You may not know that I am a bit of a massage afficionado. I have had weekly massages for sustained periods, particularly when I used to work in restaurants and have a very stiff neck and shoulders. Then the rigours of office posture didn't help things so much, so I used to have weeklies when I worked for Easily in Farringdon Rd.
Before this trip I'd had kinesiology, shiatsu, swedish and sports massage (over 100 in total, I guess), but little Thai massage. Apart from an amazing guy in the middle of a park in Madrid once. Though he might have been Chinese. Anyway, I digress...
So I was excited about coming to SE Asia and trying out some new styles at very reasonable cost. I was also interested in comparing styles and learning what each culture's specialty is. This has been more difficult, because they do seem pretty similar. I've had Thai that feels like Shiatsu at times, and vice versa. I have picked up a couple of things while I've been out here, but, I must admit, mainly from Wikipedia (which everyone knows is 100% infallible). For instance, I thought Shiatsu was Japanese, but it apparently originates from Traditional Chinese Medicine which was introduced to Japan and then adapted. Shiatsu generally uses pretty firm, deep finger pressure, but what I didn't know is that it is one of the only massage techniques to attend to the seven Chakras (apart from kinesiology, chakra massage and cranio-sacral therapy).
It's been hard to analyse the difference between Thai, Lao and Khmer styles, particularly because I only had one in Laos and several in Cambodia turned out to actually be Chinese. I get the impression the 3 are fairly similar, but also I think that, even within the same country, you can get quite different massage. The quality depends on the level of training and masseurs incorporate different elements and styles as they learn more - like anywhere in the world.
Standards vary - Thailand has the highest standard easily, it being being far more established along with tourism. Thai apparently massages along "sen" lines, 72,000 vessels through which "lom" (air) passes. The difference between Thai sen and say Chinese meridians is that sen are not connected to internal organs. The noticable thing about Thai is that some of it is more like an assisted yoga workout, with the masseur using various parts of their body to stretch you out e.g. sticking a foot almost into your groin to stretch out your thigh. Sometimes crossing over a leg for a deeper stretch, or sticking knees or feet into your back and pulling you back over it. I've had fingers, the flat bases of the palms, elbows, and even knees used for acupressure.
Thai has the cheapest quality massage, averaging at 3 or 4 dollars an hour. Cambodia is about twice the price, although you can find local massage for 5,000 Riel (just over one dollar) if you travel into the communities. I didn't try one of those unfortunately.
Anyway here is a little history of my massages so far on the trip. Admittedly this might be more for me than for you :)
1. Lamu island, Kenya
A young lady called Betty performed a fairly standard sports massage. Didn't notice any cultural oddities.
2. Vilankulos, Mozambique
A Zimbabwean lady gave me a fairly uninspiring sports massage.
3. Kao San Rd, Bangkok, Thailand
Here we go. First proper Thai massage. Lots of using feet to stretch me out. Also, first introduction to quite comprehensive head massage. Ears anyone? Pulling down quite hard on ear lobes.
4. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
I asked for oil - not always advisable in Thailand, they are generally better working without, but she was pretty good. And damn strong. First really quite scary back stretch. They don't pull any punches in Bangkok.
5. Kao San Rd area, Bangkok, Thailand
Good but not memorable for any particular reason.
6. Bang Saphan, Thailand
This was excellent. Think I went for oil again though, doh.
7. Chiang Mai, Thailand
This was very good indeed. So good I stayed for an extra hour of head massage. Some good head techniques used here that I had more of in Cambodia - the hair combing with fingers, scrunching and fluffing (not that fluffing). The finger in eye socket (next to nose) pull.
8. Akha hill tribe, Muang Sing, Laos
This was mental. And unexpected. We were in a remote hill tribe, in the chief's hut on stilts. Many of the village were in the room, drinking Lao Lao (rice whisky) with us and looking through the children's books we had brought for them. Then our guide said "Do you want a massage?". Our having agreed, everyone just stayed in the room and carried on doing what they were doing. Some young girls (about 12) came in, giggling. I had two just for me (4 hands). This was one of the hardest, most scary massages I have ever had. They would each use both hands to pump down on an area very strongly, particularly worrying on kneecaps. Also on the back, they would scrunch big pieces of skin and twist them round, which is something I have never had.
They laughed at my yelps. An experience.
9. Siem Reap, Cambodia
An expensive (20 dollar) oil session. Nothing special, but the luxury was pleasant.
10. Siem Reap, Cambodia
A blind guy who preferred Japanese shiatsu and Anma, so that's what he gave me. Very good, I stayed for another hour of foot massage. He only got one dollar out of the five I paid for each hour.
11. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
A seven dollar job just down from the guest house. Advertised the masseurs as blind, but apparently that was the previous lot - these girls could all see. Not bad, nothing special or distinctive - although she did introduce me to the the eyebrow pinch, which I liked. Had a Khmer traditional, then a back and shoulder the next day.
12. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
This was a $5 special from a local lady. Was a bit scared of lying down on the bed, not sure how sanitary it was. She was good, knew her stuff and quite hard. Did some back scrunching and deep acupressure. And for the very first time in my life, and a complete surprise, she cricked my neck - hard. I was so shocked I didn't let her do the other side.
13. Pnomh Penh, Cambodia
EXCELLENT. Chinese style apparently. Some intense use of elbows in the kidneys and bottom pressure points. Excellent head work - first time actually IN the ears! Crazy hair combing and fluffing. Eyebrow pinch. Had a couple with this woman ("girl 28").
14. Trat, Thailand
REALLY EXCELLENT. Very similar overall to the previous Chinese in Phnom Penh, but with added Thai stretching. I had learnt that the standard for Thai is 2 hours, so that's what I had. And then had another hour of foot. I had previously not given reflexology/foot massage it's dues - I will from now on, absolutely amazing. The nice woman, Lia, was quite gentle on the back and leg stretches, taking it real slow. Had 3 hours with Lia the first day, then an oil the next day and after we came back from Ko Kut, went back again for some really deep knot breaking down (bad bed) while Tania had a foot massage. Usually masseurs have used elbows when breaking down knots in my back but this guy (Lia's colleague) just used one finger. Particularly painful on the neck, but effective.
These people were really nice so I will put their details up. They give you great tea afterwards as well.
16. Ko Jum, Thailand
AMAZING! OK, it just so happens that my most recent is number one - so far. Mangon (on Long Beach, 300m from Joy bungalows) has everything that everyone else had - and more. Comprehensive on the acupressure and excellent use of palm bases as well as fingers. The use of the palms on the back was a revelation - I've never had anyone do that so well. Really hard continuous pressure (putting his whole weight behind it) over a significant area. Some people do it using their arm bones (ulnas) as rolling pins but this was better. And he knew how to use oil, just for the back (I told him I had some problems with my back and had sunburnt a bit). Terrific stretches, more variety than with anyone else. One brilliant position - pulling my arms back, with his feet in my back. Excellent head massage. Highly recommended, although not cheap (this is an island after all) at 300 Baht an hour. Speaks really good english.
So - what have I learnt. Definitely go for 2 hours, traditional Thai massage. Try and avoid oil unless you are having massage for an ailment. Enjoy!