From detox dieting to mangrove exploration – and a host of other wellness kick-starts – there are reasons aplenty to book into Thailand’s Chiva-Som, looking fresh from a renovation of its own, as April Hutchinson discovers on a return visit to the famous wellness resort
A lot can happen in 13 years. Marriage, divorce, weight loss, weight gain, stress, career moves – all of the above. But while all those things may have happened in my life, one thing that seems to have remained the same during that time is the brilliance of Chiva-Som, easily one of the world’s best wellness resorts and a place I was looking forward to checking in to for a five-day retreat.
As I luxuriated in the chilling thrill of a scented cold towel on a humid afternoon on my arrival at the resort, I was reminded by a mini welcoming committee that it was indeed 13 years since my last visit.
It’s rare for me to go back to the same hotel twice on my travels – but the lure of a recently renovated Chiva-Som and an overwhelming need for a personal “re-set” seemed like good enough reasons to make an exception to this loose maxim.
Having been whisked from my hotel in Bangkok in the air-conditioned comfort of a Mercedes for a three-hour drive to the resort – tucked in one of the slightly quieter parts of the southern holiday mecca of Hua Hin – I’d had plenty of time to reflect on life since my last visit, and how impactful that visit had actually been back in 2006, teaching me so much then about myself, emotionally and health-wise.
I’ve obviously changed even more as a person since, but staff very sweetly said I hadn’t changed much visually, compared to the picture of me they still had on file. “You must have the wrong picture,” I laughed, afterall, I was definitely a few stones heavier. But I appreciated such sweet comments nonetheless.
This 54-room resort had also been undergoing some changes of its own, benefitting from a complete redesign of all accommodation over the past couple of years.
Rooms are a calming lesson in Thai minimalism, nothing to distract you, no jarring colours – just a soothing space with beds to cocoon you, daybeds upon which to reflect (or write in the journal provided), and fresh lemon/lime and a tea set so you prep for the day ahead (experts swear by starting the morning with simple hot water and lemon).
The whole resort is set within classic Thai-style tiered-roof buildings and main accommodation is within a central section, but Chiva-Som’s new piece de resistance is the range of recently refurbished Thai Pavilion category rooms.
These standalone little buildings pepper the gardens and provide a more private wellbeing bolthole – many with private salas and a lakeside setting to provide even more spaces for contemplation.
Now, it might seem strange to write about somewhere that is about to close, but there is still more work to be done, and when Chiva-Som completes the upcoming fourth and final stage of its renovation programme, it will stand head and well-toned shoulders above anything else of its kind.
All guests can benefit from a health and wellness consultation soon after arrival, in order to set some objectives and assess specific health and nutrition concerns. They can then choose to follow one of the 12 Retreat programmes that best suits them.
But regardless of whether guests sign up to a specific programme, everyone receives one inclusive treatment a day, ranging from six options such as Thai massage or a Chiva-Som Skin Haven Body treatment. With more than 22 years of experience, though, Chiva-Som knows how to put together a Retreat for a range of needs, with options including Optimal Performance for those seeking to return to peak fitness; Spa Wellbeing for an all-round rejuvenating retreat; Natural Renewal for those suffering chronic health conditions; and even Cell Vitality for those in remission or recovery from cancer.
Everything can also be personalised of course, and I was “prescribed” a combination of Emotional Wellbeing (over-stressed and lack of energy) and Art of Detox (to help bring digestive and metabolic systems back to their optimal functioning levels).
After easing myself into the Chiva-Som experience with a signature massage, I sampled a deliciously healthy dinner in the Emerald Room, including a salad made with fresh produce from one of the resort’s two organic farms. And by day two it was time for a facial analysis as well – more on the shock factor of this later – followed by a Thai massage and then the Chi Nei Tsang treatment; an intense massage that works directly on the abdomen, your organs and their associated emotions.
According to ancient Chinese medicine, the abdomen contains our energy centre and is also where toxins accumulate and emotions get tangled up, so the massage is designed to free you of these nasties that might be clinging onto you. I wouldn’t recommend the treatment for anyone with a low pain threshold, but I definitely felt lighter in all senses afterwards.
Alas, the one sense I wasn’t going to be able to do much with on day two of the stay was that of taste – I’d embarked on a “lean day” of detox, meaning I would consume just soup and a detox sorbet for dinner… followed by a very early night.
Day three – things started in real earnest: there was 7am Tai Chi in an outdoor pavilion; a physiotherapy session (posture April, posture, posture); a lymphatic drainage massage; colonic hydrotherapy; and a head massage to calm me down after all those appointments.
My menu plan for the day was “light” – basically soups and very light meals – and I also had a fascinating check-in with Dr Jason Culp, or as I now like to call him, “the mind reader”.
It was as if he were a psychic seeing into my dietary soul, guessing and teasing out all my bad habits – but also giving supplement suggestions and manageable eating solutions, which he also dutifully typed out and had sent to my room later.
We all know eating carbs late at night is a bad thing, right? But it was helpful to be reminded of why I shouldn’t shovel a bowl of pasta down at 9pm and go to bed two hours later… Dr Culp is the resort’s senior naturopathic physician of five years, as well as heading up Chiva-Som’s research team exploring evidence-based natural therapies. He brims with nutritional and naturopathic gems of wisdom – and while I haven’t stuck to his plan fully (life’s taken over again instead); his words have at least stuck with me and I will be attempting to bring them back to life imminently… promise.
