How one man made Chiang Mai the centre of blind massage

November 22, 2017
Steffani Cameron

Thai massage is famous the world over, in all its varying forms. But in Thailand, lesser-known Thai blind massage has yet to spread globally — and it should. Chiang Mai is the centre of blind massage, where it became established and where many got their start. Today, blind massage thrives in this northern city.

Over 30 years ago, a man named Dr. Aud Kaewthong took a massage class in Bangkok and realised that, due to being born blind, his sense of touch was profoundly developed.

I met with the diminuitive, mild-mannered man. Quiet and unassuming, it’d be easy to dismiss him as a 60-ish grandfatherly type, but Dr. Aud is a mover and a shaker, a world-changer, and all of Thailand’s blind community is entirely richer for him.

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The good doctor toiled away as a masseur in big-city Bangkok for a few years after getting his training in the 1980s, and, in 1993, moved to Chiang Mai to start his own massage business.

He sought to empower other sight-deprived Thais by teaching them the ancient art of massage. Soon, the government saw that he was onto something and started kicking in subsidies to help him change the lives of Chiang Mai’s vision-impaired community.

Today, more than 1,000 blind massage therapists work in Thailand, and it has spread into other Southeast Asian communities, too. Mr. Aud’s business employs no fewer than nine massage therapists today, and training them is an ongoing practice.

It can be disconcerting, as a sighted person, to enter a blind massage parlour to find therapists feeling their way through the rooms and changing bedsheets by feel, but once their hands are upon you, it’s like any other massage you might experience elsewhere. Except they’re a bit more in tune with how you balk or bristle under their strength, or how their touch is hitting all the right problem spots.

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Mr. Aud’s clinic holds a storied place in the history of Thai blind massage. That history shows. His place is past its prime and has seen better times. Today, as a budget-friendly clinic, it mostly caters to local Thais looking for a therapeutic treatment, but Dr. Aud and his team welcome all who enter.

Elsewhere, blind massage comes in all kinds of levels. From bare basics, like at Mr. Aud’s, through to high-end luxurious treatments, variety abounds. But whether it’s in a time-worn dilapidated side-street shop or a posh tourist-district spa-like facility, it’s all about those healing hands, and people overcoming visual adversity to spend their lives helping others.

Whatever the facility you choose to visit, just like Dr. Aud, you’re ensuring Thailand’s blind continue to lead productive, rewarding lives.