Trekking on tropical trails, riding on bumpy dirt roads, gadding about in the heat and lapping up generous quantities of Beer Lao are all popular activities in Laos that can leave at least one body part feeling very sore. If you’re passing through Vientiane, you may want to take advantage of the very affordable massages on offer.
In a traditional Lao massage, the masseuse rests on the body’s pressure points with rhythmic repetition, using their body weight to add force. The person being massaged traditionally remains clothed, and will be provided with a set of pyjamas to wear. The set routine starts with some foot reflexology and moves its way up to your head. It’s intended to run for more than an hour, so when you get the one-hour massage, the masseuse will do a basic ‘once-over’. If you’re suffering from any muscle soreness that you want them to work on, best get a 90-minute or a two-hour massage to allow time to really work out those knots.
The price usually runs 40,000-60,000 kip per hour, depending on the calibre of the place. Be warned: a decent Lao massage hurts good. If you want something more soothing, opt for an oil massage.
During an oil massage, you’ll wear a towel, so the more modest will want to keep their underwear on. The oil massage is comprised of long rubbing and stroking motions, and is more similar to European-style deep tissue massage. Scented oil is sometimes an option. Your skin will definitely feel oily afterwards, so best get an oil massage later in the evening or pop home for a shower before going out in the sticky hot sun again. Oil massages typically cost 80,000 kip and up.
Many places offer Laos also offer herbal steam massage, which features heated cloth compresses the size of grapefruit, filled with various aromatic herbs. The compresses are pressed on your skin, and are especially beneficial if you find yourself with a chest cold or some other sort of congestion.
Usually places will also offer massages for specific parts of the body, like head and shoulder, hands and arms or foot reflexology, for 30 or 60 minutes. A great way to treat a hangover is a one-hour head and shoulder with foot reflexology combo. The head and shoulder massage helps cure the headache, while the foot reflexology, done well, can help your organs recuperate from a heavy night of drinking — it also just feels incredibly good.
A great massage can do wonders for an aching body, but only if you feel comfortable, both physically and mentally. Masseuses often don’t speak English, so to tell them something hurts say ‘jehp’ (pain) and to ask them apply more pressure say ‘haeng’ (strong), or mak haeng (I like strong). If you like bone-breaking massages, make sure to tell them haeng haeng deuh.
If you like what your masseuse is doing say ‘dee’ (good) and if you don’t, then say ‘bohr mak’ (I don’t like). Some masseuses include the chest, inner thigh and glutes in the full body massage. If any of these feel intrusive, sweetly shake your head ‘no’ and you’re masseuse will probably understand and move along with a nervous giggle. Some guys have reported both male and female masseuses copping a sneaky feel on their package; while it’s unquestioningly inappropriate, it’s most probably done out of curiosity about falang (foreigners) and not intended to provoke, so do try not to get angry and kindly shake your head ‘no’.
Vientiane literally has hundreds of massage parlours. Some provide a dingy mattress under flickering neon lights, in a moldy room with a faint smell of sewage and a masseuse who might be texting with one hand while rubbing absent-mindedly with the other. Other places are luxury spas with comfortable clean beds, dim lighting, hints of lemongrass in the air and a skilled, focused masseuse. You usually get what you pay for. With a service where the atmosphere is so integral to the experience, it’s worth paying a little more, instead of wasting money on feeling unsatisfied.
Notably good places in downtown Vientiane include Papaya Spa, located behind Hotel Beau Rivage Mekong, which has an excellent setting and massage at high prices. Champa Spa is at the higher end, but offers consistently good massages and other spa services. There are three downtown locations: on the Mekong at the corner of Pangkham and Fa Ngum Rd, on Manthatourath one street over, and on Pangkham close to Samsenthai Rd (north of Nam Phou Fountain).Oasis Spa on Francois Ngin offers midrange prices and a nice atmosphere. Some masseuses are better than others, although none are disappointing. Wellness Massage Center on Setthatirath Road, opposite Wat Inpeng, is reasonably priced with a decent atmosphere and a good selection of scented oils for massage.
A favourite place, five kilometres out of town, is Manee Spa. Located on Sokpaluang Road, go past the Burmese Embassy on your right and you’ll see a sign for it on one of the dirt roads going left. It offers consistently excellent massage, private rooms with quality massage tables, a luxurious yet tasteful interior and beautiful surrounding gardens. Most services are very expensive, but the oil massages at 80,000 kip are a good deal for a great service.
Last but not least: while a tip for your masseuse is not expected, an extra 10,000 kip will always be highly appreciated.
By Ivana Lexa-French
Last updated on 22nd July, 2015.