I stop my bike and dust flies in front of me.
Where is this place?
I’m on a dirt road leading to Wat Sok Pa Luang, a temple on the outskirts of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Having caught an early flight from Bangkok this morning, a massage and herbal sauna, recommended by my guide book, sounds ideal. Now I just need to find the place.
I look in my guidebook, scratch my head and look up. I see a red wooden sign nailed to the tree next to me with, “Traditional Laos herbal steam sauna and massage!!!” and an arrow painted on it.
Going through a bit of jungle, my skin becomes even stickier in the Southeast Asian heat, I finally reach a wooden house with a veranda, but it looks like someone’s private home.
This can’t be it.
“You want massage,” a woman yells down to me.
I crinkle my forehead and nod yes.
After walking up stairs to the second level, I sit down and am handed a bin for my things and a stack of folded clothes to put on. Always on edge about being scammed in this region, I’m not completely sure about leaving all my possessions with people I don’t know in the middle of the jungle, but I go with it. A woman directs me to enter what looks like a closet made of petrified wood. As I do the steam hits me. It’s the herbal sauna I was reading about.
While in there I’m joined by a monk, but we don’t speak to each other. After leaving I’m given tea from a shiny tin pot then directed to one of the flat beds for a massage. I imagine it can’t be much different than a Thai massage, but as the man hits points in my body in ways I never knew possible, I do feel like it’s a completely new experience.
Trying out spa techniques and services while traveling is about much more than just relaxing.
“It will open your eyes to the different traditions that go in hand with that specific region,” says April Bingham, director of the award-winning Aria Spa at Vail Cascade in Vail, Colorado. “They get to using items and techniques, some you might not find in the United States.”
One of the things you’ll notice when traveling the world is that there is never a spa too far away and that massages tend to change, sometimes drastically, from place to place. Whether it be a soft touch and relaxing hour in Sweden or sweating profusely and having your body twisted in Turkey, no massage is alike and each offers a different historical and cultural experience. Here are 8 different massages to try around the world:
Swedish Massage or Classic Massage
Contrary to what you might think, the Swedish massage did not originate in Sweden. In fact, it wasn’t even created by a Swede. According to an article in Massage Magazine, written by magazine founder Robert Noah Calvert, Dutch practitioner Johan Georg Mezger (1838-1909) is credited with adopting the French names for basic strokes that were systemized in the massage we know today as Swedish or classic.
This technique was somehow confused with Peter Ling’s, Swedish Movement System, in the 19th century, giving the massage the actual wrong name. It’s only really referred to as a Swedish massage in the USA though. Across Europe and in the rest of the world it’s just a classic massage.
The Swedish or classic massage is defined by being a massage of frictions, a mixture of stroking, kneading, striking and rubbing. It’s recommended for athletes or those who exercise often as they’re known to have a buildup of lactic acid and the massage can loosen that to allow fresh blood to run through.
Where to try it
This is one massage that is offered all over the world, but since the technique was created by a Dutch man and named in French, give it a try in the Netherlands and/or France. Remember to ask for a classic massage there.
African Rungu Massage
Jacqueline Avis, spa manager at The Oyster Box in South Africa, says while her spa offers this massage and it’s growing in popularity across the region, you have to go to the tribes of East Africa to trace its roots.
“The Rungu stick is a wooden throwing club or baton, bearing special symbolism and significance in East African Tribal Cultures,” says Avis. “In Masaai culture the Rungu is an important symbol of warrior status to the young males. The Masaai are from Southern Kenya & Northern Tanzania area.”
Avis says that the key to this massage is using a Rungu stick to help penetrate deeper into the muscle for a more intense experience.
“The shaft of the stick is used for effleurages and circular movement on larger areas and the larger knob is used on bigger, muscles and the small knob is used to get into smaller spaces like the scapula,” she says. “If you like a deep tissue massage then this massage is great to relieve tension.”
She added that this massage improves blood circulation and sensory nerve perception as well as increases lymphatic drainage and give people a deep sense of relaxation.
Where to try it
This technique is becoming very common in spas, like The Oyster Box, around South Africa and also popping up in spas in Europe.
Shiatsu may be known as Japanese today, but its origins are elsewhere. According to the Shiatsu Society, “Massage, along with acupuncture and herbalism, was for centuries an integral part of traditional Chinese medicine, which was introduced to Japan by a Buddhist monk in the 6th century.” The Japanese went on to use these ideas in their own style and in 1919 practitioner Tamai Tempaku organized the practice into a regiment technique and it was eventually recognized by the Japanese Government in 1964.
Shiatsu means “finger pressure” in Japanese and applying pressure to certain parts of the body is extremely important in this massage, but there are many variations of Shiatsu to fit a particular person and practitioner. Shiatsu also includes some alternative techniques like acupuncture and cupping. The aim of this technique is to create balance in the body.
Where to try it
Why Japan, of course! Japan Shiatsu College has been approved by the country’s Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare. They offer courses as well as a treatment center. Not to mention that this massage is available in spas all over the country and the rest of the world.
Hot and Cold Stone Massage
You’ll find several variations of this indigenous technique all over the world, but its roots are less known about than other massages on this list says Mary Nelson of Tucson, Arizona, creator of LaStone Massage, the original hot and cold stone massage.
