Author's Note: This article is *not* about happy-endings!
Full body massages are a luxury for most Westerners – the occasional gift to be given to a woman, or the benefit of having too much disposable income for a man. Yet, if you're heading to Asia, you will soon find the opportunities for affordable, quality massages and spa treatments are endless.
I quickly became a connoisseur during my time in Asia. Here's my general take on the quality of services on offer in various countries. One's experience can vary widely based on the masseuses' skills.
While you can get a one hour massage for $5 on Kuta Beach, do you really want sand and salt from the ocean being ground into your skin by a surly masseuse while a swarm of Indonesian hawkers try and sell you on their wares? No, I didn't think so.
There are more than enough spas where you can pay an extra dollar or two for air-conditioning, aromatherapy, a comfortable massage table, a little privacy, and the occasional free cup of tea afterward. I enjoyed Bali's massages and spas more than any other on my trip. I always appreciated how they would place a fresh flower in a small bowl and position it under the hole in the table where my face would be positioned.
The Chinese love a good foot massage, and while being able to watch TV and enjoy the massage in a room with my friend and his girlfriend was interesting, it certainly wasn't my favorite experience.
If you're into ancient Chinese medicinal treatments, you can give Ba Guan a try, however be sure to read about my experience with it first. You've been warned.
I was fresh off the plane in Kathmandu – capital city to one of the poorest nation's on the planet. Yet when I looked down a forlorn Thamel street and noticed a sign for massage, I was still thinking in terms of Balinese and Chinese spas. How wrong I was, yet I decided to follow through.
I walked up a flight of stairs and entered the dark, decrepit office. I haggled for a price comparable to what I'd paid in other countries, and dressed down in a bare room. As for the massage itself, it was OK, but when your environment looks like a flophouse, it is hard to enjoy the experience.
McLeod Ganj, India
I was so sore from the last day of my Indrahar Pass trek that I could barely move. The pain in my shoulders and ribs left me bed-ridden for 48 hours, so I decided it was an opportunity to try Tibetan acupuncture and massage. I doubted the doctor's assertion that I would feel like new after 3 sessions, but to my surprise, she proved me wrong.
I had my first Thai massage in Bangkok a day or two after arrival. As I'd heard, it was akin to having a yoga instructor yank your limbs around. I was especially displeased when she cracked my neck. The whole experience lacked the sensual, relaxing nature of the Balinese massages. This was closer to Muay Thai fighting on a bed. After a few pleasant massages on Koh Phangan, I decided to give traditional Thai massage another go on Phuket.
On my second round, the masseuse was amazingly strong for her petite size. Eventually I asked for mercy. Actually, I had to repeat myself a second time, and even then she continued to use more force than was enjoyable. I decided Thai massages were simply not my bag.
By Cambodia, I was starting to feel massage fatigue, so I needed to make the prospect a little more interesting. In Siem Reap, I ran across a small family-run place that offered blind massages. That's right, the masseuses were blind. I found my first shiatsu massage to be an enjoyable experience, and couldn't help but feel I was doing my part to support a small, family business.
My first massage in Laos was a disaster. I opted for my first hot stone massage since Costa Rica in 2005, yet the kid who gave it was a mess. The stones were smaller than I expected, and f'ing hot. It felt like he was dropping scolding hot lava rocks on my back, and every time I'd wince in pain, he'd say “sorry.” 50 sorries later, I was happy to get the heck out of there and he knew it.
I was willing to bet one of Luang Prabang's proper spas would offer a better service, and indeed, the next massage I received was worth three times the price.