Searching for Thailand's Cheapest massage
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 Thailand.      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 that moment.  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.

Unwillingly 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 satisfactory goal.    

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 impulse. 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 so.      

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 search.      
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 in Bangkok.     

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 beautiful.  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 gracelessly.     

 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 shop.      

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 be?  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 Swedish massage.     

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 brag about. 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 dock. 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 inviting.    

 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.                                                        

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