The beautifully traditional yet state-of-the-art Oriental Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok is the perfect place to unwind and find an inner calm.
The tranquil reception area
Apart from marriage and the birth of a child, the most powerful experiences in life tend to be the solitary ones. Only alone – perhaps in some thrilling, exotic place – is it possible for one to fully imbibe the sensory minutiae that combine to make up an unforgettable moment.
This occurs to me as I sit on a small wooden bench on the bank of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, having escaped the frenetic city centre to seek refuge in Mandarin Oriental’s world-renowned Oriental Spa, a traditional, golden teak Thai-style building that rises up enticingly on the opposite bank. My hair and hands are dusty from the day’s sightseeing, my ears ringing from the cacophony of the city, and my limbs still leaden with jet lag. I’m looking forward to three hours of cosseting so much that I can feel the anticipation building like hunger in my stomach. There’s just one problem: having been instructed to wait here by the hotel receptionist, I haven’t got a clue how I’m supposed to reach the other side. At that moment, a beautiful, old, carved Thai river-taxi pulls up at the end of the pier. Its only passenger, I am ushered regally aboard and sailed across the water.
Inside the award-winning spa, which has recently undergone a $1 million refurbishment, tranquillity reigns. A series of nymph-like therapists in traditional Thai dress waft about, whispering to me to take off my shoes, and replacing them with satin slippers. Then I’m guided upstairs into one of the four Ayurvedic Penthouse suites where my treatments are to take place. There, the walls are decorated with Rajasthani tapestries and paintings, the rooms furnished in the same golden teak style as the building, with big copper vases of lotus, jasmine and mango leaves dotted about. Distant Eastern music pervades and sandalwood candles burn in the corridors.
The pleasure is so intense I feel I may start levitating
Now I’m not a great believer in alternative therapies, but this ancient traditional medicine – native to the Indian Subcontinent and practised across South Asia – carries with it the hallmark of authenticity. Grounded in the metaphysics of the five great elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether – all of which compose the universe, it promises to restore inner peace to frazzled tourists like me.
Inside her office, my appointed Mandarin Oriental Ayurvedic Coordinator shakes her head slowly as she fills in the answers to a questionnaire that will help assess my body constitution, before looking up at me and smiling, like a cat, using wise eyes alone. Stress, she patiently explains, comes in three different types: physical, mental and emotional. Ayurveda, in combination with its sister science yoga, can address all three kinds. ‘Moreover, the oils and herbs in Ayurvedic products are very much needed for the body when there is a problem aggravating the Vata (air energy) in the body,’ she adds. ‘This is something similar to lubricating a running machine for its durable functioning. Our body is a machine and we need to take care of it so that it lasts and remains healthy.’ I, she goes on, am a balanced combination of all three doshas (the three basic types of biological humours in Ayurvedic medicine that determine an individual’s constitution), which means that the Vasthi massage treatment – a localised deep heat treatment using hot oil – would be most beneficial, combined with the Vadanam facial, which uses traditional methods of beauty-care to cleanse and refine the skin, boosting circulation and draining away puffiness.
By this point, I’m so desperate to be pummelled into oblivion that the detail is becoming painful to me. Just when I think I can’t take it any
longer, the therapist knocks gently, taking me, along with the recommendations, through to a large, cool, lemon grass-scented room overlooking the river. This is the Moksha (meaning detachment or liberation), the largest of the Ayurvedic suites, and one decorated in the same traditional style as the rest of the penthouse, with a traditional Shirodhara bed, massage table, steam room and a beautiful, old wooden wardrobe.
What follows can only be described as transcendental. I fall asleep as soon as my facial begins, only vaguely aware of the softest hands meticulously cleaning away the filth of the city and bringing my skin back to life, before concluding their work with a scalp massage. I turn over and hot Ayurvedic oils smelling of coconut and infused with various herbs, tailored to improve blood circulation and nourish the tissues, are poured over my legs as the therapist begins to work her way expertly up my body. When she reaches my back, I become convinced that there are three or four people involved, feeling, as I do, that an octopus with magical tentacles is at work. After an hour, the pleasure becomes so intense that I feel I may actually start levitating.
The pond area encourages guests to relax
Eventually, still slick with oil, I am helped to my feet and placed in a traditional wooden steam cabinet made of medicinal wood from India. With my head protruding from the cabinet so that I can breathe, the rest of my body is heated until all the oil has penetrated my skin, nourishing and strengthening the underlying tissues as well as helping to eliminate the toxins. The therapist then washes me clean using warm rose water from a carved Indian pail filled with fresh rose petals, and I am left to shower.
As I await my boat ride home with a cup of fresh ginger tea, I am introduced to Dr Prasanna, an Ayurvedic doctor from India who does a great deal of work at The Spa. For the first time in my life, I tell her, thanks to the treatments I have just experienced, I think I understand the word ‘spiritual’. ‘Remember that spiritual here does not mean religious,’ she laughs. ‘Spiritual means having awareness about the “self”. We try to give an idea about understanding our body, mind and the “self” during your sessions here. When this realisation happens, then the joy is yours. Many a time we have seen that these treatments – when the person is ready to receive – give an unusual but pleasant feeling, which brings a change in the way they see life or themselves.’ In the ancient Ayurvedic text, the Charaka Samhita, she adds as we say goodbye, there is a saying: ‘Leave behind everything if your body is failing and protect your body first, just like you protect your home, because it is the only place “you” have got to live.’