Massage and herbal healing are presumably as old as the human race. After hunters returned to their caves with aching limbs, their mates probably tried to rub away the stiffness. Meanwhile,while foraging the forests, they would find wild plants and, after experimentation, discover that some had amazing medicinal properties.

Over time, this knowledge was refined and passed down, first orally from generation to generation. Later, samut khoi, parchment texts, were produced. As trade and relations began to develop between villages, then city-states and finally kingdoms, this know-ledge was shared and adopted.

As early as the third century BC, Indian Brahmins and Buddhist monks traveled to Thailand. As well as the introducing new religious beliefs, they brought with them a holistic approach to healing, Ayurveda, which is based on maintaining a balanced flow of energy through meridians in the body and includes massage and herbal remedies.

As the region’s name, Indochina, so well implies, the Chinese also had a strong influence on Thai culture, bringing with them their treatments, particularly acupressure and acupuncture, as well as a cornucopia of animal and herbal concoctions.

Thus, Thai healing evolved with the integration of these systems and ethno-practices being performed by local healers, shamans, and midwives. Based on a holistic approach that includes internal, external, and psycho-spiritual disciplines, or herbal potions, massage, and meditation, this medical philosophy focuses on four elements, earth (din), water (nam), wind (lom), and fire (fai), and achieving body and mind harmony.

The first hospitals in what is today Thailand date back to the Khmer Empire, which reigned over the northeastern region; in 1182-1186, King Jayavarman VII ordered the opening of 102 hospitals, or arokaya sala. The oldest pharmacological artifacts, a stone metate and roller for producing medicine from the Dvaravati period, have been uncovered in Sukhothai, the Thai capital before Ayutthaya. From the same kingdom comes the famous King Ramkham haeng Inscription, the first evidence of a Thai alphabet, upon which it is written how the king ordered the planting of a royal medicinal garden.

The capital of the Thai Kingdom, or Siam, later became Ayutthaya, which endured from the 14th to 18th centuries. Sometimes described as a Thai renaissance when King Narai the Great ruled, this enlightened monarch had a royal dispensary and drug stores opened. Royal Thai physicians also produced the first Thai pharmacopoeia, Tamra Phra Osot Phra Narai, with over 700 drug recipes. Meanwhile, Western, or international, medicine was being introduced, first by visiting Portuguese. Later, French missionaries established Ayutthaya Hospital. International medicine continued to have an influence, until King Phet Racha banned all Westerners from the Kingdom.

During the disastrous sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767, the royal library was destroyed, including all but two of its medical treatises, the Phramacopoeia of King Narai and Scriptures of Diseases. After King Rama I established a new Thai capital at Ratanakosin, or Bangkok, he ordered the renovation of Wat Phra Chetuphon, better known as Wat Pho, which is one of the oldest and largest Buddhist temples in Thailand, The walls were inscribed with royal drug remedies. He also established a royal dispensary, much like the one in Ayutthaya.

King Rama II continued this restoration and later issued a Royal decree for the establishment of drug dispensaries around the city and country. During the reign of Rama III, an American doctor, Dan Bradley, arrived in Thailand with smallpox vaccinations, and once more international medicine found favor in the Kingdom. King Mongkut, or Rama IV, continued to promote Western thinking, and his son, King Chulalongkorn the Great, or Rama V, established Siriraj Hospital, offering both Western and Thai treatments. Included in this facility was a school for surgeons and general practitioners, the latter studying in a three to four year course in traditional medicine. In 1895, the first medical textbook, Paetsat, which included both Western and Thai theories and practices, was published.

All this led to the establishment of a Department of Health, which opened Thai and Western drugstores, Osot Sala. A government pharmaceutical factory, Osot Sala, was then started to supply these chains. During the reign of King Rama VII, in 1929, the two medical approaches were separated, which was very detrimental to Thai indigenous medicine. It wasn’t until the World Health Organization began promoting the preservation of ethnoheritage in 1927 that the Ministry of Health turned its attention to a revival of indigenous treatments, which has been supported more and more by national economic and social development plans. This led to the establishment of the Foundation for the Promotion of Thai Traditional Medicine and other related organizations and agencies.

While this movement concentrated more on herbal healing, Thai massage was also gaining in interest and popularity. Wat Pho had established a massage school together with its homeopathic program. Here they taught what some now call the southern tradition, while in Chiang Mai, a northern tradition was being introduced. Both are based around Ayurvedic philosophy and yoga, as well as acupressure, the main difference being that the Wat Pho system begins around the stomach, which is believed to be the source of body energy, or prana in Sanskrit and chi in Chinese. The northern system begins at the feet and then ends at the head.There are also more informal methods with slight variations that combine the more formal systems and other styles developed over the centuries in different villages and regions.

Yes, Thai massage is a great relaxant and method to release stress and aching muscles. But it is also penetrates to the deep tissue, detoxifying as it stimulates lymphatic functions and the immune system. Different from Western approaches, the Thai massage recipient remains clothed and no oils are applied. The massage is also performed on the ground or floor with the practitioners using their hands, elbows, knees, and feet.

In the next chapter, we will give a more detailed explanation of the different techniques, or routines, in traditional Thai massage, nuat phaen boran. This will be followed by a comprehensive discussion on natural remedies for health and beauty. Finally, will look at how herbs and massage can be combined to create holistic treatments for the body and mind.