BUSAN, South Korea — It’s fair to say that one of the saddest places on earth is the departure terminal at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. I have experienced this death-of-holiday melancholy several times when, after checking in, passing through immigration and then security, it hits you all at once: you are going back to your life and leaving this wonderful piece of the planet.
As the plane makes its way out of Thai airspace, gone are the white sandy beaches, the smiling happy people, the great food and the traditional Thai massages.
While I always come back to my life here in Korea with fond memories of Thailand, there is little here to recreate the feeling I had there – other than a backpack full of Thai curry mixes and sauces and an ornamental elephant figurine placed upon my bookshelf.
That was until I discovered that a small chain of four Korean massage shops here in Busan have gone to great lengths to recreate the Thai massage experience, including importing Thai masseuses, to answer the growing trend of Koreans seeking out the health benefits of traditional Thai massage.
I would hardly call myself a massage expert, but I know what feels good. And having someone nearly half my size twisting my limbs and torso into various shapes counts for an hour well spent in any life. It goes far beyond what I at first viewed as simply a physical meditation on the deeper meanings of being a pretzel.
Thai Massage, or “nuat boran” (???????????) as it is known in Thai, literally translates to “ancient-manner massage.” During a session, the receiver is twisted and turned into several yoga like positions with the masseuse laying and leaning on the recipient using hands, arms, elbows, knees, feet and upper body to apply firm, rhythmic pressure to various parts of the body.
The session, which typically lasts two hours or more, includes the pressing and stretching of the entire body, including pulling on fingers, toes and ears, the cracking of knuckles and spine, along with the masseuese taking a casual stroll up and down the length of the back. There is also the arching of the entire body into bhujangasana, also known as the “cobra position.”
It is said that this traditional form of massage, was founded by Shivago Komarpaj (the Buddha’s personal physician) over 2,500 years ago. The Thai version of the massage is considered to be a 19th century synthesis of a variety of healing and medicinal traditions from all over the kingdom with slight variations from region to region across Thailand, with no single routine or framework that is universally accepted among practitioners.
The massage follows areas on the body known as “Sen lines,” which could be compared to meridians or channels in Chinese medicine and “nadis” in India. Apparently there are 72,000 of these pathways on the human body and a Thai masseuse manipulates these bodily-highways to nirvana.
According to various websites Thai massage offers several medical benefits:
• Help detoxification of the body and boost immune system
• Increase blood circulation, lower blood pressure
• Good for muscle relaxation, increased flexibility and mobility
• Improved breathing
• Improved posture, balance, body alignments and dissolution of energy blockages
• Help relieve arthritis and back pain
No Time for Thailand? Do it Here in Busan
For those of you lacking time or money to go to Thailand for the experience, fear not, you can get it right here in Busan. And worry not of any dilution of the experience due to your current cultural and physical environs. One small chain of four shops, aptly known as Traditional Thai Massage has locations around town, and they do an excellent job of recreating a little slice of Thailand right here in Korea – complete with ornately decorated interior, native Thai masseurs.
Whereas in the U.S. and Europe you are looking at dropping anywhere from $100-$150 for a one hour session, here in Busan you can get the real deal from a real Thai masseuse for only $50.
I recently went to the Traditional Thai Massage shop in Haeundae near the Jangsan subway station. It is the fourth location of the chain that opened their first shop in Yeonsan-dong in 2008, followed by one in Nampo-dong, Yangsan and then Haeundae each year after.
The Haeundae shop opened eight months ago with a full complement of nine massage rooms, deep water baths and shower rooms, aroma therapy rooms and a host of native Thai masseurs and Korean masseurs who are required to have been trained at the famous WATPO Thai Traditional Medical School in Thailand.
Taking the elevator up, I wasn’t sure what to expect, until the elevator opened up right into the shop. I was hit with the sights, sounds and smells of Thailand.
“Our shop is like stepping into a Thai temple, it’s very peaceful and relaxing.” said Haeundae branch manager, Noh Ra-mi.
Noh has been with the chain since it started and after building up the clientele in each shop, she moves on to open up the next, aiming to keep it as close to the feeling of Thailand as possible.
Haeundae branch manager, Noh Ra-mi
The walls of the lobby are ornately decorated with that highly reflective gold foil wallpaper you see in Thai palaces and temples, and there are dozens of silk tapestries and various traditional figurines ranging from small enough to hold in your hand to big enough to need two people to get them into the room.
The massage rooms themselves are well insulated from the sounds of the outside world, some with private showers and deep water tubs. I was greeted by Noh Ra-mi at the front desk and then introduced to my Thai masseuse, Duang, who hails from Bangkok and spoke great English.
I was led back to the room, given something resembling pajamas to wear and then treated to a great massage of that traditional turning, twisting and back cracking that I hadn’t experienced since Thailand a few weeks before. Before the more intense working of different parts of my body, Duang asked me to let her know if the pain was too much for me.
At times it was, but I endured knowing how great I would feel following the massage. Sure enough, I literally slumped into the elevator when I left, so relaxed that I wished I could be magically transported back to my sofa at home with a glass of red and a good movie.
While I went for the traditional-style massage, Noh said the most popular treatment is the aroma therapy session.
Thai aroma therapy massage, unlike the more stringent and physical practice of Thai traditional massage, relies on the use of essential botanical oils from flowers, trees and plants which are distilled by a steam process. The combination of smells, the massage, and the light sound of meditative Thai music, is all you need to step away from reality for an hour or two before walking back out into the world in a far better state of mind.
All locations are open 24-hours a day. Noh says that the evenings are the busiest times and customers should consider calling ahead for a reservation, especially on the weekends. During the day you can walk in and there should be little or no wait.
So, if you’ve never been to Thailand and are curious about one of its greatest aspects, or if you’ve visited before and long for a little taste of your time there, a couple of hours of healthy massage might just do the trick.
Traditional Thai Massage has four locations around Busan in Haeundae, Nampo-dong, Yeonsan-dong and Yangsan. For more information, including maps and rates, check out their Haps page here.
To book a reservation you can call 010-4325-4560 or they welcome you to walk in anytime, 24-hours a day.