Another thing that (unfortunately) stuck with me were the thermo-imaging maps of my face, part of the complimentary skin facial analysis – all guests can have one, but they might have to steel themselves for the results.
The analysis takes place back up at the resort’s Niranlada Medi-Spa (it’s located closer to the lobby in order for external clients to visit for treatments without having to travel through the hotel grounds), where you pop your face into a 3D scanning gizmo. Within seconds, images were shown to me of quite how bad my ageing and sun-damaged skin is – I won’t go into too much more detail, but suffice to say, it’s a pretty damning analysis of what happens if you don't use SPF regularly and what urban skin can look like.
I could have just left it at that – but of course you can’t, not when someone is promising some kind of detox for your face, hence also continuing the theme of my Retreat. My consultant suggested the Bioplasma and JetPeel combination – the first half of it felt like a tiny robot was running over my face (it was actually a high-energy radio frequency electrode), and the second part was like having a jetwash on your face; I actually felt I might drown. It’s a high-speed saline steam pumped onto your face; you definitely won’t drown, but as they say – no pain no gain. For days afterwards, my skin was so much clearer, mixed with the glowing effects of the general detox.
Simple though it sounds, one of the most popular treatments at Chiva-Som is apparently Super Stretch: you literally lie down while someone gives your whole body, every limb and muscle, a stretch. It was a blissed-out state I enjoyed entering into on my last full day; it was also the most time I actually spent inside the very impressive gym, which was also all new within the past year.
I rolled out from there into a pavilion where an expert yogi told me of a case where his Pranayama breathing technique seemed to have helped alleviate a client’s cancer – using breathing to help cope with stress (or packed trains and the Tube in my case) is a more basic application of his techniques. And after my final detox day of just liquids (powerfully tasty and vitamin-packed liquids, mind), two more massages and a departure consultation, it was time to leave, and I headed back to Bangkok feeling revitalised and rested.
In general, there’d also been something wonderfully mind-numbing about slobbing around in a spa robe, or in the cotton "day wear" pyjama set provided for each guest in the room – it was like every day was a Sunday.
And even when you do force yourself into some kind of yoga or gym kit to do something where you might break a sweat, the laundry of such items is included in the stay, which equals one less excuse not to do something active.
There’d also been something even more relaxing about not slavishly carrying a mobile phone around; the hotel discourages phone use, and Wi-Fi is technically only available in the guest rooms and The Library, which makes it pointless lugging one around. Photography is also discouraged to protect guest privacy – giving another reason to impose a mini digital detox on yourself. And when dining in the Emerald Room, there's no Wi-Fi either, so staring into space as you eat was my main activity, a kind of enforced mindful eating (yes, that's a 'thing').
During the stay, I also managed to enjoy an afternoon chilling out by the sizeable main pool and a stroll along the huge beach, just beyond the gate to the rear of the resort, but I’d barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer at Chiva-Som.
The standalone Bathing Pavilion has a huge pool for aqua fit classes; there’s a Watsu treatment pool set inside a pavilion; Water Therapy Suites inside the spa offer Jacuzzi, plunge pool and Kniepp therapy foot bath; a specialist Neurac studio focuses on neuromuscular stimulation; and healthy cooking lessons allow you to take home some tips. Plus there's a seriously impressive list of further treatments and a host of other exercise classes – Gyrokinesis, anyone? It’s yoga, dance, tai chi and gymnastics combined.
I did however find time to stroll the peaceful grounds and to visit Chiva-Som’s impressive mangrove reforestation project – Krailart Niwate. The Hua Hin coast was once thick with mangroves, but development over time has seen this ecosystem diminish, to the extent that this is sadly now the only example of it left in the area.
Located just a mile from the resort, on the land of a Buddhist temple, more than 5,000 mangrove trees have been planted to date, with Chiva-Som acting as “steward” of the mangrove for several years.
They oversee the rehabilitation project, regularly clear rubbish from the area and encourage a Junior Ambassadors programme in order to help students gain first-hand knowledge of this ecosystem and wider environmental issues, encouraging respect for nature.
It’s also become easier to explore the mangroves thanks to Chiva-Som’s funding of a 1,000-metre elevated interpretive boardwalk, and the next major project is the creation of a solar-powered, carbon-neutral Mangrove Ecosystem Preservation & Science Education Centre on the site, hopefully within a couple of years.
The stewardship is also part of an intense sustainability focus, with the resort acutely aware of the additional impact a five-star hotel focused around a spa could have on the environment, with its potentially higher-than-average water and laundry usage.
An impressive roster of measures has been taken over the years (the resort is 24 years old), with plastic bottles long ago banned, way before the current trend (there are jugs of fresh, flavoured if you like, water readily available for you to top up your personal water carrier), and waste a militant issue, with uneaten food from staff and guests going to the local pig farm.
“They must be the healthiest pigs in the world,” laughs Brian Anderson, Chiva-Som’s sustainable development manager. As I left, I felt like the healthiest April in the world too, and hoped it wouldn’t be another 13 years until my next visit.