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Thailand's top spas

Thailand has the quintessential spa culture. The cuisine is light, the beaches nearly demand relaxation, and the primary religion, Buddhism, is centered around mindfulness. And how many other countries have a massage style named for them?
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Thailand has the quintessential spa culture. The cuisine is light, the beaches nearly demand relaxation, and the primary religion, Buddhism, is centered around mindfulness. And how many other countries have a massage style named for them? (Thai massage is taken so seriously here, in fact, that 60 stone tablets carved with palm-leaf texts describing it are enshrined in Bangkok's Wat Pho temple.) Thailand's spa landscape continues to evolve, with new spas opening and classics getting better with age.

Best Location: JW Marriott, Phuket

While much of Phuket is overbuilt, the JW Marriott, the island's newest luxury resort, faces ten miles of Mai Khao beach that will never be developed because they're part of the Sirinath Marine National Park, the protected breeding grounds of endangered leatherback turtles. (The resort was constructed so its lights don't shine on the beach, which would confuse female turtles laying their eggs and hatchlings when they try to find their way to the ocean.) Here you can walk for miles and see no one. The Marriott's spa is run by Mandara, the Bali-based spa company. The ten couple's treatment suites include indoor and outdoor space, which is good for pairs who have different temperature preferences. Notable treatments: Healing Hot Stones massage ($108) and Thai massage($61) therapist Upadee Tansom is slender but has extraordinarily strong hands. Guest rooms are large and elegant, with great ocean views and raised sala areas with massage mats and triangular cushions. Thumbs-down: the cuisine, especially the breakfast buffet.

Rates: $435-$519
Phone: 011-66-76-338-000; 800-228-9290
Location: 231 Moo 3, Mai Khao Talang, Phuket

This is the Canyon Ranch of Asia, a destination spa on seven acres fronting the Gulf of Thailand. Opened in 1995, Chiva-Som (the name means "Haven of Life") is the only health and wellness spa in Southeast Asia. Registered as a medical clinic, it offers a wide range of spa and holistic medical treatments, such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic therapies, and activities like tai chi and Pilates (in the country's only Pilates studio). The price includes three superb spa-cuisine meals and one massage each day, and all visits begin with a wellness consultation. Chi Nei Tsang ($98), an abdominal massage, was 45 minutes of probing that made me feel lighter and purer. Also recommended: Thai herbal massage ($61), which combines Thai massage with heated herbal packs to detoxify and relieve aches. Rooms are luxurious, with the stand-alone pavilions particularly worth their price ($770 per person). They have silk furnishings, gardens, and outdoor sala areas. Chiva-Som caters to a loyal clientele: Twenty-five percent of its guests have come three times or more.

Rates: $345-$990 per person, double occupancy
Phone: 011-66-03-253-6536
Location: 73/4 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin

Longest Running Hit: Amanpuri, Phuket

Amanpuri, which opened in 1988, was the first of the Aman group of luxury resorts. With only 40 spacious guest pavilions built into a hillside above Pansea Beach, Amanpuri (the name means "Place of Peace") exudes Aman's trademark exclusivity. The Aman Spa (opened in 2001 and the group's first) comprises six outdoor treatment pavilions and is available only to resort guests. During spa season (June to September), treatments are preceded by a complimentary 30-minute consultation with the spa staff, who suggest the best treatments and the best therapists to perform them. In my case, that was Israeli-born Hana Lumbroso, who is very skilled at shiatsu ($135) and reiki ($100). Other highlights: the spa's oversize black granite steam room and the resort's excellent (non-spa) Thai and Italian cuisine. My only complaint: There are too many stairs. From the poolside restaurant, it was at least a five-minute walk up to my room and a five-minute steep climb down to the beach.

Rates: Pavilions, $675-$1,550; villas, from $1,800
Phone: 800-477-9180
Location: Pansea Beach, Phuket

Most Luxurious Accommodations: Banyan Tree Phuket

"Many guests, once they've entered their pool villa, don't come out," explains Ruud Hulscher, Banyan Tree's director of rooms. The 13 enormous (nearly 6,000 square feet) spa pool villas ($1,250) have king-size beds in glass-walled pavilions, private outdoor spa pavilions overlooking the lagoon, steam rooms and saunas, outdoor sunken baths, lap pools, and Jacuzzis, all surrounded by lily ponds, palm trees, frangipani, jasmine, and orchids. The Banyan Tree Spa, however, is well worth venturing out to. I liked the signature three-hour Royal Banyan ($195) treatment: a mint footbath, a lemongrass-and-cucumber rub, a massage using Thai herbal pouches, and a bath in a flower-filled tub. One of the five restaurants serves spa cuisine. Caveat: The Banyan Tree is part of the massive Laguna development, 5 resorts with 1,088 rooms, 30 restaurants, a golf course, shopping, and residences. Guests at each hotel have full privileges at the others, so the spa books up far in advance and is often crowded (another reason to book a spa pool villa).

Rates: $630-$2,600
Phone: 011-66-76-324-374; 866-822-6926
Location: 33 Moo 4, Cherngtalay, Amphur Talang, Phuket

Best Urban Hideaway: Oriental Spa, Bangkok

This elegant spa, in a turn-of-the-century colonial house surrounded by tropical gardens, has a great location on the Chao Phraya River, not far from Bangkok's Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Its ten treatment rooms and four suites (with daybeds for couples and herbal steam rooms) fill the second floor. In the treatment rooms, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal an orchid garden, and the stone ceilings are carved with orchid blossoms. A highlight on the long treatment menu is the Thai body wrap ($65), which uses white mud, milk, honey, turmeric, mint, and tamarind. I don't recommend the jet-lag massage ($70), which was too light to have much effect. The Oriental serves a full menu of spa cuisine at the spa, and some of these dishes, including a delicious pomelo salad, are also offered at the hotel restaurants.

Rates: $300-$380
Phone: 011-66-02-2659-9000
Location: 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok

Best Big-City-Hotel Spa: Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel, Bangkok

This 33-story hotel, which caters primarily to business travelers, is adjacent to the Asok Skytrain station, providing easy access to clubs, shopping, restaurants, and attractions. The large guest rooms have wonderful views over the city or Lake Rachada. There are no outdoor treatment areas, but the free-form outdoor pool, which winds through tropical ferns, Chinese pines, and bright ixora shrubs, is one of the best I've seen. The 11 treatment rooms, furnished with teak and silk panels, are comfortable and soothing. I liked the Thai herbal pound treatment ($61), a gentle tapping and massage with heated poultices of camphor, lemongrass, turmeric, and 17 other Thai herbs. Warning: Thai massage ($42) is not particularly authentic here, as therapists skip the more strenuous techniques for fear of injuring Westerners.

Rates: $250-$290
Phone: 011-66-02-649-8888
Location: 250 Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok

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