This wasn’t the best Thai massage I have
ever had, but it was the cheapest. After months of searching and
hundreds of Thai massages, I had finally found the cheapest massage in
Every visitor to Thailand has heard of Thai
massage. Most visitors plan to get at least one good massage
while in Thailand.
Given my slightly obsessive-compulsive personality,
I couldn’t just come to Thailand and have a good massage at my hotel
and pay the $10 or $15 dollars there. No, I had to go out and
look for the best massage in Thailand!
My search for the best Thai massage eventually came
to an unimpressive end after two weeks of trial massages, when I
finally conceded that almost every massage, seemed like the best one at
But I couldn’t just drop the massage quest. My OCD driven quests
never end so easily. Buried deep inside my brain lives a complex
psychic trigger that once released cannot be reset.
and against my more rational thoughts, I knew that I would continue
some kind of massage quest until the end of time, unless I achieved a
For several weeks while I worked, played and
explored different parts of Thailand, it seemed there was to be no
final outcome to my quest for the best massage. With my OCD
driven impulse left unfulfilled I would most likely sink into a serious
case of the psychic doldrums. An unrelenting feeling of something
undone, much like that feeling you get as you drive away on vacation,
but then 30 minutes from home wonder if you have left the iron on or
the gas stove on, would nag at me until I resolved the massage issue.
I was busy working in Bangkok, but the OCD placed a
subtlety relentless pressure on me. I found myself suddenly
turning from my current task at hand, to enter some massage shop I
happened to be passing. I had only the barest control over this
One massage in a day was no longer enough. Two massages in the
same day barely suppressed that nagging at the back of my brain.
Three massages led to four. My body began to feel like a piece of
tenderized meat. When I lay down on a massage mat, my muscles
were so tender from the continual ministrations of one masseuse after
another that the very thought of another massage made me want to run
the other way. Two weeks of this and my work began to suffer
because of the time I was using each day just lying on massage mats.
One afternoon, around 4:00 PM while on another massage mat in a small
roadside shop, it came to me that what I should have been searching for
all along was not the best massage. No, I realized that I should
be searching for the cheapest massage in Bangkok!
After all everyone loves a bargain! And if
every Bangkok visitor wants at least one good Thai massage, then it was
a certainty that many visitors had tried to find a bargain
massage. Had they been successful? I don’t know.
Could I discover that elusive bargain? I was sure I could do
With that decision made, the unrelenting pressure
instantly became just an elusive shadow hanging in a back closet of my
psyche, waiting to nag at me should I fail in this revised
Lying on that mat while the masseuse pushed and
pulled me one way and then another, I imagined where I might find the
cheapest massage in Thailand. I visualized a small shop, located
in some seedy, tight quartered part of Bangkok. Outside the shop,
a dozen people would be standing on line waiting their turn to get
cheaply pummeled and twisted. But, as with most things in my
life, the expectations and the reality didn’t quite match.
The most expensive massages in Bangkok are found at the more exclusive
hotels and resorts. These four and five star rated hotels all
have some kind of beauty salon, spa or health spa. A good Thai
massage at one of these hotels will run you anywhere from 300 up to
2,000 baht or more. These luxury spas offer aroma therapy, hot
stone massage, oil massage, facials and just about anything you can
imagine to primp, preen and tone a body.
The masseuse or masseur is sure to be an
accomplished and polished professional. The salon décor will be
tasteful and expensive. Pleasant Thai or New Age music will play
softly in the background. Given the relatively high price of
those salon treatments, that is as just as it should be. You
can’t go wrong with one of those high end massages. You’re sure
to walk away appreciating the fine art of Thai massage.
But once you leave the hotel spa and head out into
the real Bangkok, the price of a good Thai massage drops
significantly. The next day, after a morning that included 2
inexpensive massage stops near my hotel, I decided to check one of the
bar districts, in an area of Bangkok known as Sukhuvit.
The Bangkok bar areas famous or infamous, depending on your personal
viewpoint, for the sex tourists who come to visit are also home to
scores of massage shops. I figured that anyplace with such a high
concentration of massage shops, would also have a few cut-rate shops.
I was now on a tight timetable, so I decided I
couldn’t cut back to just one massage a day. I would try to do
two or three massages in a day.
Maybe even four or five if I could stand the pounding. With that
decision made and feeling oh so good about the new direction of my
massage quest, I headed into the heavy traffic that is always present
The bar district I visited is called Soi
Cowboy. There are loud, brightly lit bars lining both sides of a
500 yard long walking street. . . .and hordes of excited tourists
walking or drunkenly staggering their way up the neon lit street.
I knew this wasn’t my kind of place, but for the purposes of research I
forced myself to join the throng.
