs a short prayer. I feel a little nervous.

She begins with a soothing back rub and leg massage, focusing on my "sen". Drifting from stupor to sleep, within 10 minutes I am snoring so loudly my masseuse prods me awake with a chuckle. She then starts to work on my lower back but stops short. "You have problem here, sir?" she asks. I have two prolapsed discs and the muscles in the lumbar area are continually locked. I ask her to take it easy. After placing a supportive pillow under my stomach she forces phenomenal pressure into my stiff muscles. It unleashes a pleasurable pain that I know is good. I glide into a state of profound relaxation.

Thirty minutes later I am woken with a nudge. "Finished. Thank you, sir," says my gracious masseuse. Lurching across the room to my cubicle, I realise that I am severely and pleasantly spaced out. My back feels strangely supple, my thoughts tranquil.

Back out in the heat and the heart of Wat Pho, I climb some steps and sit before a giant golden Buddha, incense wafting. All is calm and divinely peaceful. I feel great. As I sit pondering the infinite, this massage lark finally begins to make sense.

Etihad Airways (0870-241 7121; flies to Bangkok via Abu Dhabi from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester, from £442.

More details on massage at Wat Pho can be found at

For further information on travelling in Thailand call 0870-900 2007 or visit

Andrew Spooner is the co-author of Footprint's Thailand travel guide

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Alex Salmond said he accepted 'the democratic verdict of the people'
newsSNP leader says Scotland must move forward as 'one nation'
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style

ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week