Lightfoot Travel
4 min read
Claire Turrell travels to the historic city of Chiang Mai to master one of its oldest therapies

Massage therapist Panissara Chaokhelang moved her fingers along her client’s back like a rock climber feeling for a hold on a cliff face. Studiously she pressed and pushed various muscles until she felt a point of tension, and then she would linger over the area until she felt the muscle relax. 

Each day the Anantara Chiang Mai Resort spa trainer would massage up to five clients with each massage taking between 60 minutes to two-and-a-half hours. This may look like a tough job, but today she had agreed to take on what might be her hardest task of all - she had agreed to impart her 15 years’ worth of knowledge to me.

Thai massage has a rich heritage. Created by Buddha’s doctor more than 2,500 years ago, the techniques has been passed from generation to generation, and has become a valued part of Thai culture. So much so that in 1955 King Bhumibol chose the temple of Wat Pho in Bangkok as the location for the first massage school in Thailand. 

Anantara Chiang Mai spa

While the techniques have now been formalised, it’s clear how it remains close to its traditional roots. A Thai massage is performed not on a raised massage bed, but upon mattress that’s placed on the floor – similar to how they would be positioned in any traditional Thai home. And the dry massage is also free from oils or aromatherapy as this was never a feature in Thai homes. “Our families would steam rather than fry their food so there was no oil in the house,” said Panissara. “And at that time we weren’t educated in the ways of aromatherapy.” 

But while the strong farming nation didn’t embrace the powers of plants, they did embrace the power of massage. This strenuous form of massage was the perfect remedy to physical work in the fields. “Our grandparents weren’t trained in massage, but they would do it almost intuitively,” said Panissara. “They would ask their children to walk upon their back to help relieve their muscles.”

I was relieved to know I wouldn’t be walking along the back of Took, a petite massage therapist who had kindly agreed to be my ‘client’ for the day and who I could practise my newfound techniques upon. 
But before I would be unleashed upon Took, Panissara explained that I needed to prepare myself first for the session. With melodic Thai music playing in the background, Panissara demonstrated a variety of stretches that would warm up my muscles. “You need to keep yourself in tip-top condition so that you can perform the best massage for your clients,” said Panissara.

After stretching my arms, wrists and neck and strengthening my thumbs by doing mini push-ups, Panissara explained that I would work on my client’s back, legs, arms, shoulders and head, and learn about pressure points, energy lines and the stretches that were part of this therapy otherwise known as “passive yoga”. 

A massage therapist will have often done 300 hours of practise before they are able to consider themselves qualified, while I had 90 minutes to master the art. 

Panissara would demonstrate each move on Took and then I would copy. Panissara showed me how to grip, press and pull upon each muscle with my fingers. Each massage movement would be like taking a journey along the energy line and you would return to the point where you started. At times I felt that I was getting more of a workout than Took, as one stretch had me pinning down her shoulder with one hand as I used my other hand to push her bent knee across her body and down towards the mat. 

Surely performing up to five massages like this in a day would leave a therapist in tatters, but Panissara said the key was using not your hands to perform the massage, but your whole bodyweight. “If you keep your shoulders above your hands, and push down from your shoulders rather than your wrists it makes it far less tiring,” she explained. “And if you do start to tire, with Thai massage, you can also use other parts of your body instead of your hands to complete the massage such as elbows, knees and even heels.”
Panissara also explained that the easiest way to keep my speed in check was to match the massage movements to my breathing, anything faster than that would make it tiring for me and not that relaxing for my customer.

At points I mirrored Panissara’s techniques on the other side of Took’s body. This could have been a rather glamorous four-hand massage for Took. Unfortunately two of the hands were mine. 

After 90 minutes of bonding, I felt I could ask one of my most burning questions: “If a client falls asleep during a massage were they ever tempted to wander off and take a break? 

“No!” they laugh in unison. 

As one of those clients who regularly falls asleep during a massage, this was a bit of relief. So I posed my next burning question: “If a client does fall asleep, do you find it annoying?”

“Not at all,” says Panissara, whose kind smile rarely disappears from her face. “In fact, it makes us happy, particularly if they have just told us during their consultation that they have had trouble sleeping. If they fall asleep, we know that we have done our job properly.”

Took didn’t look as if she had fallen asleep, but at the end of the massage she was still smiling and she managed to walk out of the suite without looking as if she had adopted any injuries.

I had achieved one particular move which was the Thai chop, which is where the therapist puts his or her palms together and your fingers make a clattering sound as they tap you on your back. For this I received a nod of approval from my teacher. It means that your treatment is complete and it’s time to go. Now I just had to master the other hundreds of moves beforehand…

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