Thursday, February 27, 2014

Traditional Thai Massage

Like most Westerner’s I struggled to get my mind round this part of Thailand’s cultural code. Why is it that there are thousands of massage parlours throughout the country? Just what is the point of all this bodily manipulation? What went wrong that so many people need straightening out? My first suspicions were way off the mark! My own straightening out process started with Denis Segaller’s excellent books on Thai customs and traditions. Traditional Thai massage is closely linked with traditional Thai medicine. Like many Thai traditions and customs they can be traced back over twenty-five hundred years to India. They predate Buddha. Quoting Denis Segaller, ‘At the Indian town of Taxila a great academy of learning was founded by Rokha Marutin. Kings and rich men sent their sons to learn all kinds of skills such as the martial and fine arts, and medicine which included as two of its branches herbal medicine and massage.’ So there you have it, it was the Indians who started it. Over the centuries these two branches of medicine survived through individual teachers. The first Buddhist monks to reach Thailand brought these skills with them – they are known collectively as ya samunphrai. Slowly, this knowledge spread and both of them became very popular as cures for all kinds of aches and pains. It was the fore-runner of a national health service. Now King Nangklao (Rama III) knew a thing or too and he became concerned this knowledge could die along with its practitioners. He gathered them all together and had this collective store of knowledge inscribed on marble tablets. And this is where I take over the story. I set out to try and find these tablets. Rumour had it they were at Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. In 36 degrees of searing heat this was no easy task but after two hours searching, the wife discovered them. No signs, none of the guides we asked seemed to be aware of them [but that may have more to do with my pigeon Thai] and only by accident did we locate them in a distant pavilion. I would have thought they deserved better. Take a look.
The whole point of traditional Thai massage is to stimulate blood circulation by the application of hand pressure at certain key points of the body – it can eliminate stiffness, backache, tension and some sickness (and probably a lot more besides). The marble tablets illustrate where the key pressure points are.
Now you know. The one remaining problem with all these massage spas is who trains the staff? It is largely an unregulated business. The genuine practitioners spend up to three years learning the art. It is hard to believe all practitioners devote this amount of time to acquiring the genuine skills – so be warned.

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