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Chiva Som: A dream retreat

Forget backpackers and full-moon parties – the new Thai tourism industry is all about luxury wellness. Tabitha Barda visits one of its most famous destination spas in search of relaxation

  • In addition to award-winning facilities, beautiful surroundings and personalised attention, Chiva Som boasts tImage Credit: Corbis
  • Yoga exercise on the beach at Chiva-Som in Hua Hin, Thailand. Chiva-Som is a dedicated health resort for physiImage Credit: © Luca Tettoni/Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • View of the pond with Buddha statue at Chiva-Som in Hua Hin, Thailand.Image Credit: © Luca Tettoni/Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • The Chiva-Som International Health Resort, Thailand - View of Outdoor Swimming PoolImage Credit: Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis
  • Image Credit: Corbis

It’s dawn when I arrive at the outdoor yoga pavilion in Hua Hin, Thailand, and the class is already beginning to set up.
The air is warm and close as breath
as I pick my way across yoga mats and find a free one, bathed in a square of sunlight. Birdsong and the soft whoosh of waves on the shore are the only sounds, and I feel the benefit of having dragged myself out of bed so early – this feels like a slice of golden time, stolen magical moments before the world wakes up and the whir of daily life resumes.

While anyone is allowed to drop into this 6am stretch class – one of the many open fitness sessions in destination spa Chiva Som’s daily schedule – I feel like an imposter. I’ve done yoga only once before, and the closest I’ve ever come to meditation is choosing what to order from a dinner menu. Yet the atmosphere is so serene that I’m anxious to look as if I know what I’m doing.

Settling myself on the mat,
I squint around and take a look at my fellow yoga students. Visitors to Chiva Som come from all over the world, with an even spread from the Far East, Europe, Australasia and the Arab World. Everyone also comes with their own goals in mind – singletons, couples, small groups or families all visit, whether it’s for weight loss, detoxing, physical ailments, or like me, just to relax.

I spot a lithe Japanese couple already leaping about doing their own expert warm-up, and beyond them two tanned and burly blokes stretch quietly; smattered with tattoos and piercings, they don’t fit the classic yoga mould I had in mind. Beside me, and beatifically posed in the lotus position, is a middle-aged British-Indian lady, who introduces herself as Shan, and in front of me her friend, Ash. I must be about
20 years younger than them, but as we limber up it’s clear I am the brittle old lady in this particular trio – although Ash likes to huff and puff a bit, pretending she finds it difficult.

But everyone falls silent when
teacher Tam asserts himself at the front of the pavilion and the class begins. All Chiva Som instructors – from the yoga professionals to the naturopaths, nutritionists and spa therapists – are chosen for their experience as well as their qualifications, and during our visit there are several international experts visiting from the UK and the US for limited-edition sessions in acupuncture, reflexology and more.

Pacing up and down between pools of light and shadow, Tam’s voice pierces the air with shrill authority.
I feel distinctly bovine and lumbering as he asks us to stretch, roll, hold and lift in ways I’ve not done since I was a nine-year-old in ballet class, and both Ash and Shan notice, giving me conspiratorial winks as I do my best to wobble gracefully.

When Tam counts aloud to
10 while we hold a particularly awkward contortion, Ash can’t resist the opportunity to quip, “I’m sure his ‘10 seconds’ are longer than anyone else’s ‘10 seconds’!” Her stage-whisper is loud enough to be heard over the hum of the ceiling fans. “What’s that you say?” Quick as a flash, Tam is by Ash’s side. Titters spread throughout the class and Ash dissolves into a fit of giggles.

“It’s a good kind of pain,” Tam smiles. “You‘ll see. You come tomorrow and you will see how you improve. This kind of pain is good for your health.”

In the three days that I stay at Chiva Som, this certainly turns out
to be true.

Unexpected bliss

Famous for being one of the most luxurious destination spas in Thailand’s rapidly expanding wellness-tourism industry, Chiva Som has won numerous international awards for its cuisine, spa treatments and resort facilities. Just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok – although its tranquil ponds and lush shady gardens look as far removed from the city as possible – there are several things apart from yoga stretch classes that could be described as ‘painful’ for some. It’s forbidden to have electronic devices anywhere in the hotel apart from private areas like your own room – so no phone, texts or emails, no Facebook, no Kindles even and – for me, a non-watch wearer – no way of telling the time. The spa’s healthy menu means relinquishing almost all naughty food indulgences, while the strict no-smoking policy means a sacrifice for nicotine addicts.

But it’s amazing how blissful it can be to be removed from the things you think you depend upon. Phone-free and oblivious to the hour, I wander the jasmine-scented gardens giddy with the sense of being totally cut off from my everyday life – free to soak up the wafts of lemongrass spiralling from the treatment rooms, the tang of the sea air and the steady croak of cicadas rising from the bushes.

While I could while away my entire stay this way, I also have my own personal timetable of treatments and classes, arranged during the arrival consultation. As well as drop-in stretch classes, yoga, pilates and aqua aerobics among others, there’s the gym, the pool, the beach and a vast menu of customisable à la carte treatments. Everyone’s schedule is entirely individual – my goal is to unwind and switch off a little, so I am booked in for a daily massage, along with a rejuvenating facial, a physio session, and I even try acupuncture for the first time.

Whatever you fill your days with, they’re punctuated by the serving times at the resort’s two restaurants, one of which specialises in international cuisine, while the other, right by the beach, focuses on authentic Thai dishes. There’s no sense of ‘going without’ – imaginative, delicious yet healthy treats like avocado butter or beetroot hummus feel indulgent, and the fact that everything is made from organic ingredients means every bite – even that mouthful of chocolate ice cream (made from frozen banana rather than dairy) – is totally guilt free.

During dinner in the international restaurant there is a ‘talk table’ where those who want may mingle, or down in the Thai restaurant is the ‘naughty’ table – the only place in the resort where it’s permitted to smoke.

If you can tear yourself away, beyond the resort the coastal town of Hua Hin offers up a traditional flavour of Thailand, with bustling floating markets, ornate temples and the beautiful Hua Hin train station. But I’m quite content to stay nestled within the resort’s grounds. Happily bumbling from one pampering session to the next, it feels as if I am walking on air, flopping from one cushioned treatment table to another, and my three days simply melt away like sand slipping through my fingers.

Gaining confidence

On my final morning, as I amble back to the yoga pavilion for a 7am breathing class, I no longer feel worried about my yogic abilities. I’ve hardly become an expert, but the inclusive atmosphere and the schedule of massages has worked wonders – so what if my downward dog is more of a precarious puppy?
I am far too relaxed to care.

Lying on the yoga mat, we are instructed to control our breathing according to the principles of Pranayama, a Sanskrit word for ‘extension of the breath’. Gently inhaling and exhaling, basking in the honey warmth of my pool of sunlight, the next thing I hear is the ‘Om’ meditation, and I open my eyes to see silhouettes of everyone else sitting upright, preparing to leave. I’ve managed to sleep through the
whole 50-minute class. Or, has everything in the past three days been just a dream?

Sitting up, slightly dazed, I take one final moment to appreciate my last slice of golden time in Thailand. I’m a little bleary from my sleep, a little stiff from all the stretch classes I’ve done, but more relaxed than I’ve been in years and very happy. One thing’s for sure – if this is a dream,
I don’t ever want to wake up.