WHAT: Ancient Thai massage

WHERE: Most large Thai cities

WHY: To experience the ancient art of massage in the place it was developed

HOW MUCH: $3 to $6 per hour

When I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-largest city in the far north, the temperature hovered just above 100 degrees and the humidity was just as intense. I was stiff from my train ride and my back ached from the load I'd been carrying. So it was with relief that I dropped my backpack on the floor of Thai Massage Center, one of dozens I passed on the way to my hotel.

I chose a two-hour session, paid the woman at the desk (about $5) and was led up a staircase to what I believed would be a private, American-style massage room complete with dim lights and soft music.

What I found was quite different. In a large room, 10 floor mats were occupied by barefoot, clothed bodies being gently pressed, bent and squeezed by barefoot, clothed massage therapists.

My masseuse started on my legs: pulling, applying pressure with her elbows, bending my legs back and rocking them gently. She moved to my back, kneading my muscles with the palm of her hand, then squeezing with her toes, fingers and heels. She stretched my arms in increments from my shoulders to my fingers. At the end of the session, I stood up feeling sore but refreshed --and aware of parts of my body that I had forgotten existed.

Thai, or ancient, massage is an important part of the traditional medicine of Thailand, dating back at least 2,500 years. It is based on the theory that invisible lines of force run through the body. Thai massage seeks to release "blockages" that may exist along major "energy lines" to allow the free flow of energy throughout the body.

Thai massage also demonstrates the "Four Divine States" of mind of Buddhism: compassion, loving kindness, vicarious joy and equanimity. This form of healing work brings to fulfillment the Buddhist teaching of bringing higher ideals into everyday life and activities.

With these deep historical and spiritual underpinnings, a visit to Thailand would not be complete without trying Thai massage at least once. Note that Thai massage parlors come in two varieties: legitimate places that offer traditional ancient massage, and sex houses filled with numbered women in "viewing rooms." But with common sense, it is not difficult to distinguish between the two.

An eminently respectable place to start is Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's oldest and largest temple compounds, founded in the 16th century. The College of Traditional Medicine in the eastern courtyard is a must for Thai massage enthusiasts. This royal-sponsored mini-university of massage, herbal medicine and Chinese acupuncture offers inexpensive, traditional massages on a walk-in basis, for about $6 an hour.

In Chiang Mai, you can get a good rub at any of dozens of streetside massage centers or at one of several massage schools in the area--both from $3 to $5 an hour. At the Old Chiang Mai Medical Hospital, Thailand's most vigorous and respected massage school, rubdowns cost about $4 per hour. Twelve-day intensive courses also are available for about $100.

For more information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand, 212-432-0433, www.tat.or.th.