It’s not often that you are changed by a place. In today’s world we travel near and far to admire opulent hotels, luscious natural surroundings and cultural monuments. And while all of these offer moments of respite – beauty for the eye and the soul – it’s rare that our day-to-day rhythm is altered. Long regarded as the Shangri-la for health and wellness, Chiva-Som, which means “haven of life” in Thai, does exactly this. This destination spa on the coast of Hua Hin, a pretty beachside town around two and a half hours from Bangkok, is all about learning how to live, enjoy and appreciate every moment through health and wellness for the body and the mind. This is where, I am told, happiness is learned and achieved.
Long a wellness resort luring in celebrities such as Kate Moss and Madonna, when Chiva-Som opened in 1995 there wasn’t anything else like it. The word “detox” was quasi foreign. The spa culture that has become so revered today was almost non-existent. Founded by the late Boonchu Rojanastien, a Thai banker and ex-finance minister, the resort was originally his holiday home that he tore down in order to create one of the world’s first wellness and destination spa retreats. It was a crazy idea and one that at the time his son, Krip Rojanastien, who now helms the resort, thought was mad. But Rojanastien’s vision turned Chiva-Som into the Shangri-La of all spas, a place where generation after generation escaped to in search of physical and mental light.
Chiva-Som Bathing Pavillion
And here I was 21 years since its opening and sitting in the reception area. Encircled by lush, tropical surroundings, I sipped the resort’s signature lemongrass tea, while listening to the gentle, trickling sound of water emanating from the nearby ponds, waterfalls and plunge pools. It was a soothing scene and one that offered a taste of the days to come. A golf cart swiftly collected me and took me to my room: a Thai Pavilion boasting traditional Thai-style architecture set amidst manicured gardens and a quaint outdoor seating area. The pavilions, which number just 17, are some of the hotel’s original rooms. Their Asian décor is comfortingly exotic and harkens back to the mid-nineties in style. Many of the resort’s loyal guests (nearly everyone returns, I am told) are attached to these older, more traditional rooms. But for newcomers and those desiring more luxe, sleek and contemporary finishings can be found in the resort’s recently renovated Ocean Rooms designed by Ed Tuttle. Featuring wooden floors and natural materials, these rooms are devised to uphold the idea of a oneness with nature, something that Sheila McCann, the resort’s elegant general manager, strives constantly to achieve.
“The owner believed health comes from within and starts with what you eat,” says Chef Paisarn as he takes me through the resort’s organic garden where vegetables, herbs and fruit are grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides. “We spoil guests with choice,” he says. “We let them go off until they find their own way. Then it’s about transformation.” One taste of the food and you’ll enter culinary heaven. While each dish is prepared with a freshness that many aren’t used to, tastes are not compromised; if anything they are enhanced.
Each night I would go to the terrace restaurant and indulge in one of the many Thai dishes while looking out onto the beach and listening to the gentle lapping of the tides. After a daily yoga or stretch class, I would head to Taste of Siam, the resort’s restaurant offering Thai specialities for breakfast and lunch (there’s also the Emerald Room for those with a preference for international cuisine), and order an egg-white Thai omelette made with fresh vegetables and a hint of spice – a habit I’ve stuck to nearly five months later.
But Chiva-Som isn’t just about pampering and delicious food. There’s pain and restraint involved; health and happiness must be worked for. For one thing, no cell phones are allowed in public areas, Wi-Fi is permitted only in your room. Also, you’re prohibited to take pictures at the resort; even Kindles are discouraged in communal areas. For today’s Instagram culture this might seem unthinkable; guests want to “share” their experience for instant gratification. But here gratification comes from detachment and honouring the mind and the body.
Indoor Personal Training
What makes Chiva-Som stand out is its plethora of fitness classes and luxury spa offerings. There’s a state-of-the-art gym, boot camp on the beach, a watsu pool, open-air yoga pavilions, meditation and Tai Chi classes, Pilates Mat and Reformer, stretch class and even Zumba. In addition to your daily massage, there’s acupuncture and chakra balancing, vacuum-cupping massages and naturopathy consultations. There’s even a wing for Chinese medicine and the Niranlada Medi-Spa offering modern aesthetic treatments as well as micro-invasive cosmetic surgery. If you have digestive problems, be sure to try the Chi Nei Tsang massage that helps to release emotional blockages held in your abdomen – it might make you slightly queasy but is worth it.
Whatever you can imagine, it can be done here. Chiva-Som honours inner beauty and sets you on a routine to achieve it. And it’s this routine, this daily rhythm that is key to consistent mental and physical health. This is what you take away: a new routine. For five months since my visit to Chiva-Som, I have woken up early nearly every single morning to practice yoga or engage in physical activity. You’ll leave with a renewed awareness for living well. Happiness cultivated, this is a haven of life that you take with you always. I vowed to return.