Thailand: Answering the de-stress call

We end up spa-struck at Thailand’s leading health resort.

By John Nathan, April 16, 2009
Chilling out on the terrace of a villa on the beachside section of the resort, which overlooks the pool

Chilling out on the terrace of a villa on the beachside section of the resort, which overlooks the pool

It wouldn’t occur to me to go anywhere for health reasons unless I was feeling unhealthy. But apparently some of the world’s healthiest people go to health spas. Such bodily perfect members of our species as David Beckham, Serena Williams and Kate Moss, to name but three, have all signed the guest book at Chiva Som, Thailand’s top health spa.

Now, as the brother of a doctor (a consultant, no less) and as someone in, if not rude, at least impolite health, I have what I consider to be a healthy disrespect for holistic medicine whose benefits cannot be measured with a thermometer or a stopwatch. Even more so, businesses which make shed-loads of money out of people’s health fears.

They don’t have to prove it does any good, only that it does no harm. In the case of Chiva Som — which translates as “haven for life” — the point is to leave the place with your mind, body and spirit in balance.

Measure that.

But I am open minded enough to realise that good exercise, a healthy diet and beautiful surroundings can only be a good thing. And that is what Chiva Som offers in spades. So here goes.

A room at Chiva Som: a peaceful retreat from the world

A room at Chiva Som: a peaceful retreat from the world

From London, the journey is itself enough to make you feel in need of a restorative: the 10-hour flight to Bangkok is followed by either a half-hour flight or a three-hour drive to the beach resort of Hua Hin, Thailand’s most exclusive resort.

If the final leg is by car, one of Chiva’s air-conditioned limos ensures that the tedious south-bound motorway journey — memorable mainly for countless roadside shacks selling Buddhist icons — is at least a pleasantly cool, smooth ride.

About 120 miles out from Bangkok there are signs that we are approaching something special. The route is now conspicuously marked out by what has to be the longest central reservation in the world. An infinity of clipped hedgerows and topiaries decorated with yellow flags.

No, this is not an absurdly extravagant welcome created by Chiva Som for their guests, but an absurdly extravagant symbol of this health retreat’s very posh neighbours — Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarchy whose palace and grounds are a few hundred meters up the coast from Chiva Som.

For this reason, last year’s anti-and pro-government street protests, some of which spread as far as Krabi in the south, always seemed a safe distance away to those staying at Chiva Som, while the current problems are equally distant, with Bangkok itself bypassed and Pattaya 120 miles away on the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand.

And not just because of the level of security in the area but because, whatever side the protestors were on, Thailand’s royal family enjoys a reverence that makes our own monarchy look about as popular as a busker in a tube carriage.

Chiva Som’s seven acres are indeed fit for a king. This spa is a manicured haven of tropical gardens and elegant Siamese villas, many of which look out on to serene lily ponds. The low-rise beachside section of the resort faces the pool which is overlooked by towering palm trees. Beyond, is a sea so calm, fishing boats hardly need to drop anchor to float above their lobster pots.

All this appears at first to be much like your average exclusive, top-end resort. But despite the luxurious rooms, the staggeringly enthusiastic service, it is not long before it becomes clear that Chiva Som’s ethos is about as far from hedonism as it is possible to get in a five star resort. This is a place to detox, not retox.

On arrival you’re encouraged to slip into something much more comfortable in the form of light-as-air cotton trousers and top, and a pair of bamboo flip-flops. Once changed, it’s time for your appointment with a health and wellness consultant who assesses your needs and offers advice as to which of the bewildering array of treatments, massages and activities might be best suited for you.

It all depends on your objective. It’s best to have one — whether it’s to lose weight, de-stress or to change your diet — otherwise there is a risk you’ll never be able to measure the benefits and you’ll drown in a sea of holistic jargon about “balancing your mind, body and spirit”, when all you wanted to do was lose a couple of pounds and chill out. It’s fine though if your objective is simply to lay off the booze while being pampered and pummelled by Chiva’s team of about 15 masseurs.

My health and wellness consultant was a reassuringly healthy and well-looking Australian lady called Nadine. Nadine is a naturopath, which is a medical practitioner who encourages the body to heal itself. You could tell she wasn’t a proper doctor because she looked so healthy and relaxed. With Nadine’s help, I chose from a weekly timetable of activities, each run by one of Chiva Som’s 74 therapists many of whom are Thai with names that are as exotic as the activities they run.

There was Hatha Yoga with a lady called Tara in the dance studio; Tai Chi with Thanakorn on the beach, Shaolin Wushu (Kung Fu to you and me) with Whanaree in the yoga pavilion. But I went straight into the deep end with aqua aerobics (with the aforementioned Thanakorn).

How hard could bobbing up and down in a pool to a eurotrashy beat, be? The lady of a certain age next to me seemed to take the ultra-fit Thanakorn’s directions in her stride. But even underwater, I was sweating like Red Rum after 20 furlongs.

No less challenging was the Total Body Rolling with a supremely supple lady called Chonticha, which involves sitting on a ball — carefully placing it either side of, but not directly on, the base of your spine — and travelling forward in much the same way that giant stones were delivered to Henge, only with more groaning. Still, these workouts had an almost immediate toning effect. I could not only feel pain, I could feel gain.

For those looking to pass the time more sedately there were fruit carving classes in the orchid lounge, but that sounded a bit too care-in-the community for my liking. Better to book one of the bewildering array of massages available. There are detoxifying massages; deep tissue massages; massages for lymphatic drainage and ancient Ayurvedic scalp massages; Oriental, foot and South Indian body pampering massages, to name but… how many was that?

Or there’s the Chiva Som signature massage, a de-stressing, anti-jetlag rub-down with aromatic oils. I had three massages over the following few days, including a Traditional Thai massage by an impeccably proper lady with the slightly disconcerting name of Porn.

But the clearest evidence of health consciousness at Chiva Som is not so much in what you do —or what is done to you — but what you eat. There are two top class eateries: the international Emerald Room which at breakfast boasts an astounding array of exotic fruits, cereals and spices, or the beachside chic of the Taste of Siam.

No morsel is offered without its calories being counted in advance or assessed for its salt and protein content. Who knew that a Greek salad represents 60.9 kcal, 3 grams of protein, 3.1 of carbs and 4.2 grams of fat? Or that Borscht is actually a bowl of 65.3 kcal, 4 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbs and 1.5grams of fat? This is fine dining with added guilt.

You can, however blow your diet out of the water with a glass of wine. After two glasses, the service (Thai service is the best in the world) becomes a little frosty. It’s this puritanical ethos that takes some getting used to. There is no late-night bar; alcohol is only served after 6pm. The hedonist in me kept whispering “You call this a holiday?”. But every morning I woke brighter, fitter and happier — and less sceptical, too.

Travel facts

Tropical Locations ( 0845 277 3310) offers five nights at Chiva-Som from £2,499 per person, based on two sharing an Ocean View Room. This includes three spa cuisine meals per day; daily massage (Thai, Chiva-Som or Invigorating); private health and wellness consultation; daily fitness and leisure activity programme; return flights and return private airport transfers. For stays May 1 to June 30, price also includes a cash credit of 7,860 Thai Baht (approx. £150) redeemable against treatments.

Last updated: 10:00am, May 7 2009