After wandering around for an hour I decided to try
only one massage shop in this area. I felt out of place here, but
since I had come this far, I would carry on. I chose one shop
that on the outside seemed a little bit worn and battered.
Once inside I realized I had opted for a slightly
upscale shop with an appearance similar to that of an expensive
European or American spa. The girls sitting around in the dark
wood and marble clad entrance lobby were young, wore bright lipstick
and sported eye catching jewelry. Every masseuse was smiling and
There was a glossy brochure on the counter, written in excellent
English that listed and described the types of massages available
including; traditional Thai massage, oil massage, soapy massage
(normally only available in the bar districts), facial massage and foot
massage. After reading the menu of offerings carefully and taking
sharp note of the prices, I had to back out of this shop somewhat
With half a dozen beautiful young women staring at
me, I handed the brochure back to the older woman behind the counter,
shaking my head no as I turned away. Blushing and feeling a
little bit like a shy teenager who has just been turned down when
asking a pretty schoolmate for a date, I slouched out the front door
and moved quickly down the street, until the shop was just a distant
memory and my red face had dimmed to a normal tanned color.
I had cheap massage on the brain, not a sexy 500
baht massage. I couldn’t afford to waste my precious massage time
on such an overpriced massage, even if delivered by a beautiful
masseuse with a dragon tattoo on her left thigh. Deciding the bar
street hadn’t been such a good idea, I flagged a passing taxi.
I asked the driver to take me to a healthful massage shop. He
smiled and I could tell that he didn’t understand me. But he
nodded his head and then whipped a sudden U-turn across the two tight
lanes of traffic, leaving the sound of squalling car horns echoing down
the narrow soi behind us.
Quickly I speed dialed my trusted Thai translator. I shouted into
the phone, “Onanong, quick tell the taxi driver I need a healthful
massage shop”. She is used to getting these unexpected calls from
me and simply replied “Okay”.
I handed the phone to the driver. A quick Thai
conversation ensued. He just said “kah, kah” (meaning yes,) as
Onanong explained where to take me. Eventually he closed the cell
phone and without looking at me, began weaving his way through the
heavy Bangkok traffic.
Ten minutes later we pulled up in front of a small
massage shop on a typically seedy Bangkok commercial street. A
sign in both Thai and English read “Healthful Massage”. Onanong
had taken me literally at my word.
To the left side of the massage shop was an open air
store that advertised canvas work. Half a dozen workers sat
inside the shop, in front of industrial sewing machines, working away
at huge pieces of bright yellow canvas, while smiling, laughing and
obviously enjoying their work. It was a very colorful shop.
On the other side of the Healthful Massage shop was
a store that displayed jars filled with preserved snakes, frogs and
strange twisted roots. Each jar in the store window contained a
different plant or animal part and held about three gallons of
liquid. Some jars were filled with clear liquid while
others were cloudy white or amber or orange. This street was
strictly local Bangkok all the way. I had a good feeling about
this stop. It just looked cheap.
Still, I entered the shop with a bit of trepidation after my last
aborted attempt back at Soi Cowboy. Once inside instead of half a
dozen beautiful masseuses, I saw this shop had two wrinkled old men
sitting on a hard straight bench against the back wall of the tiny
The receptionist was a woman, maybe 65 years old or
maybe 105. Her face was a pattern work of the kind of deep
wrinkles that only come from years of hard work outside in the rice
fields beneath the harsh tropic sun. She still had a few teeth,
that glistened a frightening brown when she smiled up at me. The
whites of her eyes were red rimmed and had a yellow jaundiced
appearance. I smiled back at her, gave a half-hearted wai and
made some hand motions indicating I wanted a massage.
The shop didn’t have a brochure nor a price
list. Although the two old guys smoking stinking Thai cigarettes
in the back of the shop made me want to turn and run, this was
beginning to look like I might be in the right place. How
expensive could a massage, given by a 72 year old masseur, actually
I jumped in without any further hesitation. I didn’t understand a
word they said, of course. But it was clear that the soiled
sponge rubber mat on the floor in the far corner was to be my massage
table. I took a deep breath and lay down on my back.
I should point out that in traditional Thai massage,
the massage is performed with your street clothing on or with a set of
loose cotton tops and bottoms, provided by the salon just for the
massage. Of course for oil and soapy massages, you must disrobe leaving
on only your briefs, which you should cover with a towel that is
thoughtfully provided by the upscale salons, and even more thoughtfully
not provided by those massage shops near Soi Cowboy.
Unlike European style massages the Thai massage uses
no oil or skin lubricants and usually begins with the recipient lying
on his or her back. The masseuse begins on the legs and feet and
moves up from there. The back is not given as much time as in a
Traditional Thai massage is performed using a series
of pressing moves. The muscles are pressed, sometimes softly and
sometimes quite hard. The masseuse uses her elbows, knees, thighs
and other parts of her body to leverage your body around as needed.
