header logo for the Buddha garden

Wat Pho Massage School, Bangkok, Thailand

by Mark Romero

Kevin was in a lot of pain.

The thirty-something middle manager of a chemical company in Bangkok admitted that he likes to go out on the town just about every night. He also confessed that his late-night adventures were the cause of his early-morning suffering.

"I went to a disco on Pat Pong last night and I think I dusted my back," he related. "It wasn't so much the dancing that did me in, mind you, as the activities that followed afterward," a boyish smile spread across his face despite his obvious agony.

So where does a modern man who can afford to go to the most expensive hospital in town or visit the most up-to-date specialist head to when his spinal cord is on the blink?

"'Wat Pho.' Yeah, that's what my secretary said when I called her from my bed and asked her to cancel my appointments for the day."

Kevin related that he thought the only way of straightening his spine would be by seeing a chiropractor. But his secretary was adamant: "She insisted I get a massage before wasting my money on a doctor, even though I kept telling her that it was a 'massage' that got me in this situation in the first place."

Carol, a young beach-blonde from Munich with a Ko Samui suntan, had her own reasons for getting a rub down at the massage school.

"It is very important to have your yin and yang balanced regularly," she said with a seriousness that only those of Teutonic blood seem able to convey.

"Every month I go down to the islands for the full-moon parties. It is a lot of fun, you know, but it is very bad for your body's balance.

"That is why I always have daily massages and get herbal medicine treatments for at least a week after each party. They are the best ways to make your body right again," she explained.

The traditional massage and herbal medicine school at Wat Pho, home of the 46-meter-long reclining Buddha, was established in 1795. The school currently takes up two adjacent buildings in the eastern section of the temple compound. Both buildings have around a dozen long, low wooden beds that have thick padding and are large enough for two masseuses and their patients at a time. Lying on the beds are people of every age and affliction, either students being taught a new technique or patients seeking relief.

Since the school's founding some thirty-seven years ago it has grown in size and scope. The number of instructors has increased from just a handful in the first year of operation to 40 at present, all of them graduates of the school. Hundreds of others have studied here and gone on to open their own clinics in Bangkok or work as freelancers. These latter ones can often be seen offering their trade while strolling along the beaches of the Kingdom's tourist resorts.

Ajarn Thongchai Oonnom, an instructor at the school with over 22 years teaching experience, claimed that there are about 100 new students at the school each year. The vast majority of them concentrate on massage and only a few of the older ones study herbal medicine. He said that the reason for this was because studying herbal medicine is far more complex: "You can study herbal medicine your whole life and still never know everything about it." Still, he thinks that it is a worthwhile subject and wishes more people would study it.

Those interested in studying massage at the school begin with a basic-level course, which is designed to introduce the student to the fundamental techniques. This first course lasts for thirty hours and has no set time schedule: students are free to come in on any day of the week at any time to study. After completion of these first thirty hours, the students will be able to go on to more specialized areas of the body. Many of the teachers have a respectable level of English, so those who are inept in the vernacular are not entirely out of luck. The enrollment fee is 4,500 baht for non-Thais, less for locals (as usual). However, there is a 10 baht admission fee to Wat Pho that has to be paid upon every visit, so expect to add on a couple hundred baht more.

And if your yin and yang need a tune up or if you've had more fun than you should and are now paying the price, then you can do like Carol and Kevin and get your kinks worked out. The school is also happy to treat anyone with more serious problems as well, so don't worry that your affliction isn't hip enough. A basic rub down is one hundred baht for a half-hour session, 180 for a full hour. There is also a special one hour session with herbal treatment for 260 baht.

Despite being less than 40 years old in its present form, many of the techniques taught here were known by locals long before the founding of the school.

"Instruction in massage really began in earnest at Wat Pho in 1836, during the reign of King Rama III," said Ajarn Thongchai

"You see, the king decided that the temple should house the first open university, a place where history, religion, culture, medicine and physical therapy could be taught. He was able to find qualified instructors for the former subjects but had difficulty with the latter.

"Many rishis (ascetics) from India had been living in Bangkok for at least 100 years before the university was opened. Because they spent long hours meditating, they had to become adept at self massage in order to avoid becoming very stiff and sore. So King Rama III decided to have the rishis' knowledge of physical therapy taught at the university," he related.

Near the front gates of Wat Pho are many statues of those Indian rishis. They are twisting themselves into strange contortions - some with smiles of joy on their faces, others with grimaces of strain. They are still in good condition and have plenty of detail, despite the passing of over 150 years since they were cast, a testament to the craftsmanship during the reign of the third monarch.

Ajarn Thongchai also pointed out many large stone inscriptions along the inside of the massage school as well as scattered throughout the temple complex, explaining that massage techniques and herbal medicine recipes are engraved on them. "Unfortunately, most are written either in Pali or in an old form of Thai script, so many of the people who wanted to copy down the instructions were unable to decipher them," he said. "For that reason, the king decided to have many easy-to-follow illustrations made and put up alongside the inscriptions.

"That is why you see all these diagrams of the human body along these walls," he said pointing towards the illustrations that line the inside of one sala near the massage school.

The massage school here is unique in the way that it has blended the ancient classical methods of massage that originated in India with traditional massage therapies indigenous to Thailand. It also differs from most other schools in that traditional healing with herbal medicine is also taught.

"Ajarn Vira was the founder of the school," related Ajarn Thongchai, "and he decided to collect as much knowledge about massage and herbal medicine as he could from as many different local doctors as possible. He thought that it would be best to use whatever worked well, not just the techniques that came originally from India."

The entrance to Wat Pho is on narrow Jetuphon Road, about two kilometers south of Wat Phra Kaeo. Admission to the temple complex is 10 baht. The massage school is open every day from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm.