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Tok Sen Massage—a Northern Thailand Experience

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Have you ever heard of tok sen massage? I hadn’t either before I visited Chiang Mai. I won’t “spill the beans” in only the first paragraph of this article, but I will say this: I have tried a lot of different types of massage and I don’t shy away from deep tissue massages. This was entirely unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Be warned!

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Traditional Thai Massage

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Tok Sen Massage

Tok Sen is an ancient Thai massage that originated in northern Thailand and involves the use of a special wooden hammer, or mallet, made from the wood of the tamarind tree. Hopefully, I haven’t lost you already as it’s not even getting fun yet! Tok means to hit and it also references the sound from the mallet when it hits the wooden wedge. Sen refers to the body’s energy pathways or the energy lines recognized in traditional Thai medicine.

In Tok Sen massage, the mallet and wedge are used to stimulate energy points throughout the body. It combines manual pressure, passive stretching, and the deep vibration that is created by the wooden instruments. This combination restores well-being and transforms the mind, body, and energy in a person.

It is certainly not a mainstream massage modality and though you can get it in some areas outside of northern Thailand, I’m not sure how authentic the experience is.

Benefits of Tok Sen Massage

Tok Sen massage is an ancient practice that helps life energy flow throughout the body. This helps all of the systems of the body to work more effectively together, both to eliminate sickness and to prevent disease. There are a lot of common conditions that can benefit from Tok Sen massage.

  • Improves alignment
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Increases circulation
  • Offers better digestion
  • Reduces physical pain
  • Increases flexibility

In general, Tok Sen massage improves how the body functions. This improves people’s quality of life, reduces their chances of getting sick, and makes people feel better.

You may think that these benefits are similar to those of more traditional massage modalities and you’d be correct. They are. This is just a different approach based on ancient teachings and methods.

Tok Sen Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I first learned of Tok Sen from the owner of my guest house, Paul. Since I’m an early riser and he is as well, we had several chats over Thai tea in his small restaurant. He shared some of the great things to do in his city, and told me about Tok Sen.

In hindsight, I should have noticed the gleam in his eye when he told me all about it. The funniest part of it was that he didn’t hold back. He told me all about it and I grew more intrigued. Apparently, this is why I didn’t shy away from my Moroccan Hammam experience in Marrakech. Perhaps I’m a touch masochist? I’m not sure, but regardless, I was intrigued and decided to give it a try. After all, Paul lived to tell me about it and has done it multiple times, so how bad could it be?

(Personal note: whenever you consider adding the phrase “how bad could it be?” Step back and give it some serious thought!)

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IDI Thai Massage School

Also called the Phatthana Panyathai School, this is a traditional Thai medical clinic and school in Chiang Mai. It offers Thai massage courses and Thai Yam Khang, or Fire Therapy, training. The school also has a number of Thai Traditional Medicine courses including Thai Pharmacy, Thai Midwifery, and Thai Medical.

The IDI Thai Massage School is located at 49 Chang Lor Rd, Tambon Phra Sing, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand. The school is located outside the old city walls, but not far from it. It is open 8 to 8 daily except for Sunday, when it closes at 7.

Heading to my Tok Sen Massage

Paul’s wife, a native from Thailand, called to make my appointment at the IDI Thai Massage School for later that afternoon. My back was pretty sore from all of the travel of the long international flight, as well as a couple of other shorter flights. Additionally, I didn’t find the beds and pillows at the places I was staying to be overly comfortable. While I really loved the guesthouse I stayed at in Chiang Mai, the bed was like sleeping on a stone slab. So, the thought of a deep tissue massage was appealing.

He even offered me a ride on his moped (another sign of being served up as a sacrifice I chose to ignore!) It took around 7 minutes to get there and it was an exhilarating ride in traffic. I’ve been swarmed by mopeds while on foot but hadn’t been part of the swarm until then.

I entered the building and there were several older men there. Only one spoke a little English, but I shared my name and he was able to find my reservation. He pointed at a piece of wood with an incline in front of the front desk. Another man came over to demonstrate that he wanted me to stand on it.

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Let the Torture Begin

Now, I’ll start by saying I’m not the most bendy person. I’m strong, but my muscles tend to be very tight so I’m not terribly flexible. And this wood incline was at something like a 20° angle. Perhaps I’m exaggerating ever-so-slightly, but not much. I think I have seen one of these things in ancient torture chambers.

I stepped up onto it trying to make my foot bend in that awkward angle. Holy @#$%, it hurt! Ever the sport, I kept trying and did notice I was starting to stretch a bit. Not enough for the man, though, and he gestured at the thing pointing and looking at me as if I had just stolen money from his grandmother.

He kept encouraging me—or at least, I think that’s what he was trying to do pointing and waving at me. Every now and then he came around the desk and roughly pushed down on my legs to stretch them further. I’m ever-so-proud I didn’t scream (though I thought about it). He also gave me some stretches to do for my arms, perhaps to distract me from the knives running through my calves. After several days of walking and travel, it hurt.

Finally, with a touch of disgust, he waved me off the thing and pointed to a tiny man who was probably in his 60s. What I know of traditional Thai massage is that it’s very physical for the masseuse as they spend a lot of time climbing on you and stretching you in various ways. So, I was a bit surprised given his size and age.

