Why you should care

They break you down to build you up.

My bones are breaking. My neck is twisted. I’m a tug away from falling apart. My body is being beaten to a pulp, one limb at a time. But don’t worry, the woman knocking me around is a professional — trained in the art of painful pampering.

Thailand is the massage capital of the world, where back rubs and tea lights are child’s play. If you’re into jasmine-scented massage oils, well, you’re in for a painful surprise. Instead, tiny Thai women display superhuman feats of strength by pummeling, kneading, stretching and bending your body into a limber pretzel. After running a humid half-marathon in Pattaya, Thailand, I plunked down into one of these traditional massage storefronts. I thought it would be soothing for my tightly wound calves. But as it turns out, for a cheap $3 an hour, these massages undo knots with all the grace of a meat tenderizer. The more I winced, the harder my masseuse pressed. Her elbows and knees dug deep into my throbbing quads. It felt oddly intimate as I surrendered my weary body to her iron grip.

Thai massages can be somewhat violent affairs, but they’re deeply energizing.

Believe me, I’m no masochist, but I never knew a thorough pummeling could hurt so good. Traditional Thai massages are brutal, but not without payoff — that is, if you don’t mind the rough-and-tumble. These massages have roots in an ancient practice said to originate with the medical adviser to the Buddha, Shivakar Kumar Baccha, and brought to Thailand at least two millennia ago with the arrival of Buddhism. The key is to apply deep pressure along certain energy lines, which can break energy blockage, stimulate circulation, increase joint mobility and restore balance to the body, says Bangkok-based massage therapist Siraporn Thiravanitkul. Less relaxing than a simple Swedish massage and more ass-kicking than a deep-tissue, Thai massages can be somewhat violent affairs, but they’re deeply energizing. There’s a “certain flow” to it all, says Thiravanitkul. “It’s like performing a dance around [the client].”

Sure, Thiravanitkul does all the work with her steely grip, but it feels like you’re working out just as much. Her entire body weight is leveraged to pull and press, forcing you into yoga-like positions. In fact, you might just find yourself with your legs over your head — and we’re not referring to the infamous “happy endings” offered at Bangkok’s racier massage parlors. Trust us, this massage is not for the weak of heart, or the weak of limb. But sometimes pain can be the strangest pleasure.

Here’s where to find some tough love in Bangkok:

  1. Urban Retreat Spa: for quality, standard massages (400 baht; 348/1 Sukhumvit Road)
  2. Asia Herb Association: for foreigner-friendliness (500 baht; 33/1 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 24)
  3. Wat Pho: for a spiritual experience inside temple grounds (420 baht; 392/33-34 Maharach Road)
  4. Foundation for the Employment of the Blind: for off-the-beaten-path blind massages (200 baht; 2218/86 Chan Kao Road)
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