Bangkok’s Wat Pho has a long association with traditional Thai medicine which includes Thai massage. The original temple here was founded in the seventh century with the name Wat Phodoram, but before that the location was used as a centre for traditional medicine. It wasn’t until 1801 under King Rama I that the temple was restored and enlarged and given the new name of Wat Chetuphon, known more colloquially as Wat Pho. Under Rama III more restoration and construction took place at the temple. At a time when the ancient art of Thai massage was in danger of dying out, the king had the foresight to establish what is regarded as Thailand’s first university where the traditions of Thai medicine and massage would be preserved and taught to future generations. To this day, Wat Pho is the national headquarters for the preservation and teaching of traditional Thai medicine and massage.
What can you expect from a Thai massage at Wat Pho?
It’s important to note that you don’t take your clothes off for a traditional Thai massage so you should wear something loose-fitting and comfortable if you opt for the body massage. If you aren’t wearing something suitable, you will normally be given Thai-style fisherman’s pants to change into in privacy. However, that is more or less as far as the privacy goes and if you are expecting a private room and a high-end spa experience, you are going to be disappointed by Wat Pho where the massages take place in a communal open-plan pavilion. Some non-Thai visitors are surprised by the communal approach but this is very much in keeping with the way things are done for local people. A traditional Thai massage isn’t just seen as healthy for the body, it’s also seen as a chance to socialize and have a chat with friends.
If you’ve never had a proper Thai massage before the experience can come as a bit of a shock. Not only can it be uncomfortable, some people may also find it painful. The person given the massage will stretch you and use their hands, elbows and feet to put pressure on various points of your body. The secret is to try and relax and keep loose which, admittedly, is easier said than done if you’ve never done this before. The discomfort is usually just temporary and once the massage is finished you should feel the benefit almost immediately. If that all sounds too much like an ordeal, you can always opt for the foot massage which is less intense and still gives plenty of health benefits. The massage needs to be relatively firm to get the most benefit, but you can always ask for the person to go more softly by saying bow bow in Thai. At Wat Pho there are male and female massage practitioners and the amount of English spoken may vary, but they will normally ask you if you have any particular health problems before beginning the treatment. This enables them to work on the most relevant therapeutic points to ensure you get the most benefit from the massage.
Massage pavilion at Wat Pho
How much does a massage cost at Wat Pho?
At the time of writing (July 2013) the prices for massage treatments at Wat Pho are:
Traditional Thai massage
420 Baht for 1 hour
260 Baht for 30 minutes
420 Baht for 1 hour
280 Baht for 30 minutes
The massages at Wat Pho are expensive by Thai standards and you can certainly get massages cheaper in other parts of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. What you are paying for at Wat Pho is quality, prestige and location. That said, a massage is a very individual experience and there is still no guarantee that the massage you receive will meet your personal preferences, but if you are visiting Wat Pho and have the time it is still a unique experience. You’ll also have the advantage of being able to compare any further massages you receive in Thailand against the one at Wat Pho. In addition to the price above you also need to add on the cost of entry to Wat Pho (currently 100 Baht).
Beware of imitations
Being awarded an accredited certificate from Wat Pho is a big deal for massage practitioners in Thailand. This also means that some people will claim they have been trained at Wat Pho when they haven’t. I am not casting any aspersions on the person who advertised their services on this sign at a shop near Wat Pho. I don’t know if the certificate they have is genuine or not, but seeing a sign like this in English would make me suspicious. For the average visitor to Bangkok who wants to be guaranteed a genuine Wat Pho massage it makes sense pay the extra Baht and go to Wat Pho itself.
The massage pavilion at Wat Pho is open from 08.00-18.00 and there are a number of signs in Thai and English showing you where it is located within the temple complex. During low season you shouldn’t have to wait too long before you are seen by one of the massage practitioners. I visited a few weeks ago in the afternoon and although there were still quite a lot of tourists visiting the Reclining Buddha, there were very few taking time to explore the rest of the temple grounds and there were only a handful of people in the massage pavilion. If you are on a tight schedule or visiting during high season (November-February) when there is more demand, the shortest waiting time is usually in the morning. Alternatively, you can pre-book an appointment slot to minimise the chance of having to wait. Your hotel or guest-house should be able to do this for you or you can call Wat Pho Massage directly on Bangkok numbers:
02-221-2974 or 02-225-4771.