Again I thought, how bad could this be?

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Massage Preparation

He took me into the treatment room and gave me a pair of loose thick pants that tied at the waist and a button-down shirt and indicated that I should change into them. There was a pallet bed with a mattress on top of it, similar to a futon and I laid face down. I’ll admit, I had a tingle of fear.

First, he took out a wooden mallet and 5-inch long wooden pegs. Paul told me they are traditionally from a tree hit by lightning, and I’ll tell you, that’s exactly how the massage felt when it started. He starts tapping the pegs into different parts of your body. Especially in tight areas, it feels almost like a lightning bolt running through you. The knocking is rhythmic and strangely lulling. It’s especially painful in certain areas of tightness.

Tok Sen Massage

Then he started massaging—pulling and stretching my muscles in what felt similar to a traditional Thai massage. Then back to the tapping. It’s a strange feeling on the edge of true pain and yet somehow lulling at the same time.

Every now and then he would ask, “pain?” I was a little terrified he was asking if I wanted more but I’d like to think he was asking if it was too much. But, I think it was more because he thought when it was no longer painful he was ready to move on. By the time he started asking, I was so out of it with a ridiculous combination of chemicals in my body from the pain of it all as well as whatever Thai juju was happening.

Interestingly, every time I was about to start crying for my mommy, he backed off a little. This tiny little man seriously gave the deepest massage I have ever had in my life. And it was all I could do to not inspect his fingers for the little razor blades I was sure where there.

Towards the end of the massage, he motioned for me to open my mouth and sprayed liquid peppermint into it, indicating I should breathe deeply.

The Aftermath of my Tok Sen Massage Experience

I had requested one hour but I was on the table for an hour-and-a-half. Literally, I had to be helped up off the table. I will say in all honesty that I have never felt more relaxed, pummeled, and loose in my entire life. I think I might have been drooling a bit on myself and didn’t care in the least.

My body wasn’t quite sure what it had just experienced. Was it good? Excruciating? Torturous? And to add to it, I’m extremely ticklish, so some of the areas he hit with Thor’s hammer set me off in a spasm of pain mixed with the feeling of being tickled.

He sprayed more peppermint into my mouth and a little on my fingers to put in my nostrils. My allergies fell away as if they were never there. The peppermint helped, though I suspect they were squeezed out of it if that’s even possible.

I changed into my clothes and believe my shirt was on backward. Not that I cared. I staggered to the front desk feeling intoxicated. I paid the 500 baht (around $16 USD) and my hands were shaking. This is twice the cost (or more) of an hour of traditional Thai massage, but it doesn’t compare.

Leaving (or Trying to)

My masseuse walked me out, and I suspect he was feeling a tad alarmed by the fact that I was mostly incapable of walking. I managed to put one foot in front of the other but it wasn’t pretty. Likely I looked like a marionette with an awkward gait or even a drunken sailor. But do you know what? I didn’t have a care in the world.

He helped me down the front steps to the street. Then, he turned to go back, but seemed to think better of it and offered me his arm to cross the street. Cars are supposed to stop at a stop walk but they really don’t. And crossing streets, especially larger streets like this, is like the old Natari game, Freeway, where a chicken is crossing a road filled with roaring cars.

I can’t believe I didn’t get hit and it was all thanks to my torturer-turned-hero. I couldn’t help but laugh and he did too. We may not have understood each other’s language, but laughter transcends that all. Once he safely escorted me across the street, he touched my arm, gave me a small wave, and away he went.

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Where Can I Find Tok Sen Massage?

Tok Sen massage is not widely offered outside of Thailand. However, I did find some places in the United States offering it. And, chances are good it may increase as people continue to search for new holistic approaches to health.

Here are a few of the places that I found as of this writing:

Final Thoughts about my Tok Sen Massage

Getting a Tok Sen massage is as much like what it must feel like in dungeons where they perform torture as anything I can think of. I have gotten deep tissue massages that made me cry out for my mommy but I had never felt anything like this before (or since). It was excruciating and blissful all at the same time if that makes any sense.

I went through the experience, and it feels almost like what a crazy acid trip must feel like. My recollections are still a tad blurry as they were when I left the building. I can say in all honesty it was the most interesting, unique, and deepest massage experience I have ever had in my life. And maybe this is even more telling (though perhaps I truly am a masochist!)—I would do it again.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you! I laughed and thrilled at your encounter. I can’t wait to go next year. Was your range of motion improved and if yes, for how long? Thanks again????

    1. Hi June! I was a bit sore the next day from the treatment, but after that I felt great! And I had better range of motion the next day. It’s hard to say how long it lasted as I *might* have gotten another massage a few days later. 🙂 When in Southeast Asia…

  2. I’m not able to find a lot of information about tok sen and also naga massage…and tools for tok Sen
    Please can you recommend me some places to buy tok sen tools
    Please thanks for a very honest writing about tok Sen

    1. You’re very welcome. If you are in the US, you could try contacting the places who offer it mentioned in the article. They would have purchased the tools so they will best know where to get them. Thanks for reading!

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