Phnom Penh’s massage parlours seldom employ professionally qualified staff, but they can nevertheless provide some much-needed relaxation for the capital city’s urbanites
Photo by: Sovann Philong
There is no established tradition behind “traditional” Khmer massage, a physiotherapist says.
GOING for a massage is an affordable and common pastime in Phnom Penh, particularly for expats.
A general complaint, however, is that most masseurs simply go through the same set of moves every time, instead of focusing on those areas that need extra attention. Given the unregulated market and a general lack of professional training, can unprofessional massages do more harm than good?
"Can it damage you? Yes and no," said Jean-Claude Dhuez, a French-trained physiotherapist who runs his own private clinic in Phnom Penh. "If you don't have any problems then, most of the time, no."
According to Dhuez, most body and foot massages are safe and beneficial provided the client doesn't have any significant problems or injuries from before. He cites positive effects on the skin, the muscles, blood circulation and the mind, as well as general relaxation as benefits from almost any massage.
The contention is echoed by Andrew Marriott, an Australian-certified massage therapist also practising in the capital. "If one is looking for relaxation, then any massage which comes in contact with the skin is very helpful for the skin, because the skin is the largest organ," he said.
It can be quite relaxing ... but they don’t know what they are doing or why.
However, Marriott also noted that for purposes of actual treatment of muscular pain, going to a professional is highly advisable. He said that though an amateur massage may provide some relief in the short run, it is always prudent to visit a specialist to prevent initial problems developing into bigger ones.
Though not advocating against high street massages, Dhuez is wary of the so-called traditional Khmer massage. He explained that most traditional massage styles, from Chinese, through Japanese to ayurvedic, are based on a set of protocols, and practitioners usually go through rigorous training before starting work at a practice. "They know what they're doing and they're treating people," he said.
In contrast, according to Dhuez, there is currently no established discipline behind "traditional" Khmer massages. Instead, the techniques are handed down through generations by being taught from one person to another. "They have learned a recipe and they are applying it," he said.
"It can be quite relaxing because they are pressing the muscles, but they don't know what they are doing or why," he continued. This is precisely what many massage aficionados, who are constantly on the lookout for that seemingly elusive perfect massage, say.
Dhuez laments many spa owners' unwillingness to invest in staff training. Many prospective spa owners come to him for advice, he said, but back down when they learn the cost of professional training.
Yet unprofessional massages, especially traditional Khmer ones, can potentially be harmful.
"Sure, it can do damage. Because in addition to pressing the muscles, you also twist the body and that can be dangerous if the masseur doesn't know how to do it," Dhuez said.
He cites problems such as misaligned vertebra, twisted pelvises and pulled muscles as possible complications. "It can create a problem where there wasn't a problem before. It doesn't happen that often, but it's something you should take into account," he said.
Not all bad
So why do so many of us keep going back to the same average service? Evidently, price is a factor; massages are more than affordable for most of us. Both Dhuez and Marriott also agree that they are likely to be relaxing; indeed, many heavy users keenly look forward to that hour or two of peace and quiet.
The bottom line, thus, seems to be that if you suffer from a recurrent, chronic problem, or experience severe or acute pain, consult either a physician, physiotherapist or qualified massage therapist.
Even then, however, as both Marriott and Dhuez pointed out, there are generally no quick fixes. Twenty years of back pain won't go away in a session, but the sooner you go, the better.
On the other hand, if you're generally healthy and simply looking for an hour away from your blackberry, that five-dollar-massage-parlour around the corner might just do the trick.