“With the stone work, it was sort of a secret with all indigenous people,” she says. “Not just Native Americans and they would sometimes use temperature.”
She write about hot stones being used in therapies throughout history and that this sort of energy work can be traced back 700 years to the Hopi Nation, there reservation is located in Arizona. With the help of her spirit guides she conceived the practice of hot and cold stone work for LaStone massage in 1993.
While some places only offer hot stone massages, Nelson says the focus of LaStone is applying different temperatures to the body for affect.
“The whole goal is about using temperature to get the body to chemically respond,” she says. “It’s all about alternating temperature to make the appropriate changes for the cleansing process.”
She says that this technique can be added to other massages and that applying hot or cold temperatures to the body is going to make the experience that much more powerful and that it’s going to stay with you, sometimes even three days later, as opposed to ending as soon as the masseuse stops.
She wants to make it clear that not all stone massages are alike and that she highly recommends going with a certified LaStone therapists as they are trained to know what temperatures to apply, which is the whole point.
“LaStone Therapy is going to work with all parts of the system,” she says. “There are dances that go on with vibrations in the body and it affects you chemically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Where to try it
You can find a listing of LaStone practitioners on Nelson’s website. Since it can be traced to Native Americans in the Southwest, we recommend trying it on your visit to the region.
Hammam or Turkish Bath
Baths in Europe and Asia have existed for centuries. However, the Ottomans in Turkey were particularly interested in building baths in the then capital city of Constantinople when it was named in 1453. Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, designed several important bath structures around the city, which is now Istanbul, during this time. Some are still in operation today, like Cemberlitas Hamami, giving spa-goers a truly unique chance to take part in an old world activity, in the same place it’s been happening for centuries.
Visiting a Hammam in Turkey is about much more than just receiving a massage. There is an entire process to your visit. According to Cemberlitas Hamami’s website, steps leading up to a massage include, changing into a pestemal or traditional cotton body wrap, heating up the body in their camekan, which is a sauna with a heated marble platform at the center and having your body scrubbed down and washed by an attendant. Then you receive a massage, which they offer variations of, but depending on where you go and who your masseuse is, can include people walking on your back and twisting or pulling at your body, so be prepared or ask ahead.
Where to try it
Cemberlitas Hamami has been in operation since it was built by Mimar Sinan in 1584, so it’s quite the experience to visit here. That said, there are several Hammams to choose from in Istanbul, so read up on which one sounds right for you.
Thai massages, often referred to as yoga massages, have been taught from generation to generation orally, leaving little documented about the massage’s history. In an article for Massage Magazine, Anthony James, a natural medicine doctor, credits Jivaka, contemporary of the Buddha and personal physician to Bimbisara, who served as king of North India from 543-491 BC, with creating the foundation for the modern day Thai massage, which explains its links to yoga.
A Thai massage requires a bit of movement from both the masseuse and receiver. It will include deep tissue kneading and rubbing, but the masseuse will move your body parts in certain ways and apply pressure to give people a deep stretch. You’ll hear quite a lot of cracking in your bones if the masseuse is doing things right.
Where to try it
It’s pretty hard to go anywhere in Thailand without being solicited about a massage and they’re so cheap in the country, you can afford to say yes every time. Wat Pho in Bangkok, which houses the famous reclining Buddha, is a world-renowned massage school. Students there offer their services to the public, so it’s a nice place to stop during a day of touring in the sticky city. Plus, it’s more of a spiritual experience receiving this massage in a temple as opposed to a random parlor.
Ayurveda head massage
Continuing with Indian influence, this massage spawns from a 5,000 year system of healing in the country. According to an introductory article to the practice by Scott Blossom, a traditional Chinese medical practitioner, for Yoga Journal, Ayurveda or “knowledge of life” is “a system of healing that examines physical constitution, emotional nature, and spiritual outlook in the context of the universe”. Massage in several variations is a part of this system.
For the head massage, practitioners use certain oils as they knead and stoke all over a person’s head, going through their hair, but focusing on hitting their temples. They’ll also work on your shoulders, hands and more in this massage. Narenda Metha, author of “Indian Head Massage: Discover the Power of Touch”, notes in Yoga Journal that this massage supports the nervous system by alleviating stress, allowing the body to release and repair other areas.
Where to try it
Since India’s cities can be very busy and you’ll want to completely unwind with this spa service, maybe look into visiting a yoga retreat or meditation center while in India. Places like Ayurveda Yoga Villa in Kerala offer spa services.
Now for the massage that started this piece. It’s hard to find direct information about a Laos massage, but you can trace is similarly to the Thai massage, linking to Jivaka in India. Though the origins are similar, the technique and ritual is slightly different and you may find that you prefer one to another.
A Laos massage is conducted as pressure is applied to certain points of the body in a repetitive flow. You’ll notice a bit of foot reflexology in there and it’s somewhat softer than a Thai massage, but still you’ll feel cracking in certain points of the body. One common addition to this massage in Laos is the herbal steam room as mentioned at the start.
Where to try it
If you want a truly unique massage experience where you go off the beaten path in less than a 30-minute bike ride from Vientiane, head to Wat Sok Pa Luang. The massage house at this religious area will be in the forests. Look for signs.
– Bobbi Lee Hitchon