If you think of Thai spa, you might picture the five star resorts of Koh Samui or Phuket. The wistful white beaches, traditional long-tail boats and lotus flower pools. But move beyond the postcard shots (ok, maybe selfie shots) and spa is embedded in Thai communities.
Nearly every remote village from the northern hills to the southern islands has its own unique spa experience based on whatever local resources they may have, from mineral-rich muds to black sand, all steeped in mindful Buddhist philosophy. Massage techniques are passed down through generations, with handmade oils and soaps infused with locally grown herbs and fruits – the ultimate in organic and sustainable.
The abundance of nature from mountains, forest and rivers play their part too. Looking for a Jacuzzi? Try a river, wild with monsoon rains. Yoga studio? Where better than a clearing in a palm forest.
It seemed fitting that a Good Spa Guide Spa Spy should go on a spa pilgrimage to Thailand – for the purposes of research and enlightenment, of course!
In order to give a taster of the vast range of spas on offer in Thailand, we chose three very different destinations: one rural and traditional, the second a holistic yoga retreat, and the third a super swanky hotel spa in Bangkok. Our intrepid Spa Spy found herself roasting in a rattan chicken cage, doing ‘tree pose’ in a palm forest, and finally having a fire oil massage in a five-star luxury private treatment room.
Rural – Chong Changtune Live Exo-museum, Trat Province
My first Thai spa was in the Chong Changtune Live Exo-museum, Trat Province
This is true pilgrimage for the dedicated spa aficionado – literally off the beaten, red-earthed track and deep in the forests of Trat, the eastern-most province of Thailand, 315 km from Bangkok.
The Chong people have rebuilt their community from the ruin of deforestation, reviving traditions passed down through generations by replanting indigenous trees, and pooling local knowledge and resources. They are proud to share their special way of life with tourists (aka ‘farang’), particularly their very own Spa de Chong, the highlight of which is the hilarious yet effective chicken coop herbal steam bath.
Yes, it seemed insane to sit in a woven cage of hot steam when it was 36 degrees in the shade. But I’d come all this way for a ‘real’ spa experience.
My fellow travellers and I slipped on some gorgeous cotton printed maxi-dresses instead of towel robes, totally rocking that Joni Mitchell circa 1970s look (or so we felt: perhaps it was the heat…). Then I perched precariously on a little stool next to a steamer, allowing a large, egg-shaped rattan case to be lowered until just my head was poking out of the top. This was all outdoors in the heart of the bustling village, with children hovering around sniggering (very sweetly), cocks crowing and dogs barking, and so may not appeal to the more modest spa-ista.
I was told that they use 10 local herbs in the steam bath plucked from the surrounding trees. The original spas used 32 herbs, which are slowly being replaced after intensive deforestation for rubber plantations. The fragrance was gorgeous and I could feel it working into my pores.
When I emerged from my steam cocoon 15 minutes later, the humid air that had nearly floored me before was now filled with luscious cool breezes. I felt surprisingly refreshed. We were advised to wait ten minutes before drinking water: the shock can apparently produce unpleasant effects. Then it was straight to the al fresco massage area.
A proper Thai massage is a bit like hot chilli: if you like it, you’ll develop a taste for it. After a little prayer, my masseuse did long strokes to relax and lengthen my muscles, then lots of pressing, pulling, pummelling and pinching, stretching my legs and arms into eye-watering yoga poses I didn’t know I could achieve – all while her (beautiful) child leaned on the edge of the platform and watched me with curiosity.
I then had a tingly body scrub with local black sand, which is rounded, unlike white sand, and perfect for exfoliation. I began to feel elastic and blissfully relaxed.
Finally, an ancient lady in a purple sari gave me the most fabulous massage with the aid of a steamedherbal heat compress. Her touch was magical and pressed all the tension out of my shoulders. She told me (via a translator) that she had no formal training but had been taught by her ancestors, which only added to the romance of the experience. All the massages I had were as good as any you’d pay a fortune for back home, with the added ambient sounds of the forest and village.
Lunch was a freshly prepared selection of local dishes, including rice cooked in a pyramid of palm leaves, banana stalk curry, pork fried with salt and delicious spicy fish, with piles of sumptuous rambutan and mangosteen fruits.
After, we climbed into motorcycle side-cars and were flung down a gravelly track through the jungle until we screeched up to the banks of a wild river, coloured orangey-brown as the monsoon rains had driven the banks into the fast flowing water. Still wearing our maxi-dresses, we perched on rocks in the cool water while school children pasted mineral rich mud on our arms and backs, a mix of earth from the nearby ruby mines and bright orange turmeric.
When the mud dried, we bathed in the river, letting the currents bubble and whirl deliriously around us, vigorously massaging our limbs while we gazed up at the dramatic Cambodian Khao Banthat mountain range in the distance. It was the most powerful and fun Jacuzzi, and all utterly natural. This, I thought, is what spas across the Western World try to replicate, and I have the luck to experience the real thing.