No one would have imagined 43 years ago that the temple next to the Grand Palace would become a top tourist attraction in Bangkok. That was when the now-world-famous massage centre and school was opened at Wat Pho.

On a daily basis, a stream of both local and foreign tourists enters the two small white buildings at the temple to experience a Thai massage treatment, an ancient art of healing that has been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. The structures contain long rows of massage beds, none of which lie empty for over a 10-minute stretch.

The popularity of Thai traditional massage has been increasing globally at a rapid pace and after a rocky start, the massage school affiliated with the temple has developed into a thriving enterprise.

More than 40,000 students from more than 70 countries have graduated from the massage course taught at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Medical School while the number of applicants seeking training at the institution has increased 15-20% annually over the last five years.

“Opening the school was not a piece of cake. Thai traditional massage services have been exploited by the sex industry. This has ruined the reputation of Thai massage. So, it was difficult to find masseuses to take courses at our school at the beginning,” said Preeda Tangtrongchitr, the general manager of the school.

But Mr Preeda did not give up. He tried various means to promote the school including sending brochures to fitness centres listed in the Yellow Pages.

“Initially, out of 100 brochures sent to prospective customers, I got five or six positive responses. I was satisfied with these results, not realising that our massage treatment would one day become one of the two things foreign tourists want to experience during their visit to Thailand,” Mr Preeda recalled.

massage thaiFrom teaching the basic Thai traditional massage, the school at Wat Pho has moved on to provide training on more complicated massages ranging from courses on treating mothers who recently gave birth to helping to heal certain medical condition through massage such as high blood pressure. It has also branched out into offering courses on how to make herbal-based products.

Nevertheless, the training centre has not strayed from its original plan of teaching the rudiments of basic Thai traditional massage.

Mr Preeda plans to spend to spend 50 million baht to open a new Thai traditional massage school on a 15-rai plot in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom by the end of this year.

The new school will be the fourth branch of the Wat Pho massage school. The other three are at Thatien Market, Chaeng Watthana and Chiang Mai.

As well as offering courses on Thai traditional massage, the new school will have classes on how to produce Thai herbal-based pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and food supplements.

A 20-million-baht factory will also be built near the new school to produce raw materials and extract Thai herbal products and another 100 million baht will be spent on research and development and to conduct a study aimed at proving scientifically that Thai massage helps relieve certain pains and illnesses.

“I want the school to offer courses for giving massage treatment to all ages from newborn babies to the very old. I hope to have the programme set up by 2010 and then step down in 2012. After the Salaya massage school is opened, I will focus on transferring the institute’s Thai massage and herbal-based product knowledge to interested parties,” said Mr Preeda.

He is also looking to expand abroad with plans to open a Thai massage school in Osaka by the end of this year.