South Asian Sanctuary
Thailand’s enchanting landscapes, exotic culture, and friendly people have made it a coveted destination. In search of an authentic Thai massage,Debra Bokur explores two of the country’s most luxurious spa properties—and comes away smiling.
The long road leading south from Bangkok to the coast is lined with fruit vendors selling the latest crop of rambutans; the shelves of their stalls are overflowing with mounds of the hairy, crimson fruit. Gradually, the noise of the city fades into the distance, and the fruit stalls give way to merchants trading in what seem to be ornate birdhouses, mounted on tall poles. Not so, my driver tells me: these are spirit houses. And few homes, public buildings, or businesses in Thailand, I learn, are without one.
The Thai believe that individual spirits dwell in the trees and land, and that whether they behave with benevolence or spite depends entirely on how they’re cared for. Each morning, fruit, flowers, and other offerings are placed inside the small houses to keep the spirits happy. The driver watches me closely, waiting perhaps for his American passenger to scoff. All he gets from me is a sigh of pleasure.
The town of Hua Hin, about 130 miles from Bangkok, is the Kingdom of Thailand’s oldest beach resort. It’s the address of the royal family’s summer palace, chosen in part for its cool breezes and broad views of the Gulf of Thailand. Hua Hin is also home to one Thailand’s most celebrated luxury wellness destinations, Chiva Som International Health Resort. In the Thai language, Chiva Som translates to haven of life, and this peaceful resort has become recognized throughout the world for its holistic wellness programs and fabulous spa cuisine.
A wide, arched footbridge leads from the lobby over a pond glittering with jewel-colored koi fish. Beyond, I follow a shaded pathway that leads past a yoga pavilion and individual suites. The seclusion of the resort is heightened by the traditional, sloping Kylae roofs of the buildings. I have an appointment at the spa with one of Chiva Som’s staff doctors. Consultations upon arrival are standard, and allow guests to customize a menu of treatments and activities to best serve their individual needs.
My goal is stress reduction. Naturopath Belinda Ludbrook chats with me for about twenty minutes, has me answer questions about my health, and then performs some baseline checks. She schedules a jet lag therapy, facial consultation, cooking class, and flotation session for me, and then sends an order to the on-site apothecary for a blend of stress-relieving Australian bush flower essences to be delivered to my room.
My facial consultation takes place in the spa’s medical complex with cosmetic surgeon and reconstructive surgery specialist Thumrong Siripoon, M.D. Known at the resort as “Dr. Tom,” he takes a picture of my face with a special camera that reveals cumulative sun damage. My years living in Florida show up immediately, but Dr. Tom merely smiles and suggests a gentle laser treatment to counteract some of the more immediate damage.
The laser beam is tingly and hot, but not unbearable. In less than fifteen minutes, my skin looks smoother and more even. Many of the fine wrinkles that had taken up residence around my eyes had been eliminated. While I express mixed feelings about plastic surgery, Dr. Tom asks me to consider how there's often more to it than simply addressing issues of physical appearance. “There’s a spiral effect,” he tells me, “and even the simplest procedure can have a profound effect on a person’s self confidence, inspiring them to honor themselves and take better care of their health in myriad ways.”
Next on the schedule is the jet lag therapy. I’m fitted with a breathing mask that delivers a steady flow of pure oxygen, and my therapist begins a forty-five-minute hot oil foot massage. This is followed by a facial and a fifty-minute full-body massage with scented Ayurvedic oils. About halfway through the treatment, I feel myself falling into the rhythm of this place. By the time I’ve wrapped myself in my soft robe and trundled off to the relaxation area, the seventeen-hour flight and three-hour drive leading here seem like someone else's memory.
My room is a cool refuge. On the table next to the deep, soft bed is a copy of Karma for Today’s Traveler, written by Theravada Buddhist monk Phra Bhasakorn Bhavilai, a longtime student of physics. A bowl of fruit and bottles of chilled water await on a tray, along with fresh limes to flavor my tea. A nap is tempting, but I'm famished, and have heard too much about the food here to miss dinner. Over Ricotta Cheese Mousse with Mango and Grilled Salmon in The Emerald Room, spa director Richard Williams explains that Chiva Som's philosophy for holistic health is a trinity, embracing first a sound foundation, leading guests on to personal discovery, and then helping them to achieve transformation. “Our goal,” Williams tells me, “is to build this transformation around positive changes that will last a lifetime.”
Over the next few days, I sample my share of the highly creative spa cuisine and participate in a cooking class, where I manage to master a simple Thai Chicken Salad—learning in the process that just because a dish is healthy and beautiful to look at, doesn’t make it complicated to prepare. My first revelation; Williams would be pleased.
On my last afternoon, I head back to the spa for my flotation session. In a domed, private bathing temple, I float tranquilly in the salt-drenched water, losing track of time and space. There’s some sort of stringed instrument playing in the background, and I think of writer Rabindranath Tagore’s words, which were left on a card on my pillow the night before: “The movement of life has its rest in its own music.”Next Page