The old masseur knelt on the edge of the dirty
massage mattress. He performed a high wai aimed to the small
shrine near the reception counter and immediately got to
work. He might have looked decrepit, but he had no problem with
pressing, pulling and twisting my body around.
I closed my eyes and tried to fantasize that the working over I was
getting was being done by one of the young masseuses I had just
abandoned back at Soi Cowboy. But when the old guy started
coughing and had to go hack something up into the gutter outside the
shop, I knew this massage wasn’t going to make my top 10 list. In
fact I didn’t wait for him to come back.
While he bent over coughing his lungs into the
gutter, once again I decided to abandon a massage shop. After
only 15 minutes of my massage time, I sprang up from the filthy mat and
not knowing the price of this massage, handed a 500 baht note to the
old lady up front.
She handed back 400 baht. 100 baht was the
cheapest massage so far, but I knew I could do better! This
crappy massage couldn’t mark the end of my quest.
I flagged another taxi. I directed the driver
back to my hotel to re-group my thoughts. Maybe I should develop
a more organized plan of action. What I had done so far that day
wasn’t too successful. It certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to
Back at the hotel, I walked out onto the boat dock that juts out into
the Chao Phraya River, thinking maybe I would take a water taxi and try
a massage shop located near one of the many docks that provide access
to the waterway.
Leaning on a wood railing overlooking the river, I
noticed a brightly colored gold and red rooftop up stream from the
hotel. It looked like a temple, but I thought it might be a
restaurant. I was hungry so, I walked out to the road.
After taking a couple of false starts down dead end soi’s, I found the
right alley to take me to that pier.
When I stepped into this narrow alley, I couldn’t
help but feel the end of my quest was near. Every storefront
along this alleyway advertised Thai massage. In just one short
stretch of alley there were more than 15 narrow storefront shops
advertising Thai massage. Some said 100 baht and a couple even
advertised 80 baht. I smiled. Maybe the end really was near.
By the riverfront, at the end of this massage alley,
I entered a fancy gold colored patio structure that turned out to be
part of the Temple Wat Varashanayawat. Don’t bother looking in
your guidebook, this temple is not there! I already looked
through mine. I had really struck massage gold this time.
Later, I learned that this temple provides government accredited
massage instruction. They run a massage school that has hundreds
of students enrolled at any time. Not as well known as Wat Po, this
temple has scores of masseurs and masseuses working or studying from
early morning till late into the night. The basic course here
takes one month to complete. It consists of hands on massage work
Monday to Friday and then classroom study Saturday and Sunday.
Under cover of a gaudy brilliant gold colored roof
are a series of shrines. Huge brass gongs and really big drums
sit there just waiting for someone to bang on them. I couldn’t
resist pounding the big drum. It’s deep bass sound echoed through
the hall. A hundred heads swiveled my way and I felt like I
should crawl under a massage mat and hide. Dropping a few baht
into the offering dish next to the drum, I walked on toward the river.
I was the only farang in sight. Unexpectedly a
woman grabbed my wrist. She could speak some broken
English. I understood as she said “massagy 50 baht”, “50 baht”
and so I allowed her to lead me. She gently pulled me toward the
The massage shop she dragged me to had no solid walls. The front
wall was my height at about 6 feet tall. The wall was an open
block design that allowed a breeze to move through. A flat rusty
metal patio style roof covered the massage area. The river was
visible through the lace-like block. Taped onto the glass of the
entry door were two posters.
One poster displayed a colorful schematic of a foot
and in large bold letters in English said REFLEXOLOGY. The other
poster showed the musculature of a human body. Various pressure
points and nerves were diagrammed. I wondered if I was entering a
study hall or a massage parlor?
Inside there were a dozen Thai massage mats laid out
in two rows. There were also a couple of hair washing stations
and three stations for Thai face massage. Still holding my
shirtsleeve at the wrist, she showed me to a mat, which was clean and
I lay down on the mat, face upwards, waiting for a
masseuse to come over. As things turned out, the woman who
dragged me there, was to be my masseuse. While she worked I
quizzed her about the school and about the Temple.
No, she wasn’t a student. This question made
her laugh. She works for the Temple and shares the proceeds of
the massage 50/50 with the temple administration. Since her
English skills were limited, two other masseuses came to crouch by my
mat and the three of them joined together to talk to me.
This one hour massage was only 50 baht. That’s
only $1.70 US. Thanks to a little help from Buddha, I had finally
found the cheapest massage in Bangkok.
PS: If you find one less expensive, please don’t write me.