Feeling Thai with Vin Castillo

A deep dive on YouTube inspired Vin Castillo to book a month-long trip to Thailand and enroll in a massage school in Chiang Mai. The experience gave him a mission to become a pioneer in the wellness industry.

Words by Marc Graser
Images courtesy of Vin Castillo

Vin Castillo had never been to Thailand before, but when the massage therapist came across a technique called Pa Khao Mah he was instantly hooked. Using a long loincloth (similar to a Hawaiian Sarong) a masseuse manipulates a patient’s body in twists, pulls, and presses that deepen the stretches one typically experiences during a Thai massage. As the patient relaxes with deep breaths, the masseur uses the cloth to essentially turn them into a human pretzel.

“I can tell you that from first-hand experience, it is a unique and cool experience,” says Vin, who calls Los Angeles and Hawai‘i home.

After a long break, Vin is reconnecting with massage again, after studying how to help people eliminate body stress and pain by holding, moving, and applying pressure to the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia in L.A. in 2012. He’s realized massage would be a great way to work for himself and build his own business.

Creativity has long inspired Vin, and with massage, he can now express his own creative side in how he incorporates new moves. “I do see myself doing massage in the long run, perhaps teaching it at some point, maybe even become an influencer. Isn’t that what direction we are all going anyway?”

Vin’s initial plans to visit Thailand were thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the more he researched, everything started to align: timing, cost, the appeal of new cultural connections, all of it. “I took this as a sign that it was time to take the leap,” he says.

Being immersed in Thai culture, learning Thai massage and eating amazing Thai food—“I mean, who wouldn’t want that?” Vin asked himself.

First impressions are meaningless in Thailand.

— Vin Castillo

Vin enrolled in The Fine Art of Thai Massage School, located in the tranquil mountain town of Chiang Mai, an easy 90-minute flight from the bustle of Bangkok. It offered monthly courses to learn authentic Thai massage while living at the school.

Chiang Mai is growing in popularity with tourists thanks to its ancient temples and picturesque natural surroundings. It’s also much more affordable. But the school Vin found himself at was located in an even more rural area than he expected. “It was definitely a culture shock arriving there,” Vin admits. “Locals speak very limited English, there are dirt roads, few street lights, stray dogs everywhere, tons of mosquitoes. It’s a slower paced life.” But Vin loved it.

Most massages are quiet and serene. Thai massage can be that way, too, but Pa Khao Mah can also be very intense on the body, for both the patient and the masseur. There are a lot of energies that get released by the patient and the masseur takes it all on. The act of washing away the energies after the massage helps the masseur release it away, along with a prayer and a mudra (Buddhist hand gesture) to sweep away the remaining energy released by the patient.

After classes, weekends offered up time to bond with his cohorts and explore the surrounding area while on the back of the school’s motorcycles. On the first weekend, they took off in the predawn hours to find dozens of connected waterfalls where they could cliff jump into swirling pools, and find themselves surrounded by fluttering orange butterflies. They would discover unexpected restaurants in the mountains that served up a memorable bowl of Vin’s favorite, Khao Soi, a Northern Thai curry noodle soup. Just up the road would be another cafe, part of an elephant sanctuary where they fed the gentle giants sugarcane and bananas.

“Honestly, that is the charm of Thailand: everything is so unassuming and it would behoove you to give things a try,” Vin says. “First impressions are meaningless in Thailand.”

I try to keep an open mind as much as I can when I travel. That’s where the gold is.

— Vin Castillo

Feeling at Home

Vin spent all of December in Thailand, meaning celebrating Christmas with his cohorts. But he has long recommended finding groups to immerse yourself in a culture and create your own community.

It’s why he loves Hawai‘i. “I’m a firm believer that people and relationships make the place feel like home,” Vin says. “I felt nothing but aloha when I moved to Hawai‘i and I assimilated into the culture and community quite quickly. People felt like family really fast and I just love that so much.”

Vin thinks everyone needs to experience a culture opposite of what they’re used to. They need to experience being uncomfortable. Travel, Vin admits, can be quite humbling. “Traveling is a journey,” he says. “It can be difficult. Things can not go your way. I had to learn to trust myself in new ways every single day.”

“People should travel to gain insight that isn’t in a text book or a YouTube video,” he says. “It’s a different learning experience that’s both exhilarating and scary. You learn so much about yourself when you travel, especially by yourself. You get to find out who you are and who you can become. I highly highly recommend solo travel, no matter what age you are.”

Vin had never enrolled in a school in a foreign country before. To eliminate any travel headaches or surprises, he recommends others fully research the program they might be interested in, communicate with a teacher, and understand its Visa requirements for foreigners.

Vin loves the chaos a city can provide, but after leaving Thailand’s quiet countryside and serene beaches, he has “a newfound appreciation for a slower pace of life,” he admits. He learned to appreciate more of the little things: “waking up to crowing roosters in the morning; having instant coffee daily and writing in my journal as I gaze into the beautiful morning sunrise; listening to the distant chanting from the temples broadcasting their prayers via loudspeaker; and trying to communicate in a foreign language. I’ve always had an appreciation for other languages and I empathize with people who try to learn English. It’s a daily challenge and you’d hope that every encounter you have with people comes from a place of understanding and kindness. The people of Thailand are unbelievably helpful and went out of their way to try and understand me.”

People should travel to gain insight that isn’t in a text book or a YouTube video. It’s a different learning experience that’s both exhilarating and scary.

— Vin Castillo

Vin Castillo in Chiang Mai

Eat the World

“I try to keep an open mind as much as I can when I travel,” Vin says. “That’s where the gold is. Being in a foreign country, assimilating to their customs and norms, figuring out how to communicate, finding charm in unassuming places, really taking yourself out of that element of comfort—there should be some sort of word to explain this feeling.”

While he’s seen much of the world, and wants to return to Japan some day, Barcelona will always have a special place in Vin’s heart.

“It was my first overseas trip by myself and it was such an incredible experience,” he recalls. “From the start, I serendipitously sat next to someone on the plane with whom I’d end up spending a majority of my trip hanging out with. We hung out with more amazing people from the hostel I was staying at, and ended up forming a cute little group together and bonded in a similar way that I bonded with my classmates in Thailand. Six years later, I still keep in touch with them to this day.”

When visiting a new place for the first time, Vin has to get a good workout in, whether it’s at a park or hotel gym, before checking out the local culinary scene. “Then I eat the world,” he says. “Tastes better that way. Believe me.”


Future in Wellness

While he’s spent considerable time in far off places, Vin would like to explore Europe again and learn different massage modalities there. “Many of the friends that I met on my travels are from Europe, so it’d be nice to go over there and say hello again,” Vin says.

“Something I discovered on my travels is that I want to become a pioneer in the health, fitness, and wellness industry,” Vin says. “I want to lead my own fitness classes, offer my massage services to those people, and eventually boost my visibility. I’ve always been a sucker for a spotlight and traveling has really helped me gain the confidence to just go for it.”

Follow Vin Castillo on Instagram.