If there’s one thing that is almost always on visitors’ To-Do’ lists when traveling to Asia, it’s a visit to the spa: whether it’s a punishing Thai massage amidst the aroma of Tiger Balm or a hot stone therapy overlooking Balinese rice fields, pampering oneself should be high on the holiday agenda. While a massage is almost always less expensive here in Asia, there is such a variety of spa and massage experiences across the region that one could receive a different treatment each day and only begin to scratch the surface. Today we’ll discuss some of our most memorable and interesting spa and massage experiences in Asia.

Fish foot massage on Pub Street, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Massage experience prior to traveling to or moving to Asia:

Scott: I had 1-2 in Calgary from a woman I knew who had a massage table in her house. This is about 30 years ago and I think it was about $60CDN/hr. It was a luxury and something that very few people did and certainly not with any sort of frequency.

Trevor: An ex-girlfriend bought me a treatment in Hawaii: prices were $60/hr. Later, my roommate was a masseur: amazing when treated by a professional. 

First massage experience in Asia:

Trevor: Chiang Mai, when the guy from our group told us that some guy massaged him in the bathroom. 
Scott: I think it was in 1995 when we came to visit Dan Fraser here and a contact of his made us an appointment at a truly Thai massage spot. We were bent, prodded, and walked on. It was painful, interesting, exciting and in the end, enjoyable.

Tamarind Springs, Koh Samui (photo courtesy of Tamarind Springs)


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Trevor: Thai massage: First, I’d like to talk a bit about the difference between the two main Thai massage styles, Chaing Mai style and Wat Po, or Bangkok, style. Neither is intended to be a pleasurable experience (in Thailand that’s what “an oil massage” is for). These are medical procedures, intended to stimulate organ function and improve your health from a holistic standpoint. When most people think of Thai massage they’re actually thinking of Chiang Mai style. Always do a two-hour massage as that’s the standard. And then settle in and relax. At times excruciating, this massage is like passive yoga, where a very strong woman (usually) contorts you into various poses, stretching your muscles and joins while burying her fingers, elbows, or knees into sensitive pressure points. Wat Po style is a bit different. Wat Po is the temple just south of the Grand Palace in Bangkok where the famous reclining Buddha image is located: there’s a massage school on the temple grounds where you can get a massage. Slightly less painful than Chiang Mai style, Wat Po style is interesting in that it requires you to lay on one side or another while receiving treatment. I haven’t done it in a long time, so I don’t recall the details, but Wat Po is, I believe, the oldest “medical” institution in Thailand and the documentation for massage technique dates it back many centuries. 

Mural at Wat Pho showing pressure points

Scott: Wow man – you’re knowledgeable about this. I am learning here. Had no idea – I guess that’s why you were the Fodor’s guidebook writer. Makes total sense that Thai massage is intended to be therapeutic. 

TREVOR: One more thing: even in a Thai oil massage, I really don’t like having my skin stretched, particularly the insides of my arms and thighs: I just hate having that skin pulled on and it’s NOT a sex thing: why would the insides of my arms be a sex thing? But as soon as you tell a Thai masseuse NOT to massage your inner thighs, they do it anyway. In fact, it can be difficult to tell a masseuse not to do something particular to you: if you say “softer” while they’re hurting you, they usually laugh. I find massage is hit or miss depending on the person who massages you. Half the time my massage is two hours of torture because of the person torturing me. It’s supposed to be enjoyable. If you aren’t enjoying yourself, I don’t see the point: which is why I so rarely get massages to be honest. 

Herbal Compress Massage

Trevor: My go-to massage in Thailand is the Herbal compress Hot stone is cool: four hands is fine. Compress is where it’s at. – best was on that multi day trek in Chiang Rai, under the stars.

Scott: I really like a 2hr Thai massage. That’s great. Adding the herbal compress sometimes is a nice addition – just had one the other week. You wear pajamas of sorts, they wash your feet first (go clean) and you really do need to relax and go with the flow of the moves – don’t fight it. You can say ‘bow noi’ for softer and ‘nak gwa’ for harder. It there isn’t some pain involved then it’s not being done right. But I agree on the skin pulling – that’s crap. And when you sometimes get someone who just starts prodding a part of your body to make it hurt to seem as if they are doing something – that’s annoying – otherwise, I love the Thai massage.

Different massage experiences

Foot massages: these can be painful. Like Thai massage, it’s not meant to be pleasurable: it’s intended to provide therapeutic relief, stimulating nerve endings, often in very painful ways. That said, you get used to it (kind of like you get used to wearing ski boots: the end of a foot massage feels as nice as taking off ski boots after a few hours on the hill). Best foot massage experiences for me were: 1. Writing my Nat Geo book during foot massages – end of a long day, often walking for 12 hours collecting photos and taking notes: then 1-2 hours with a beer and a foot massage, computer on my lap. 

Scott: I love foot massages – 60 – 90 – 120min. Many are surprised that you get a good deal of leg, arm/hand and even usually ends with a bit of head and shoulder. These are great and they wash your feet first. Well worth it.

I also like the short massage after a haircut in Thailand, or when they wash your hair. It’s worth going to get your hair washed just for this! But don’t get the ear cleaning!


Lao lemongrass steam and BBQ. Lady who fixed my nerve, arm. The old lady massage at the Red Cross, Luang Prabang. 

Scott: Steam box in Pai years ago was neat and I’ve also had this in Vientianne. If you see it – try it. Often at temples, it seems.


Monk massage – Chiang Mai

Blind massage – in Chaing Mai

Women’s prison massage in CM – Scott – yes this one is novel

Scott: I like onsens in Bangkok – there are a few and if you buy a massage you generally get admission to the onsen, have lunch, read a book, eat food – great few hours.

TREVOR: There are some nap salons in Bangkok that are pretty neat as well and they really focus on your head, face, and shoulders – worth it.

SCOTT: Haircut head massage – and the Nap Spa

On the beach – while the skill may vary – how can you go wrong? In a small bamboo hut or in a chair (had one during sundown in Pattaya back in June – great)

TREVOR: Good one. 

A woman receiving fire cupping in Haikou, Hainan, China (courtesy of Anna Frodesiak)

More exotic massages:
Trevor: Fish foot in Cambodia.

Scott: oil head massage in Mumbai from a man (like a barber) was very enjoyable – seems to be a readily available thing over there. I love head massages.

Trevor: Coining (tiger stipes) Cupping – Chinese? But popular in Cambodia 

Buffalo horns in Bali, Tabanan Market – the one by the cattle auction, with the snake charmers

Meanwhile in Bangok: 21st-century cupping perhaps: vacuum suit

Scott: Onsen in Japan was awesome – review of experience and chairs and ramen

Asakusa – snowing out. 

Trevor’s Fave spa /spa experiences: Six Senses at Soneva Kiri – breathing exercises and Tibetan sonic massage. Tamarind Springs – the springs and steam rooms in the jungle, under the boulders.

Scott: Bodia in Cambodia has always been enjoyable.

French couple spa in Kampot up along the river banks was really nice – not sure if they are still there but it was opposite the Greenhouse.

Massage and Spa Tips:

Scott: Get the older woman rather than the younger cute person. Go clean but can shower 

Trevor: make your preferences known – choosing a masseuse and allowing them to touch you in a way that your comfortable with – they might listen. 

Scott: Beware drivers who try to take you to a massage: A driver in Sri Lanka driving us to the ‘massage house’ and making us sit there for 15min.


Theme Music by Jamie Ruben

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