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Massage in Malaysia: Traditions old and new

February 9, 2013 - Travel Wire Asia

By Graham Land

As a holder of three diplomas in massage and former practitioner of both medical (sports injuries) and wellness massage, I still find the varying practices of this ancient art and therapy among different cultures to be a fascinating subject.

Malaysia is of course no exception. Since the origins of modern massage can be traced back to India and China, Malaysia – as a crossroads for these two cultures and home to a rich native culture of its own – is by no surprise a place where one can find both traditional massage and modern spa techniques. I also admire when they mix the two up a bit.

malaysia spa

Malaysian spa. Pic: Auswandern Malaysia (Flickr CC)

Modern wellness massage with a twist

Health spas at Malaysia’s luxury resorts naturally offer a fair bit of pampering to their clients. Check out this partial description of one treatment offered at the Andaman in Langkawi.

From the Langkawi Gazette:

Sprawling out on the massage bed, I close my eyes in anticipation of a body polish made of honey, wild ginger and lime. Asiah applies the delicious blend in a circular motion all over my body, gently rubbing off the dry skin cells from the surface. Next comes the rich blend of kencur, galangal, ground rice and sea cucumber, known among the locals as the miracle cure, gamat. Asiah wraps me into layers of warm fluffy towels, with the heat opening my pores and enabling the skin to absorb the potent ingredients. Squeezing juice out of the freshly cut aloe-vera leaves, Asiah applies the nourishing fluid into the lengths of my hair, gently massaging my scalp, and letting me slowly drift off…

The above treatment features some elements that will be familiar to most spa goers and some that are unique to Malaysia, such as the traditional blend of sea cucumber and regional varieties of ginger.

Fish spas

Other, trendier spa therapies popular in Malaysia, especially in Kuala Lumpur, include fish spas, which have also popped up around other Asian countries and in Europe. I’ve seen a few in Portugal and in just about every tourist town on Crete!

fish spa malaysia

Fish spa in Kuala Lumpur. Pic: mulberry leaves (Flickr CC)

Patrons plunge their feet into tanks or pools of garra rufa or doctor fish and let the little therapists go to work on their road-weary hoofs. The doctor fish nibble away at dead skin, allowing fresh skin to grow in its place. The treatment is especially recommended for sufferers of psoriasis, eczema and other skin disorders. Contrary to popular belief, the fish may not actually eat the skin, but instead are “sawing” away at it in search of real food.

It should be noted that fish spas are not legal in some regions of certain countries, including the US and Canada, though their ban is more on a technical note since it says that all spa treatments materials must be disposed of or sanitized after use. Now it hardly seems fair to throw away all those doctor fish after each therapy session, does it? And as for sanitizing a pool of fish… not quite applicable!

Traditional Malaysian massage

Urut melayu, a traditional Malaysian method of massage based on “moving the wind”, is not as potentially rough and painful as some varieties Asian of massage can be. Good thing, since some people exit Chinese massage clinics in serious pain, though others drift out on a relaxing cloud of blissful… um… bliss. It’s a bit of a gamble if you don’t speak the local lingo. My experiences with Thai massage were mixed. It hurt, but afterwards I felt quite nice. Then I learned to do it myself and hurt others. Just kidding, I believe in being firm but gentle.

Urut melayu is a deep-tissue massage featuring long, kneading strokes and focusing on blood flow (the wind?). “Urat” in Malay means blood vessels. The treatment is meant to stimulate energy points while warming and relaxing the muscles. Professional official practitioners of urut melayu are registered with the Malaysian Ministry of Health.

Besides its relaxing effects, urut melayu has been scientifically studied and used in some hospitals, particularly for the treatment of patients who have suffered strokes. See here and here for PubMed articles on urut melayu and stroke victims.

Another traditional method of massage in Malaysia is the practice of “Sarawak Kenyah” a deep tissue treatment originating in the east of the country. Sarawak Kenya is available at some spas and wellness centers throughout Malaysia.

massage by the blind

Foot massage by the blind, Sabah. Pic: Jeremy Eades (Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, like in Taiwan, Thailand and other Asian nations, massage is also a job often performed by the blind community. For a list of traditional blind massage centers in Malaysia see this page of the National Council for the Blind.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

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Author Bio

Graham Land (UK)

Graham Land is a former musician and freelance writer who blogs on environmental topics for Asian Correspondent, Travel Wire Asia and greenfudge.org. He has travelled extensively and lived in the US, Asia and throughout Europe.

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