Thai massage: So relaxing, you’ll work up a sweat

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Thai massage: So relaxing, you’ll work up a sweat


Chung Gyu-yeong goes on vacation to Thailand almost every summer. The attraction, he says, is not just the beaches and exotic scenery ― he loves the massages.
“I was looking for Thai massage places to go to in Seoul,” he said, “but it wasn’t until recently, about two or three years ago, that I could find Thai massage parlours that don’t look like a random, broke-down Korean massage place in the back of an alley somewhere.”
Thailand may be a relatively cheap tourist spot, but it’s not exactly convenient to go there every time you want a massage. And as more Koreans have begun to venture abroad, especially to Southeast Asian countries that offer affordable package deals, the demand for Thai massages has grown.
Fortunately, the Thais have brought their trade to Korea. Several new Thai massage businesses have opened up in Seoul, offering rubdowns, although minus the sand and surf. The catch is that while it’s cheaper than flying to Bangkok, it’s far more expensive per session: A massage in Thailand will cost around 800 baht ($20), but one in Seoul will probably be around 100,000 won ($105).
Thai massage, known in Thailand as nuat phaen boran, takes its roots from tui na (Chinese massage) and ayurvedic (Indian massage). Which is it more similar to? That’s controversial, but Thai massage is considered by most people to be closer to tui na, as both techniques focus on sen, the channels of vital energy that supposedly flow through the body. The full-body massage technique has also incorporated elements of yoga.

Thailand saw a spread in Buddhism during the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC. Buddhist temples were built next to medical schools in which massage was taught and applied. As Buddhism began to put down roots in Thailand, Jivaka Kumarabhacca, now regarded as the central figure in Buddhist medicine, began teaching about the healing powers of plants, minerals and massages. Yet the method for giving a Thai massage wasn’t written down until 1832, when it was carved on a rock in Wat Po Temple.
Thai massage aims to balance one’s flow of energy by applying firm, rhythmic pressure to almost every inch of the body, allowing muscles to loosen up, which helps blood circulate.
Unlike aromatherapy or Swedish massage, Thai massage does not use oil. A traditional Thai massage typically lasts around two or two-and-a-half hours and includes a light foot massage, pulling fingers and toes, cracking knuckles and partaking in intense positions such as arching your back while a masseuse holds you up by the feet. It isn’t as brutal as it sounds, because the masseuse uses acupressure, yoga and meditative techniques so that the movements doesn’t emphasize sharp finger pressure but have a rhythmic flow.
“I prefer Thai massages to acupressure methods or Korean sports massages because it is a bit softer and doesn’t stress my body as much,” Mr. Chung said.
Until recently, most of the masseuse were illegal immigrants from Thailand who worked for little pay. Brokers smuggled Thai women into Korea and paid them far less than a Korean masseuse would earn. In January, 12 Thai women were arrested at Incheon airport for working illegally as masseuses. An immigration official at the time said that since May last year, the office has arrested 175 Thai women from 37 establishments for working illegally without proper licenses. For this reason, most Thai massage parlours in and around Seoul now hire only Korean masseuses.
Big arrests and illegal immigration aside, Thai massage is a great middle road for those who want a massage that’s more active than aromatherapy or Swedish massage but who can’t handle acupressure.

Thai Trade Center
For my first Thai massage experience, I visited the Thai Trade Center in Sinsadong and signed up for a 90-minute full-body massage. The session cost 70,000 won, about average for a massage place in Seoul. The parlors I looked into ranged in price from 50,000 won to 200,000 won for a 90-minute session.
Upon entering, a musky scent filled the space, which was dimly lit with burgundy candles. A female employee led me into a small changing room and handed me a pink massage outfit that resembled hospital patient’s robes. Although the outfit didn’t exactly smell fresh, it was that or nothing. Before the actual massage, a masseuse wearing a vaguely Oriental-ish outfit washed my feet in a bowl of lemon-scented water. Then I was taken to the main massage space, with individual booths separated by sheer draping. The place was relaxing and quiet, with only two other customers. A colleague who went there three days later, however, complained of the loud snoring, annoying chatter and even flirtatious remarks being made by both the customers and masseuses all around her. Given that the main massage room contained mats for seven people, separated by fragile draping, it’s easy to see how the place could be loud. There was only one private room in the entire parlor.
Massages, however, can be a social outing. “Many young women come with one or two friends and get massages together,” said Justin Lee, president of the Thai Trade Center.
The massage started at my toes and ended at my head. The first 40 minutes or so focused on the lower half of my body. Before I knew it, I was sweating.
“You’re sweating because you haven’t been taking care of your body,” the masseuse told me. “Many customers sleep through the massage.”
Near the end, the masseuse offered a back rub using oil, even though traditional Thai massages use no oil. The effect was unpleasant ― the oil smelled like room aromatics.
The massage itself was soothing at times but a bit rough for a massage first-timer like myself. When pressure was applied to my “problem areas,” including the back of my neck and the lower part of my back, I started to let out an eerie squeal that was half nervous giggle and half tearful whimper. My masseuse explained that the technique used at Thai Trade Center was 80 percent Thai and 20 percent Korean, and that although a traditional Thai massage is softer, the center had to include sharp acupressure techniques to meet the tastes of Korean customers. My colleague on the other hand, who regularly works out in the gym, said the massage was too weak for her tastes and that it felt more like a fumbling rub than a real massage.
After 90 minutes of sweat, tears and giggles, I was exhausted. When I put my clothes back on and headed for the subway, I felt relaxed, like I had had a good stretching session. I felt so relaxed in fact, that I fell asleep and missed my station.

Thailand Trade Center is open 24 hours. The center is located in Sinsa-dong in southern Seoul. The nearest subway station is Nonhyeon station, line No. 7, exit 5. Massage prices range from 70,000 won ($72), to 90,000 won. For more information, call (02) 511-0034 or visit

Thai Traditional Massage Center
The Thai Traditional Massage Center is an affordable Thai massage place located in Seocho-dong in southern Seoul. Compared to Thai Trade Center and Raum12, the place is very small and crowded, with only one large room with around 10 mats. There are no curtains to separate the mats.
“The center is a place for families and couples to enjoy an afternoon or evening relaxing and chatting,” an employee at the center said.
This place is definitely not a quiet haven away from the noise of the city. The center offers Thai massages that also use Korean “sports massage” techniques. The employees, who are all Korean, are casual in manner and dress, donning basic white T-shirts and gym pants.

The Thai Traditional Massage Center is open 24 hours. The nearest subway station is Nambu Bus Terminal station, line No. 3, exit 1. Massage prices range from 60,000 to 80,000 won. For more information, call (02) 586-2007.

Raum12, an upscale salon that does not only Thai massage, but also skin and nail care, as well as bridal make-up, is located in Chungdam-dong. The interior has been designed with an “all-natural” theme, with tall plants and muted brick walls and tranquil meditation music humming out speakers. The atmosphere is quieter than the other two places, and the massages are given in separate rooms. The salon has two rooms which can accommodate up to two people and one room which can include three people. The masseuses wear beige tops that look like something a monk would wear and are quiet and professional.

Raum12 is open 24 hours. It is located in Chungdam-dong in southern Seoul. The nearest subway station is Gangnam-gu Office station, line No. 7, exit 4. Massage prices range from 90,000 to 130,000 won. For more information, call (02) 548-5778 or visit

Don’t get a Thai massage if:

* You have serious heart problems, high blood pressure, osteoporosis or cancer
* You have skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis
* You are pregnant
* You have artificial body joints

by Cho Jae-eun
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