'Happy ending', or legit? How to choose the right massage parlour overseas

Having a massage in another country can be one of the most delightful experiences of overseas travel – or the most challenging.

Getting (nearly) naked in the company of a complete stranger with whom you haven't even had a drink beforehand doesn't come easily to many of us.

But the most important first step is to ascertain exactly what kind of premises it is that you're visiting for your massage. If there's a waft of essential oils coming from the doorway, the massage therapists may look businesslike or otherworldly, and if there's a printed list of different treatments on offer, you should be in safe hands.

If the shopfront is plastered with "EXTRAS!" signs, however, and the masseuses are  dressed as nurses, naughty schoolgirls or in lingerie, there might be a completely different kind of experience on offer.

Of course, it can  often be hard to tell. My partner and I were once having massages in adjacent cubicles, divided by a curtain, in Vietnam's Da Nang. Later he told me his therapist had offered him a "happy ending".

"But my partner is just on the other side of the curtain!" he had protested. "No worries," the woman replied, unfazed. "I turn up the radio."

Yet there are plenty of other pitfalls for the unwary. Such as how undressed is undressed enough? One of my friends insists on keeping his socks on. While he sees that as perfectly normal (he's English), for others it's kind of weirdly fetishist. Then there's the nightmare of the paper underpants that are often doled out.

One man I know put them on back-to-front, bewildered that they provided so little coverage. There are apocryphal stories about others who thought they might be hair nets … And I've had two massages in my life where I was ordered to be stark naked, and felt so uncomfortable each time that the stress the massages were meant to counter was actually tripled.

The variety of massages can be perplexing too, ranging from simple Swedish and shiatsu to shirodhara – a steady dripping of warm oil onto your forehead – to everything else under the sun. Often I find the best idea is to ask them what their speciality is and, if you don't like the sound of that, to ask for the second and third favourites.

It's wise to be upfront with what you like and don't like; a hard-learned lesson for me. My first massage was in Bangkok and the therapist seemed to crack every bone in my body, which I hated so much I tried to kid myself I was dead. Unfortunately, she thought I was loving it so much I'd fallen asleep and gave me an extra half-hour. It was four years before I had another.

See also: Is paying $120 for a massage in Bali better than a $7.50 one?

See also: The world's 50 greatest feel-good destinations