The tradition of Thai massage is older than the Bible. Whether a two-person stretching and hands-on yoga session or a deep tissue smoothing, the practice can be traced back more than 2,500 years to a visiting medical healer from North India who was said to be the personal physician of Buddha.
As Chiang Mai was once the seat of the powerful Lanna Kingdom in the medieval centuries, those practices combine with rich, golden settings of goddesses and nature and influences from hill tribes who bring their own healing traditions. Massage in Thailand is part and parcel of the religion and culture and brings something for everyone, not just the privileged.
Crowded night markets hide a smattering of oases where loungers have been assembled and the locals receive affordable kindness under trained hands. Visitors find a plethora of places to dip into for a 30-minute foot massage or a two-hour body workover. Most are sidewalk storefront spaces with overstuffed chairs and clean and pleasant surroundings charging $5-$7 for an impromptu hour of pummeling.
For a little added adventure, spa seekers can head to the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute and have a treatment administered by a practitioner with a past as part of a smart rehabilitation initiative. Again, for around $5, a relaxing hour of kneading, stretching and pounding with magic herbal poultices awaits in sparse, but peaceful, surroundings.
To take it up several notches in price and luxury, travelers can head to an independent day spa, such as the Oasis Day Spa, Fah Lanna, or the ultra-luxurious spas at Dara Dhevi, Four Seasons and the Ratilanna.
The Oasis operates three spas in Chiang Mai. The original spa on Sirimangkalajarn Road brings a smattering of teakwood Lanna houses around a garden. The cottages usually handle two people at a time with treatments lasting one to two hours and costing $41 to $182.
At the top scale is the “Voyage of the Golden Lanna,” which involves a “Four Hands” dance over the client’s body for 90 minutes in an entrancing musical arrangement, while covering the client with fragrant oil infused with flakes of pure gold.
The Fah Lanna in Old Town and the Night Bazaar is another easy drop-in spa that offers an exquisite taste of Lanna culture in its pampering options. Visitors can choose private rooms, semi private mats in community rooms with gossamer curtain separations, or storefront loungers perfect for foot massages.
A famed signature treatment here is the “Fah Lanna Wisdom” that includes a “Wai Kru” ceremony to pay respects to the master of Thai Massage, a body balancing “Taleo” that is the Lanna symbol for protection, and delicate influences from traditional Thai dance. It’s a three-hour journey with a facial, herbal bath and betel leaf detox thrown in for $138.
Spas of Gold
Luxury hotels in Chiang Mai offer their own brands of enhanced pampering in veritable palaces of massage replete with fountains, soaking pools and opium beds.
The Ratilanna Riverside Spa Resort features the Aspara Spa in a spread of calming white rooms with red silk textiles. Most popular is the simple Thai Massage that is a “dry” massage with loose pajamas supplied for the 60- to 90-minutes of stretching and kneading along energy meridians to release tension and stress. Prices start at $50.
For a more local and adventurous experience at the top end of the scale, it should be the Lanna Exotic Massage ($70, one hour) – involving an ancient northern Thai practice that employs a special wooden stick made from the bark of the tamarind tree to relaxes muscles with a rhythm tapping motions called “Tok Sen.”
The spa at Dhara Dhevi Resort is a palatial 33,000-square-foot sanctuary of Lanna luxury, all enhanced with ornate designs and sculptures in Buddhist motifs from the original Burmese template in Mandalay. It offers 11 treatment retreats, each with a private bath, steam shower, heated marble scrub table and private relaxation area, and also presents guests with a hammam, rhassoul and watsu pool.
Weeks-long wellness treatment programs can be arranged for managing stress and weight. For the day-tripper, however, a menu of Ayurvedic, Chinese, and new-age energy treatments combine with traditional Thai therapies for rates that average $140 for one hour.
Four Seasons Chiang Mai was perhaps the first true luxury spa in this region when it opened in 1999. Guests step in through a golden skyward portal and wander through open passageways flanked by colorful floating lotus blooms. Each suite offers a variety of facilities, including outdoor showers, private herbal steam rooms and outdoor soaking tubs, all overlooking lush rice fields leading to the Ping River. Trained masseuses move through a menu of options, often in one session, crawling on top of the client for complex stretches and pounding tired muscles with medicinal herbs wrapped in silk poultices. But simply being there brings its own blend of perfection.
Note: Various vendors included in this article hosted the writer, however this content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.
Lark Gould is a veteran travel writer who writes about destinations near and far, mostly from the window seat. Check out eTravel.news for updates on destinations, travel trends and where to go next.