A common categorization of Thai Massage styles in Thailand is that of Northern style and Southern style Thai Massage. Another well-known classification is that of Royal style (Nuad Rajasamnak) versus Folk style (Nuad Chaloeisak) of which we have written in other posts already. I mention those because Northern Thai style Massage is often associated with Folk style Thai Massage and Southern Thai style Massage with the so-called Royal style Thai Massage.
But let me start by saying that the differences between Northern and Southern Thai Style Massage in Thailand may be less visible or even non-existent for a layman, and in many ways there are no differences indeed. Or let me put it otherwise — both styles have much more in common than in difference.
Having said that, let’s take a look at the “perceived” differences. Now, “Northern” refers to the Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and partly also the Isan provinces, and “Southern” designates the central region of Thailand, that is, all around Bangkok. Further down the country it would be mainly Southern style, but the deep south of Thailand, being predominantly a Muslim region, adds its own influences, including those from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Northern style Thai Massage, through the ancient Lanna Kingdom, has a stronger Asian Indian influence, with more emphasis on Yogic, Ayurvedic, and Herbal elements compared to Southern Thai style Massage. Nevertheless, strong Indian influences go through the whole of Southeast Asia up to Indonesia.
There are also some ideas circulating that Southern style, in contrast to Northern style, has “borrowed” more from Traditional Chinese Medicine i.e. acupuncture and acupressure points and meridian knowledge, which, for instance, would be clearly reflected in Thai Foot Massage and Reflexology.
You will also find differences in the way the Thai Sen Energy lines are described, that is, in the topology. But, in the North itself there are different Sen Line versions used also, like in the South, so that wouldn’t really be a “qualifier.”
At any rate, today in Thailand, you’ll find Northern Style practiced and taught in the south of Thailand and vice versa. And, it’s not uncommon that therapists, schools and trainers practice both Northern and Southern style at the same time or some kind of blend.
As for the techniques used, it’s generally thought that Northern Style Thai Massage incorporates more stretches and “range of motion” exercises, also being performed slower and less “formal” than Southern style, which in contrast incorporates more acupressure Sen Energy Line work, a faster pace, and the use of a variety of fixed treatment protocols for specific ailments and discomforts.
The style perhaps coming most close to being “authentic” Northern Thai style Massage would the Lanna Thai Massage style, although even there things have become somewhat “fuzzy” nowadays.
It’s also good to remember that what is now referred to and used as Northern Style in Thai Massage schools in Thailand, was put together by Mr. Sinthorn Chaichakan in the 1960s, the famous Thai Massage teacher and therapist who founded the Old Medicine Hospital in Chiang Mai. The official curriculum of the school is a blend of Southern Style Thai Massage and Northern Hill Tribe and Lanna Kingdom Folk Healing methods and techniques.
Well, I hope I have been able to shed some light on the Northern and Southern paradigm of Thai Massage and not, in contrast, have added to the general confusion.