Experiencing the Art of Thai Healing at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School
Wat Pho is a sanctuary of superlatives: it is Bangkok’s oldest temple, originally founded in the 16th century and renovated under the orders of King Rama I in 1788; it has the largest collection of Buddha images of any temple in the Thai capital—some 800 representations in all, including the most famous, its 46-metre reclining Buddha; and it is home to Bangkok’s oldest institution of traditional Thai massage.
But how did a Royal first class temple end up housing a massage school, of all things? Centuries ago, during the Ayutthaya period, a time of turmoil and fighting with neighbouring empires, temples were strongholds of Thai knowledge and wisdom. When Ayutthaya was ransacked by the Burmese, the city’s monks fled, resettling first in Thonburi. Wat Pho’s proximity to King Taksin’s capital led to its designation as a royal temple. Soon it became the new bastion of knowledge. Filled with relics from the glory days of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya dynasties, it gradually developed into the first “open” university for all Siamese. And the traditional art of healing, including massage, was part of the school’s curriculum.
In its foundation, the Wat Pho Traditional Medical and Massage School followed the scripture of ancient Siamese medical texts and massage techniques, collected by Siam King Rama II and King Rama III. Today it assumes the same role, preserving ancient healing traditions through teaching, training, and even visuals: from the gardens to the statues, visitors can survey teachings on stretching and meditation.
During his reign, King Rama III ordered the creation of sixty stone carvings illustrating the art of Thai healing and massage. A Royal doctor, Phraya Bamroer Rajaphat, was appointed to engrave the collective knowledge of Thai medical science in stone around the Phra Maha Chedi and Sala Rai cloisters. The informative—and artistically magnificent—pieces would pass information from one generation to the next. Then in 1856, King Rama V appointed his royal doctors to translate the Pali-Sanskrit book of medical science into Thai, a book used more commonly as old languages fell out of practice. Thus the curriculum modernized, and Wat Pho became a place of higher education, albeit an unlikely one.
In 1955, the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School opened inside the monastery. It was the first medical school to receive official approval from Thailand’s Ministry of Education (a private medical centre exists there today, teaching only traditional medicine). Now the school not only provides massage for visitors, but also massage training. There are 14 courses, ranging from general teaching to specific practices—massage for pregnant women, massage for infants, facial massage.
An “accelerated version,” teaching the basics of traditional massage, comprises 30 hours of lessons a week. Priced at B9500, it is ideal for short-time visitors and lasts from 9am to 4pm every day. Longer courses last for 10 days. The career-minded can join the 165-hour course, which includes 100 hours of practical and 65 hours of theoretical sessions with an exam at the end of the training (and a diploma, too). The course takes about one month and is priced at B45000, including meals and accommodation.