Thailand's grand dame of destination spas still manages to offer more than its rivals.
Stretching yourself at Chiva Som
It's a Friday afternoon when I arrive at Chiva-Som in Hua Hin after a three-hour transfer from Bangkok airport. Its lush, low-rise grounds are lovely, but immediately it looks more hospital than holiday: lone guests meander around in white dressing gowns and staff, also in white, march more purposefully from building to building. I'm only here for three nights and there is a lot to do, so after leaving my bags in my "pavilion" (one can choose a detached, Thai-style room or a room in the main building) and eating a light lunch in the restaurant, I'm straight into a "health and wellness consultation" with Orranat Thanamteun ("Ohn"), a kindly woman in her mid-30s.
Chiva-Som means "haven of life", and ever since its launch in 1995 it has been a favourite retreat for celebrities and well-heeled clients, maintaining its reputation and draw while thousands of other "lifestyle" spas have opened up all over the world. So even though I know I might be pushing it, under "reasons for your visit" I've listed "de-stress, relaxation, weight loss, fitness, to look and feel better". After reading my answers to the exhaustive questionnaire, Ohn takes my blood pressure, weight and heart rate, before recommending a programme for the next three days: a mixture, basically, of massage and exercise classes, coupled with all meals at Chiva-Som's two restaurants, which serve only "spa cuisine", a detoxifying menu of raw fruit and vegetables and a virtually fat-free method of cooking which poaches and braises food in vegetable stock rather than frying it. I'm given a 117-page "health and wellness guide" and sent downstairs for my first massage.
Immediately, I can see the appeal. Although one is encouraged to look within, through complimentary meditation classes, copies of Buddhist teachings and daily bookmarks which say things like: "If your thoughts are always positive, you will be at peace with yourself, and all around you the world will smile", most things here are done for you. Once your programme is prescribed, you are on a cosseted (or bathrobed and slippered) journey from steam room to sauna, indoor pool to signature massage, t'ai chi to facial to colonic hydrotherapy or "heavenly head massage and hypnotic rocking therapy". You can add on optional extras as you like, which may mean the constant re-jigging of your itinerary, but there is an endless supply of clean towels and fresh vegetable juices and fruit smoothies to help you on your way.
At 7am the following morning I do the "beach boot camp", which is less strenuous than I would have liked but still makes you feel awake and that you have achieved something before breakfast. I order a cappuccino, which draws a sharp intake of breath followed by a grin from my waiter which says "aren't you being naughty", but I had already been told that three days wasn't long enough for a complete detox anyway. Some of the other guests, who were here for two weeks or longer, look as if they are detoxing from something stronger than caffeine, and have that pale, slightly dazed and aristocratic look one expects from rich people in "recovery" after giving up smoking and other poisons. "Did you see Natalie Imbruglia?" one of my fellow diners remarks. I confess I haven't - and it may not have been her at all. A tall American model from Ralph Lauren was here for the weekend, too, but no one (perhaps because they are so wrapped up in their own detox) seems to care about who she is or who she's with. One of the benefits of Chiva-Som is privacy - there aren't too many guests, treatment programmes are tailor-made and private rooms are always available.
I probably should have done the 9am stretch class, but made it instead to the 10am "metabolic breathing exercise" with Namthip. It's a little more than just breathing - it's breathing combined with stretching, to get more oxygen into the muscles and ultimately become more flexible, toned and controlled. After a delicious lunch of tom som - poached grouper fillet in ginger broth - I have a fitness consultation with Preeda Ardmad, who says I don't need to go to the gym any more than I already do but should supplement it by more cycling and walking. However, she suggests I switch my workouts from evening to morning; this will involve getting up earlier, but she thinks my routine could be the cause of my sleeping problems. "You should eat dinner by six and be in bed by 10pm," she says, because our bodies can't metabolise food as well late at night and stores it, instead, as fat. "Your weight is fine," she says, "and it's normal for women to gain or lose one to two kilos per month." She recommends Pilates to tone the stomach, and controlling my diet. "No input, no output," she says, and it makes sense.
That afternoon I head up to the specialist skin clinic run by Dr Krit Sirimharaj, for a "skin facial analysis" session. I'm not exactly sure what I'm in for but the results are worrying: digital photographs taken of my face reveal more than twice the normal number of sun-damage spots for someone of my age (most sun damage is not visible to the naked eye, making it easy to ignore). When I tell him I live in the UAE, Dr Krit says I should never go out without sunblock on my face. Interestingly, the tests also reveal that I have "no wrinkles", which is some comfort.For people who do have wrinkles or sagging, the clinic offers a wide range of (expensive) non-surgical facelifts.
After a blissful Thai massage in one of the outdoor cubicles, I head back down to the spa for Chi Nei Tsang, or stomach massage, which is initially slightly unsettling but after a few minutes quite pleasant. "If this area is congested, the whole energy of the body is blocked, slowly weakening the internal organs," the health and wellness guide states. "Chi Nei Tsang quickly releases negative emotions, tensions and illness." I'm not sure to what extent this is true, but it was certainly very calming. "You have gas and stress; we store it in the stomach area," says the therapist.
That night I don't sleep well, thanks to some noisy renovations of the spa shop and the too-soft mattress topper on my bed which also makes it too hot, so my first activity of the last day is "aqua aerobics with noodles" in the indoor swimming pool at 11am. Nittaya, an athletic young Thai woman, demonstrates some dance moves to pumping music and around 20 of us follow suit in the water. "What about the noodles?" shouts Nabil, an older man in the front row, whereupon Nittaya hands out bendy pieces of rubber which we use to flex and jump through under the water.
It's a surprisingly good workout, but by the end of the last day I still feel tension in my shoulders, so I go for a "body balancing" session with Namthip. It's a form of physiotherapy which involves pressure on my "energy channels" to "relax the muscles, fascia, joints and ligaments"; it involves only very light pressure with the fingertips, but I can feel the various muscle groups being gently pulled away from the spine and an alignment of sorts takes place.
Afterwards I feel more relaxed and clear-headed: just in time for an "abs, butts and thighs" session with a strapping 1.9-metre-tall Thai called Decha, whose figure alone could motivate anyone to do their sit-ups. I push myself to the max and suddenly notice that the person I'm looking at in the mirror, with porcelain-clear skin, is me. In just two days, it's quite a result. In my departure consultation the next morning, I find that I've also lost two kilograms. If these are the results after a long weekend, I'd like to come back for a week.
The flight Return flights from Dubai to Bangkok cost from Dh2,335 including taxes with Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com).
The stay A three-night 'Taste of Chiva-Som' package costs from 52,435 Thai baht (Dh6,380) per person based on two sharing. The price includes accommodation, a 45-minute consultation, three-meals per day, a daily massage, a physical analysis session, up to eight classes daily and the use of the steam sauna, Jacuzzi and swimming pools (www.chivasom.com; 00 66 3253 6536).