By Veronica Taylor
First of all, I must admit, I am a spa snob. The room temperature, music, lighting, cleanliness, scent, robe, pillows, towels, furnishings, pictures, and reception area – everything is up for scrutiny. An extra 10 points are added if, as I lay face-down on a proper massage table and peer down into the hole spooned out for the comfort of my face, I see fresh picked flowers floating in a picture-perfect ceramic bowl. Once I politely complained to a spa owner that his clocks ticked to loudly. The next week when I returned, all the tick-tock pendulum clocks had been replaced with smooth running, silent electric wall clocks. Granted, like the saying, “a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work”; any day at a spa is a good day. That being said, I continue my perpetual worldwide search for the ultimate spa. I may have found it.
The Amatara Health and Wellness Center on Cape Panwa in Phuket, Thailand is my idea of heaven. From the minute I stepped into the main reception area and gazed beyond the massive infinity pool to the five-mast sailing ship anchored in the turquoise coloured Andaman Sea, I knew I was somewhere special.
The Amatara Resort and Wellness is a complete luxury resort offering 35 pool villas, 22 pavilions, 48 suites – each uniquely positioned for unparalleled privacy. In fact, the whole Amatara experience, from the focused attention of the staff to the intimate nooks and crannies throughout the property, gives each guest a private-island- on-an- island feel. The three signature restaurants more than satisfy even a gourmet’s pallet offering Thai, international and healthy wellness cuisine. Wait! Health and Wellness! That’s what I’m here to write about! Forgive me for going off course for a moment. I was remembering that delicious cocktail I had poolside as I was engulfed in the warm oranges of the setting sun. Who knew health and wellness could be this delicious?
My mission was to experience the world’s first Thai hammam spa – a hybrid of Thai spa therapy and traditional bathing practices of Turkey and Morocco. Now, I’ve been to my fair share of Thai spas, but what’s a hammam? But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me explain the process, because this spa experience was definitely a process – one step of pure bliss to the next – a totally new experience for this old spa warhorse.
With a cool, aroma-infused towel on the back of my neck and an awesome welcome drink in my hand (was that cinnamon I tasted?), Kuhn Pheung, the spa manager, kindly asked me to complete a short pre-treatment form. This was not your typical health inquiry form. More like a Myers Briggs personality test, it was to determine what type of dosha I was, or which one of the three Ayurvedic energies circulates through my body. The results determined I was a Kapha dosha, and I was given a 9-step instruction sheet explaining how to keep my dosha in balance. It hit my lifestyle habits to a tee, from eating habits to sleeping habits. Already I was impressed. These folks not only cared about me right now, but they cared enough to guide me to good health and wellness once I left.
I was escorted to an impeccable treatment room. Good lighting – check, perfect temperature – check, cleanliness – check. Everything perfect. My first scheduled treatment was an Abhuanga – a detoxifying Ayurvedic warm oil massage. Brice Borin, the general manager, called it the bread massage (more on Brice latter). The massage therapist literally makes dough of flour and water, shapes it into a small round bagel-like ring, and places it on the area to be treated. Then she pours warm oil – it felt like warm butter – into the middle of the dough. Who doesn’t love fresh bread and warm butter? It felt as good as it sounds. Now I usually rank my massage therapists by how quickly they can put me to sleep, but since I was “working” to write this article, I struggled to stay awake. My massage therapists’ name was LaLa, and sure enough, she soon had me in LaLa land.
Next I was invited to “break bread” (have lunch) with the general manager, Brice Borin. We had an exceptional lunch at The Retreat; a small intimate 35-person restaurant dedicated to Wellness Retreat and Pool Villa guests. With incredible ocean views, we were offered a variety of healthy options including juice blends, super-food smoothie blends, salads, appetisers, soups, main courses, etc. Once again, the service was impeccable. A young man, Michael, took care of every detail, without hovering. My tuna was cooked to perfection and the organic salad played music on my taste buds.
I had briefly met Brice before, so it was great to get to know him better and catch up on the Phuket hospitality news from this seasoned professional. Brice has worked in the hospitality industry all over the world for over 28 years, and has managed this particular property for six years. It was a pleasure to hear Brice expound on the joys of working with Thai staff. I couldn’t agree with him more as Michael topped up my water glass. He also raved about their world renowned yoga instructor and the various wellness programs, including detox, weight management, couple bonding, stress management, etc. Sign me up!
All too soon it was time for my next treatment. Let the Thai Hammam adventure begin! It started with a quick 5-minute traditional sauna, followed by a gentle stroll through a series of hot and cold rain showers. Next, I entered into a 10-minute Thai-floral steam room, again followed by another stroll through the rain showers. I could have done that all day. It was like being caught in an afternoon shower on a hot summer day. My skin and senses began to tingle and my respiratory system began to open up.
Next I entered into a totally new middle-eastern experience – the Hammam room. How can I even begin to describe the beauty of this room? Beautiful mosaic tiles in intricate designs everywhere I looked. Gigantic crystal chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. But the most curious structures were three large marble beds lined up side by side in the middle of the room. The therapist carefully assisted me up on to one of the tables, which much to my surprise was pleasurably warm. As she gently began rinsing the steam and sweat from my body, I couldn’t help feeling like a freshly caught fish flopping on the market table.
A fish never had it this good. My smelling senses perked up as I received a luxurious black soap massage. This completely natural organic soap was made from olive, argon and eucalyptus oil, leaving my skin baby-soft. Just as I was falling asleep for the second time that day, I was escorted back to the Thai floral steam room, soaped up body and all, for another 5 minutes. This allowed the beneficial properties of the black soap to be furthered absorbed into my skin.
You know what they say, “no pain, no gain”. I was guided back to the hot bed, rinsed down, and scrubbed for a full body exfoliation with a Kessa glove. It felt like I was being scoured with sandpaper, but in this environment, I preferred to think of it as being scrubbed with layers of tiny diamonds. What ever it was, I physically saw layers of dead skin being removed from my body. As a bonus gift, I was given the Kessa glove so I could continue the routine at home.
After a thorough rinsing and a divine shampoo and hair conditioning, I was lead off to another room for a shocking application of buckets of shaved ice. It literally took my breath away.
Ironically, after possibly achieving the most pristine level of skin condition since birth, I was led to the Mud bath room and covered in clay from head to toe. As I relaxed on a warm stone bench, absorbing the minerals and beneficial properties of the clay seep into my skin, my mind kept going back to the dizzying affect of the shaved ice against hot skin. I won’t forget that experience for a while!
Another unique experience was soon to follow though. After a gentle steam infused into the mudroom, and another cool shower to rinse off the mud, I was lead into another jaw dropping room – the Salt Cave. This room was like going into an ice castle made of pink quartz, but instead, it was a warm room made out of pink salt blocks. As I reclined in a comfy wood chair, a very fine mist of pure salt was infused into the room. I am a long-time victim of asthma and allergies, but here in the Salt Cave I breathed better than I had in years. I could live in that room.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. I slowly, dreamily, got dressed and was served a wonderful herbal tea and a scrumptious mix of dried fruits wrapped in a betel leaf. As I once again, blissfully dazed out at the Andaman Sea, fantasising about my next visit to this ultimate spa, I felt like a totally new person.
Veronica spent most of her career working in the utility industry including TECO Energy, Tampa, FL and EGAT in Thailand. She changed careers when she was directly impacted by the 2004 Asian tsunami. Veronica returned to the States as Director Global Disaster Response for Habitat for Humanity International and then COO for Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in New Orleans. Veronica retired to Phuket in 2013.