Thai massage has many healing properties and is one of the mainstays of tourism that attracts travellers from all over the world to Thailand.
The country has gained a reputation as a destination for body rejuvenation, a reputation reinforced at the APEC summit.
The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit helped raise awareness of the healing properties of traditional Thai massageor nuad thaï.
One of the main showcases of the APEC summit, held on 18-19 November in Bangkok, was the traditional massage services offered to participants on site.
Massages by individuals provided a soothing break from the meetings attended by delegates and leaders from 21 economies in one of the world's fastest growing regions.
Its origins go back to one of the country's most famous temples, Wat Phra Chetuphon Wimon Mangkhalaram, better known as Wat Pho.
A cradle of knowledge and a centre of learning for traditional massage, the temple is famous both as a beautiful place to visit and as a place to relax tense muscles.
Traditional Thai massage listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The temple appeared on the world map after the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) included traditional Thai massage, or nuad Thai, on its prestigious World Heritage List.
The coveted registration was announced in December 2019 by the Department of Thai Traditional and Alternative Medicine.
The Department of Cultural Promotion of the Ministry of Culture, which submitted the traditional Thai massage to UNESCO, is also credited with this success.
The Unesco committee registered Nuad Thai as an element of "intangible cultural heritage" at its meeting in Bogota, Colombia.
The Ministry of Public Health is committed to preserving the science and art of traditional Thai massage, which also encompasses a branch of traditional medicine that has been shown to relieve and cure symptoms of disease.
Nuad Thai is also considered a unique profession for Thais.
Thai massage and spa salons have opened here and in many other countries.
The Department of Health Services Support (DoHSS) issues a licence to practitioners who are eligible to practice.
The Ministry enforces the normative requirements under the Health and Welfare Facilities Act, which came into force in 2016.
This law and related laws, enacted a year later, made registration of practitioners in health and welfare businesses mandatory.
The companies that hire the practitioners must also be certified by the Ministry to operate.
The law stipulates that Thai massage practitioners must be at least 18 years old and licensed.
No person who is mentally ill or who has been convicted of offences related to sex crimes, theft or robbery, illegal drugs or prostitution may apply for a licence, unless he or she has been released from prison for more than one year on the day the application is submitted.
People with chronic alcoholism and drug addicts are also not eligible to apply.
Certification aims to eliminate substandard massage services and maximise safety in the name of consumer protection.
The practitioner's licence and operating certificate can be applied for in person at the DoHSS or its branches throughout the country, or via the Ministry's online platform.
But before obtaining the license, those who aspire to become traditional massage practitioners must undergo a rigorous training, which starts at the beginning:
Wat Pho's inexhaustible store of knowledge about traditional medicine and its school of traditional Thai massage.
Permanent Secretary of Labour Boonchob Suthamanaswong said traditional Thai massage outlets have been opened in Europe, the US, the Middle East, Japan and China.
The Ministry of Labour awards a certificate to practitioners who provide quality massage and encourages those in the profession to take a massage quality test to be guided on how to improve standards if necessary.
"Customer confidence in the quality of the service is essential," he said.
The Ministry plans to make this test available to Thai massage practitioners abroad in the future.
Apakorn Wongketkorn, inspector general at the Ministry of Skills Development, said the agency runs an institute that trains people in fields such as oriental massage and traditional Thai massage.
The department has developed guidelines on the management of health and welfare businesses as the country strives to become the regional centre for this industry.
The professional training includes classroom study as well as internships in massage and spa facilities.
There are also language and cultural courses for aspiring massage therapists seeking to work abroad.
Professional quality training and testing centres are located in all provinces.
Since 2018, 11,945 people have registered for Thai massage courses.
Of these, 6,158 passed.
A centuries-old tradition
Wat Pho massage school dates from 1968, when it first opened its doors to the study of traditional medicine and midwifery, although the knowledge that forms the core of the study is much older.
According to UNESCO, the Wat Pho archive contains a multitude of subjects, both religious and secular, recorded in a collection of 1,431 stone inscriptions in Thai language and script made between 1831 and 1841.
These topics represent a wide range of Thai knowledge in the context of over five centuries of global exchange in trade, politics and culture.
King Rama III of the Rattanakosin period and Thai scholars made a conscious effort to preserve them and make them visible to the public, with the ultimate goal of promoting general education about cultural heritage, diversity and civilisations, according to UNESCO.
For this reason, the temple is known as the country's first university.
The practices and 'know-how' of Thai traditional medicine and massage predate the Rattanakosin period.
Indeed, it is in the kingdom ofAyutthayaIt was in the period from 1350 to 1767 that traditional medicine and massage were established as a department specialising in the health of monarchs.
According to the code of the three seals, the chiefs of this department were entitled to feudal acquisition of large tracts of land, which testifies to the high stature of the chief in the official echelon.
Over the past centuries, Thai massage has emerged as an important source of foreign exchange, especially when the country's tourism-dependent economy is in desperate need of a boost.
Naruthai Jaisa-ard, 34, a traditional masseuse, said the wisdom of Thai massage, which has evolved over generations, was presented to APEC leaders as a tangible and invaluable asset.
While she hoped for a steady recovery in tourism, which had been damaged by three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, she insisted that a return to normalcy would not happen overnight.
"It will be some time before foreign visitors return in force and fill the traditional massage parlours again," she said.
According to her, the APEC summit has sparked interest in Thai massage among visitors.
The Covid-19 threat remains
Boon Thammayan, 56, a security guard for a private company, said those in the Thai massage business might keep their fingers crossed as they follow the Covid-19 situation.
Visitors may have reason to be concerned, although the first patient diagnosed with the XBC Deltacron strain of Covid-19 in Thailand has now been cured.
The patient did not show any serious symptoms.
The XBC is a hybrid of the Delta and Omicron BA.2 variants.
According to him, Thai massage must evolve with the times to appear as a safe and easy to understand procedure.
"We also need to differentiate traditional Thai massage from other types of massage offered in other countries.
This distinction can strengthen our selling point," said Boon.
A tonic for an ageing society
Srirat Banyen, 45, a tour guide, believes that nuad Thai could be a promising business in an ageing society where the elderly may find traditional massage both restorative and invigorating.
Many Japanese visitors to the Kingdom are elderly and travel on organised trips with a fixed itinerary.
However, some people take the time to try Thai massage during their stay.
"Some people left impressed with the service and asked for more," she said, warning that Thai massage, wrongly portrayed as a massage with "extra" services, could quickly ruin its image, which has taken years to build.
Foreign visitors who have tried nuad Thai have agreed that the experience is worthwhile.
Seito AkiyoShi, 68, from Japan, said he had already received a traditional Thai massage in Japan.
But he was impressed by the authentic massage offered at Wat Pho.
Tanaka Mariko, 60, an office worker on holiday in Thailand, said she had received a foot massage and that it had relieved her chronic pain.
However, she said she could not tell the difference between the different styles of traditional massage that apply weight to different parts of the body.
Three years of Covid-19 were enough for Mrs Mariko and her husband to book their holidays and pack their bags when it was announced that Thailand was welcoming tourists again.
She says that when she heard in the press that Thai massage was available at the APEC summit, it immediately caught her attention.
Source: Bangkok Post
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