How To Find Good Massage (For Cheap) When Traveling Asia

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Because Who Doesn’t Love Massage?!

Massage is one of life’s great indulgences, and something I love to treat myself to – both while at home and away. While I adore the gorgeous experiences of amazing spa’s, it’d be a shame to avoid the cheapo establishments when traveling Asia. Not only are some of these hard working ladies relying on your business, some of them give the best damn massage around. I’ve personally been twisted and pressed into incredible releases of muscles and mind when I least expect it, at the most basic places. In this post, I’ll share things I’ve learnt over the past few months of getting massages throughout Asia.  


Presently I’m in Phuket for a month staying at a luxury resort, writing this from a restaurant on the beach. Last Sunday I had truly the most amazing massage at the hotel spa. It started with ginger tea, continued with singing bowels and an ever-so-sweet therapist who was obviously highly qualified and skilled. She gave me the best Thai massage I could possibly have imagined. The results lasted for days. The cost was about the same as what I would’ve paid at a luxury hotel spa back in Canada – around $180 for the hour. This therapist likely works elsewhere in town for $20 an hour. Really you pay for the place, not the therapist. It’s the place that creates the experience, and that’s how they’re able to keep pricing consistent with the luxury brand. So it makes sense to treat yourself to local massage shops in town when traveling around Asia. Ten times cheaper!

Stand By Your Standards

Today I walked out of a really bad massage. Unlike the glorious one last week, this one was truly terrible.

After being ‘rubbed down’ for 20 minutes, I was over it. Getting up was easy… much easier than you’d think. You literally just end the massage. It’s not awkward, and you don’t even need an explanation. Bad massage workers (you can’t call them therapists) totally know that they’re bad.

Strategically situated a short walk away from the high priced Marriot resort on a beach in Thailand, pop-up massage parlors are more common than Starbucks in Seattle… and for about $15 you can take your chances on getting a good one.

When it comes to massage in North America, the licensing takes literally hundreds of hours and intelligent study. The therapists are indeed therapists, and they can find knots in your body very quickly. They then get to work in massaging these knots away, and really, massage is a valuable investment in your health.

Kathmandu was the weirdest one, and I should’ve known better when the front desk agent wagged his finger and said ‘funny massage, you don’t go there’ to me as I walked down the stairs of a closed salon one rainy Sunday. By weird I mean forget your privacy – definitely be sure to have a same gender ‘therapist’ (nobody is actually a therapist).

Another ‘funny massage’ was in Hong Kong, where the lady literally petted me for the first 20 minutes. By ‘petted’ I mean, petted… tap, tap, tap, like I was a weird exotic cat that she was afraid to touch. I stopped the massage after 20 minutes and said “You no good massage, we… finishing now.” And I left.  

Risk And Reward

Like children who totally know they’re not supposed to have their hand in the cookie jar, unqualified and random workers in massage salons (who also work as a prep cook and housekeeper) totally know that they’re playing with fire trying to massage you. The question is not what will happen if you walk out of a bad massage. They’re not going to be fined, like they would in Canada. Nope – this ‘grey area scam’ of rubbing down tourists (and charging ten times more than they’d make as a housekeeper) is that once in a blue moon, someone is going to finish the massage early. They’ll walk out saying ‘you no good’ – which they already know.

The risk versus reward for the massage worker is worth it. Imagine if we could be play lawyer, or doctor… or massage therapist in Canada as otherwise minimum wage workers. Our annual income would get a major boost, and if the only risk was an occasionally disgruntled customer who didn’t want to continue our services, it’s actually a pretty smart move, when you think about it. Bottom line, booking a massage in Asia is a coin flip. You might get a really good one… it’s a ten dollar gamble.





6 Tips To Staying Safe

1. Know the difference between a salon and a parlor. First up, massage therapists don’t work in massage parlors. Massage parlors are a whole other scene. If you’re a female patron visiting a massage salon, you won’t need to worry about anything ‘un-happy’ happening. Don’t go to backstreet massage shops, or places that have signs outside then take you somewhere else. Those are most likely going to be parlors.

2. You should be modestly covered by an oversized sheet at all times. There are clear lines that shouldn’t be crossed in your massage, but the therapist will need you to be wearing minimal clothing to do their best job. If there isn’t a modesty sheet available on the table, speak up before the massage starts. Half way through the massage you’ll be turning over….

3. If the massage worker is ‘slipping’ on your muscles, stop. Massage therapy is an academic career that requires a lot of knowledge. Slipping on your muscles is both damaging and dangerous. Prevent potential harm by stopping the massage right away. They obviously are a hack – save your business for someone else!

4. Take a shower right away after! Let’s face it, these cheap massage shops on the streets of Asia aren’t coming to you with clean sheets every appointment, like the standards required in Canada. The sheets are going to be dirty, so unless you’re super organized and bring your own beach towel, be certain to get scrubbing in your hotel shower as soon as your massage is done.

5. Keep your valuables in sight at all times. I put mine under the head hole at the top of the table, so I can always see it. When you’re lying face down relaxing on the table with minimal clothing and your valuables ‘somewhere in the room’ it’d be very easy for the salon to do an inside job on you and have their son-cousin-coworker slip into the room and grab your stuff without you seeing.

6. Don’t ask for deep pressure massage! Sports massage gives serious results, and also serious damage. Twenty years ago, one of my fitness clients broke her ribs in a deep tissue massage due to therapist negligence. Since then I only get deep tissue with highly qualified, skilled therapists. While it’s important that you speak up if the pressure isn’t right, be realistic and realize that you’re not going to get a qualified massage therapist for cheap… even in China. If you want deep tissue massage, you need to go to a proper high quality establishment, like one at a luxury hotel.

Massage is definitely worth doing when traveling around Asia, but drop your expectations significantly and go into cheap massage as an alternative to a Sunday ice cream. It feels good, it passes time and nobody gets hurt. Speak up and stop a session that annoys you. Pay for what you’ve received (for example, if you booked an hour, and had 15 minutes, pay 25% of what the originally quoted amount was). Walk out, say thank you, and don’t go back. Be confident, nothing will happen to you, nobody will break your knees.

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About the Author

Cat Smiley

Cat Smiley

Hello! I’m Cat, Master Trainer and owner of Whistler Fitness Vacations. We’re a luxury weight loss retreat for women of beginner fitness levels. Click here to go to our home page and find out about our amazing programs!



About Cat

Cat Smiley (@icatsmiley) is one of Canada’s leading body transformation specialists, and the owner of Whistler Fitness Vacations.


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