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(2018 - Spring Issue)


Beware the petite woman with the shy smile and warm bow leading you to a treatment room for your first traditional Thai massage. She’s stronger than she looks, and she’ll soon be pushing, pulling, pressing, elbowing and generally turning your body to butter in the most invigorating massage of your life. 

Among Thailand’s temples and natural beauty, massage is an essential part of life. Whether it’s a 30-minute foot rub on the way home from work or a luxurious two-hour massage in a jungle spa on a wellness vacation, Thai massage has long been used to relieve pain and fatigue, reduce tension, increase circulation and even promote longevity.


Our wellness adventure began at the sprawling Dhara Dhevi resort outside Chiang Mai, a lively city north of Bangkok. This fantasy of old Siam, with its soaring layered rooftops and intricate statues, was meticulously created over a five-year period by more than 1,000 local craftsmen on a former 24-hectare rice paddy.

Before delving into the physical side, however, we visit the Chiang Mai campus of MCU Buddhist University for a Monk Chat. In a room lined with statues of Buddha, a saffron-robed young Pra invites questions about himself, Thai culture and the struggle for a peaceful mind and balanced life. MCU also offers regular meditation retreats for the price of a small donation.

Back at the sumptuous Dheva spa, Ayurvedic physician Sunita Mahamuni hands out three-page questionnaires to determine our dosha or energy type—fire, water or air—which she uses to help guests balance their diet and lifestyle. With 5,000 years of Ayurvedic medicine behind her, we know we’re in good hands.

The Dheva’s treatment rooms feel like royal suites, with a separate bath and change room. Lithe Paddina washes my feet in a silver bowl filled with hot water, milk, slices of kaffir lime and rose petals before ushering me into the main room, dominated by a low foam mattress big enough for her to sit beside me as I lie face-down. I had asked for strong pressure and get it in spades as her iron fingers press hard on every pressure point, especially the back of my heels. Then up to my back and shoulders, snapping the tight tendons in my neck over and over. Suddenly she’s kneading my back, using her entire arm like a rolling pin. Though it’s the least relaxing massage I’ve ever had, I actually doze off toward the end of the 80-minute session, wishing it would never end.


Next stop, Bangkok. The heat and stress of the capital’s traffic jams (take the Skytrain) vanish as we walk into The Siam, a stunning black and white art-deco oasis along the Chao Phraya River far from the tourist crowds. We mop flushed faces with a cold damp cloth and savour a bottle of fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice.

An hour later, we’re lounging in the hotel’s Opium Spa waiting area, which rises two storeys high with black wrought-iron grillwork up the walls and a fountain in the centre. From three brown vials of oil I choose “energizing” mandarin orange, and request a “firm but relaxing” pressure for my Muay Thai massage, a specialty of the six-year-old hotel, which has its own Muay Thai boxing gym. To honour the powerful martial art, the masseuse uses her entire hand and forearm to energize and relieve tension.

Lying face-down in the airy, softly lit treatment room, staring down at purple orchid flowers floating in a tray of water, I brace for another pummelling. The masseuse waves her hands under my nose and tells me to breathe deeply three times. Ah, the orange oil.

She begins by gliding her hands along my leg in long sweeping strokes, like a maestro conducting a symphony. Lovely, but it doesn’t last. Soon she’s crouching on the back of my legs, leaning forward with her whole body to press on my shoulders. It’s like being on a roller-coaster blindfolded, bracing for the next hill. Has anyone ever stood up and fled a Thai massage, I wonder.

The next morning, we learn a few tricks of our own at the Chetawan Traditional Massage School near Wat Po, the famous temple of the giant reclining Buddha. People come from all over the world to take the school’s five-day Thai massage course. Clothed in cotton pyjamas, we practise on each other, placing thumbs side by side and pressing firmly along the prescribed lines up the leg, along the arm then down the back. While the one-hour session doesn’t cover the more acrobatic moves we’d experienced first-hand, we marvel at the ability of the young Thai practitioners in their white lab jackets and black pants to turn bodies into pretzels.


There are still plenty of backpacks on the luggage carousel when we land at the tiny airport on Koh Samui, but the island now includes many beautiful resorts that focus on wellness and relaxation. After a brief stop at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Resort for an introduction to meditation, we headed to the Tamarind Springs Forest Spa on the island’s southeast coast. To ensure guests focus on relaxation during the minimum four-hour stay in this essence of tranquility, everyone must surrender their shoes, camera and smartphone at reception. It’s the hardest moment of the day.

Wrapped in colourful sarongs, we follow the stepping stones into a clearing surrounded by tall trees and trailing vines for an hour of steam and dream. We splash water over ourselves from a waist-high tub, then venture between two giant boulders into a cave filled with herb-scented steam, lit naturally through glass bricks in the ceiling. When the heat becomes too intense, we dash outside to scrub our bodies with a choice of natural exfoliants—coffee grounds, beet, carrot, ginger or lemongrass—then back into the sauna. When we’ve had enough, we cool off in a natural pool before following a wooden walkway to a second clearing to sip tea and await our treatment.

An attendant leads us to the open-air room with two beds separated by tropical flowers and greenery for our two-hour massage. Now that I know what to expect, it’s easier to relax. And there’s a new element—an herbal compress. Since ancient times, herbs such as ginger, turmeric and lemongrass have been wrapped in muslin and steamed. The masseuse gently presses and rolls the hot bundle over my back to relieve any pain or inflammation. The effect is soothing, and two hours fly by.

Needless to say, by the end of this luxurious week we were so relaxed we could have floated back to Canada without a plane.

Travel Planner

We enjoyed premium economy service to Shanghai on Air Canada (aircanada.com) then transferred to Juneyao Airlines (juneyaoair.com/en) to Chiang Mai. Our internal flights were on Bangkok Airways (bangkokair.com). For more information on Thailand, visit tourismthailand.org. 

Dhara Dhevi Hotel Company: dharadhevi.com

Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Resort: Kamalaya.com

Tamarind Springs: tamarindsprings.com

The Siam Hotel: thesiamhotel.com

Watpo Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School: watpomassage.com

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