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updated 9/13/2006 2:41:01 PM ET 2006-09-13T18:41:01

Rooted in abundant spirituality, graceful traditions, and fresh ingredients, Thai spas are resilient sanctuaries of personal renewal.

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By the time I made my first trip to Thailand, I had already spent years at my desk daydreaming about it. Those reveries had no real research behind them. My knowledge was limited to listening to friends’ vacation stories — Isabelle’s in particular stuck with me. She had spent a month in an A-frame hut on a beach at a time when she needed to take stock. It had cost little, and she had come back glowing, serene, and 15 pounds lighter, brimming with energy and admiration for the place and its people. On hearing her stories — and seeing the results — I almost envied her the circumstances that landed her there. I resolved that if I ever found myself at one of those crossroads, I would follow her example. And when, about a decade later, I was hit by one of life’s curveballs, I finally booked a ticket.

Sudden redundancy had a big silver lining. It left me with the time and means to travel, two things that had never come together for me at one time. But I was so tapped out physically and emotionally, it was all I could do to board the plane. I had done no research or preplanning, other than to reserve a bungalow in a spa that I had heard of on Koh Samui — Spa Samui Retreats — which paradoxically is known for its fasting program but celebrated for its restaurant. Hearsay led me there; my only other knowledge of the culture was what I had gleaned from the menu at the Thai restaurant in my neighborhood, supplemented by a severe adolescent crush on Yul Brynner in The King and I. And, fortunately, I had friends who had recently relocated to Bangkok.

My requirements were few: I wanted someplace warm where I could do some yoga, have at least one massage per day, read, stare at the horizon — and not socialize. I needed to regroup. And for the first time in my life, I craved exactly the opposite of the traveling I had been brought up to do: Plan like a war general. See every church, every statue, every painting. Provide a full report.

Legendary hospitality is what makes Thailand the top resort destination in Southeast Asia. Their’s is a culture of politeness, dignity, and big-heartedness, which is probably why so many women are comfortable traveling to this country alone. Despite the cacophony of Bangkok — or on any of the crowded thoroughfares — and the language barrier, striking out solo there feels a thousand times safer than hitting the road in Provence or Tuscany, or heading to the Caribbean. In how many places does a Western woman have the luxury of not participating, of being able to drift unsolicited and virtually invisible through the scene if she so chooses?

By the end of my second day at Spa Samui, I had enough new acquaintances to keep loneliness at bay, yet all the space I needed to be alone. My bungalow was basic at best; I had been to summer camp so I didn’t really mind sharing it with a gecko or two. Up in the hills away from the beach, you can still hear the scene happening a few miles below, but it might as well be a million miles away. By the end of the first week, three of us had gravitated together naturally. Each one was at some sort of crossroads of work and love. We made resolutions for the year ahead and agreed to make this an annual rendezvous.

Unfortunately, this year’s events changed all that. One of our group was meditating in a monastery north of Chiang Mai when the tsunami hit. I was still in the States, but unsure whether to stick to our plans. Our third was stuck elsewhere with visa issues and had to cancel. My friends in Bangkok assured me that although it was sad, it was safe — so I decided to make the journey. Family and friends were concerned. “Take your water wings,” one advised. Of course, I did not need them.

Psychic healing from the tsunami that ravaged six of Thailand’s southwest provinces last December will take years. But thanks to the country’s relative wealth and infrastructure, the physical recovery was underway almost immediately. Unlike many of its neighbors, the damage here was very localized. Nearly 90 percent of the hotels on Phuket and Krabi were undamaged, and Thai authorities have promised that the hardest hit areas — Khao Lak, Koh Phi Phi, and particularly the Patong waterfront on Phuket (which is more renowned for its nightlife than wellness offerings) — would be rebuilt swiftly, and in a more responsible way, by this summer. Unfortunately, the repercussions on tourism, the country’s second-largest economy, will take longer to subside.

Arriving here a week after the disaster was surreal: Aside from missing persons advisories at customs and posters to recruit blood donors, little seemed different. And yet, of course, everything was different. What doesn’t change is the culture: The Thai people move forward with minimal fuss, they are always happy to see you, and the warmth is always genuine. You can feel the spirituality put into practice.

