One of my goals for this trip was to learn new skills that were unique to each place that I visited. For Thailand, my plan was to take a Thai massage course, so I could not only acquire a new skill, but also help others with tense shoulders or sore muscles. After doing some research online, I was pretty much set on taking the full body Thai massage course level I (5 days) with the Wat Pho school in Bangkok. I went to the Wat Pho school during our visit to Wat Pho in Bangkok to gather more information, but since the accommodation situation wasn’t good in Bangkok, I decided to take the course at their branch in Chiang Mai instead.
After arriving to Chiang Mai, I went to the Wat Pho school again, confirmed the details and the schedule that I wanted since I could begin any day of the week. The passport photos that I brought along were not acceptable because the certificate stamp comes off the smooth surface. So I had to go to a nearby print shop to take photos printed on a special type of paper. After an hour wait for the photos (and THB 150 poorer), I was back to the school ready to sign up, except now the days I wanted weren’t available anymore! They never were! I don’t know why they didn’t tell me this before I went and spent money on special passport photos that I didn’t need. Well, they official lost me as a customer. I left the school pissed off, refusing to give my money to these liars.
Of course, I still wanted to take the Thai massage course – I just had to find a different school. A simple Google search led me to the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai (TMC), which offered a similar full body 5-day course. The school was located outside the city, but they provided free transportation from the hotel to the school and after we exchanged a few emails, I was scheduled to start the course in 2 days. They didn’t require special passport photos, they were easy to deal with, and their course was significantly cheaper than Wat Pho’s. Things worked out for the better!
On my first day, I was picked up by the school songthaew and immediately thrown into a big group of incredibly funny people. Representing countries spanning the globe, we had a nice mix of culture and yet we still communicated pretty well. The rides to and from the school were a great way to make new friends and learn from them as well, since all of my songthaew mates had been learning for a few months already as part of the professional Thai massage course.
After arriving at the school and registering, I changed to the clothes provided and met my classmates, four in total, each representing a different nationality with a different background. We also met our teachers, Dao and Ao, who directed us to the classroom where we received our textbook and were presented with our schedule for the week, as well as the daily routines. Each day started with greeting each other and praying (in Pali) to Buddha, as it is tradition in Thai culture. Next, there were a few stretching exercises that were quite challenging for me, since my flexibility is practically non-existent. Everything was taken very seriously (they were training professionals after all), but in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.
With the initial ritual done, the teacher started the demonstration for head massage first, which consisted of one position and several pressure points along the sagital and coronal lines, as well as the crown point on the skull. It was the easiest of all the body parts that were to come and following the demonstration, we were paired up with our buddies to perform the technique on each other. Performing this technique was no harder than looking at the teacher doing it.
Soon we were looking at demonstrations for neck and shoulder massage. These were more complex with more positions and pressure points next to the spine and along the trapezius muscle. Once again, after the demonstration, we performed the techniques on our buddies. The challenge here was to avoid the bones and find the right muscles, as well as slowly increasing the pressure, walking the fine line between pleasure and pain. These techniques concluded the morning and we went to the local market to grab some food. Lunch breaks, as well as the mid-afternoon coffee breaks, were great for socializing with classmates and other students at the school as well.
Back from lunch, we were shown facial and back lying sideways massage. I was chosen to be the one on whom the teacher gave the facial massage demonstration and it was one of the most relaxing feelings I’ve ever had. I almost fell asleep during it! Performing these last two techniques weren’t that easy. The complexity and number of standing and hand positions increased with each new body part. Back massage was quite demanding and by the end of it I was sweating. I was probably not doing it correctly. My thumbs were also hurting from constantly exerting pressure; they continued to hurt for the following days.
The next three days were similar to the first. On the second day, we learned back and arms massage, which despite being some of the nicest to receive, were some of the hardest to give. Bones and nerves can easily get mixed up with muscles, which causes discomfort and pain if pressed. On the third day of course, Dao, our teacher, got sick and was replaced by Nim, who was equally funny and experienced. She guided us through the remainder parts – from abdominal and legs to stretching and concluding massages. By the end of the fourth day, we had gone through 158 positions, combining sitting and standing stances with thumbs to elbow press, all along energy lines on the entire body. We also had a theoretical exam on the fourth day on cautionary areas of the body.
The fifth and last day of the Thai massage course was the day to put what we learned during the past four days to the test. It was time to give a full-body Thai massage. The whole sequence, from head to toe, took about two hours to be completed. Our teacher always made giving massages seem easy and effortless, while in reality it was pretty hard work. Sitting or standing in the right stance was tiring and painful. Pressing with the right amount of pressure was difficult – it was either too soft or too hard. By the end of the session I started to get the hang of it. However, there was certainly a lot of room for improvement, from knowing the entire sequence by heart to applying the right amount of pressure.
We concluded the course with a graduation ceremony where all the students and teachers in the school were present, including the author of the textbook (which is a reference in Thai massage courses worldwide). I was called to “stage” to receive my diploma, which is recognized by the Thai Minister of Public Health, and valid in several countries, including the USA, Canada and Australia.
The Thai massage course was certainly an enriching experience. Even though five days weren’t enough to turn me into a professional Thai masseur, I got a good grasp of the basic techniques. I hope to keep improving, giving slightly better massages every time. Julie can look forward to many massages throughout the rest of our trip!