To my surprise, my little adventure here was about a lot more than just passively delivering oneself into caring hands. Massage in Thailand is a family affair: Everyone knows how to give and receive it. They believe it creates a closeness that is otherwise missing in modern culture. The roots of traditional Thai massage are steeped in the healing art and science of Ayurveda. Historians trace its arrival from India concurrently with Buddhism, sometime in the second or third century B.C. Over the past 2,500 years, these techniques have been honed and refined in accordance with the Buddhist spiritual laws of loving-kindness, compassion, vicarious joy, and mental equanimity. Called nuad bo-rarn, meaning “touch to impart healing” and “sacred,” Thai massage is spirituality made manifest. It is taught and practiced in wats, or temples, by Theravada Buddhist monks to this day. Wat Po, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple, is one of the best-known examples as well as a vital repository for ancient texts on the subject.

Even at a destination spa — on any budget — the experience should be a salve for body and soul. Unlike other popular forms of massage, Thai massage is designed to resonate with the giving culture of Buddhism, to be as uplifting for the giver as the receiver. A session often opens with a traditional herbal steam or sauna. Then the master masseur places himself in a near-meditative state, which is passed on through synchronized breathing, the rhythm of hands, and the smell of incense (believed to elevate consciousness). The practitioner intuits each person’s individual needs, then stretches and kneads her into a variety of yoga-like positions. The receiver wears loose-fitting clothes; although in some spas, techniques can be adapted to use essential oils on bare skin, with privacy protected by strategic draping.

During the massage, an experienced practitioner traces the body’s energy grid with his hands, finding blockages in the flow and working them out through pinpointed pressure and stretches. The ten chakras, particularly those in the abdominal area, are believed to receive cosmic energy that then radiates through the entire system via sens, or channels. There are more than ten thousand points, or nadis, that can be manipulated to encourage the balanced flow of energy. Done properly, this technique helps to ensure the healthy circulation of energy throughout the body. It has been known to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, relieve stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and even depression — and bestow greater flexibility. My experience was more basic: I just fell asleep. But I noticed that when I went to bed at night, the sleep was more restorative — and the morning energy higher — than I have ever known before. It is the only place in the world I have woken up naturally, and consistently, at 6:30 a.m. and felt good about it. The insomnia that had foiled me in recent years simply vanished.

The medicinal aspect of massage is also an important part of cleansing or fasting programs — options included in well-being regimens that have become popular here. Some programs are more purgative than others, but these are designed to be more about the spiritual process of cleansing than the results — which are often dramatic (weight loss and glowing skin are two of the more visible rewards). Extensive treatment menus offer additional holistic support through aromatherapy, Ayurveda, reflexology, and acupuncture. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong classes are often recommended to help the body and spirit along the path to purification; likewise, lymphatic massages and body wraps aid in the elimination of toxins, while firming and moisturizing the skin. Many spas also blend their own herbal teas, which they offer after treatments to help the detox process along.

And then there is the food. The Thai didn’t invent spa cuisine (that distinction officially goes to French chef Michel Guérard), but it is here that it reaches its apotheosis. The care that goes into preparation makes it one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world — vegetables and fruits become intricately carved works of art. Plus, eating well is easy and affordable: Markets spill over with mangoes and papayas, as well as coconuts kept cool and served with a straw. Freshly caught fish in a phenomenal array are combined with herbs so that each ingredient enhances the flavors of all the others, and the Thai pay particular attention to the medicinal virtues of the herbs and seasonings. Staple ingredients such as ginger and lemongrass are not only delicious, they are known to aid digestion and help clear lungs, respectively. Kaffir lime is high in vitamin C and a natural blood purifier; cayenne (chili pepper) is an anti-inflammatory and can prevent blood clots; coconut water and meat are heart- and weight-friendly (despite their reputation); and mangoes are high in iron, potassium, and magnesium — in addition to being a digestive aid.

Even those who are not concerned with watching their weight usually find that after a few weeks of eating Thai cuisine, they feel healthier and have more energy — and probably have lost some girth as well. I could eat green mango salad every day for the rest of my life. In fact, my definition of paradise is a glass of cool mango juice on the terrace of The Oriental, Bangkok, a haven on the shores of the Chao Phaya River in the heart of the city. And that is why I will keep coming back to Thailand: The beaches may be unspoiled, the shopping unrivaled, the massages heavenly, and the charms chaotic and quirky — but what is so compelling about this country is that it is a place to go quietly amid the noise and haste and find exactly the kind of serenity you are looking for.

Spa Magazine  portrays the full-depth of the spa experience and ways to live it every day. Dedicated to providing the information and inspiration needed to pursue health of body and mind, Spa Magazine  presents a contemporary view of spas worldwide. © 2006 World Publications, LLC

© 2013 World Publications, LLC

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