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Lucire: Volante

Thais that bind

Though Phuket and Chiang Mai are Thailand’s most famous destinations outside Bangkok, roads less travelled lead to unexpected discoveries, including the wellness-driven resort Chiva Som
by Elyse Glickman


Part 1: Bangkok


ALONG THE GULF OF THAILAND, 185 km south of Bangkok, the village of Hua Hin offers a glimpse into Thailand’s early days of destination tourism. Thanks to the efforts of King Rama VII during the 1920s, the resort community took shape in a way that contrasts with the rapid and relatively recent development of Phuket and similar spots, its design reflecting the respect for natural landscape and local customs rather than mass-produced tourism.

While not as flashy as its newer cousins, Hua Hin has authenticity in its favour, offering a sense that real people live and work there beyond the industry of tourism. At one end of a locally populated beach with sand that feels like powdered sugar, one will find Monkey Island, an area streaked with hiking trails that lead up to a Buddha and temple alive with playful populations of the namesake creatures. The Sofitel Centara Grand Resort and Villas, said to have launched Hua Hin as a resort area internationally, offers one of the area’s best high tea services, good for relaxing in the evening after an eventful day exploring everything the area has to offer.

Downtown Hua Hin bustles after hours with its own night market. Carpeting several downtown blocks with street food indulgences, inexpensive souvenirs and rolling cocktail bars, interesting buried treasures can also be found in the mix. Finding Shoes, a delightful shop which carries inexpensive but beautifully made leather sandals with floral cutouts, is worth a peek. Twenty minutes in the other direction, there’s the unique Cicada Market, an upscale alternative to the traditional Asian night market that stages only on weekends. Selection of goods features handcrafted jewellery, shoes, home textiles, clothing and objets d’art, all sold by their creators in a tidy maze of open air boutiques alongside live jazz performances and a neatly organized restaurant area with proper tables and chairs.

If visitors need a break from all the shopping, Chiva Som, one of Southeast Asia’s most respected spa and wellness resorts, lies at the heart of this oasis. There is no question that Chiva Som is a luxury resort, any doubts quenched by the nicely stocked Mercedes limo that collects guests from the airport or their Bangkok hotel. While the resort looks deceptively compact at first glance, it opens out, like a lotus blossom, embracing visitors into a multi-dimensional sensory experience.

With Chiva Som’s main mission being to send visitors home in better health than when when they first arrived, personalization takes priority over pretension. The hotel’s acclaimed kitchen caters not only to vegans and vegetarians, but also kosher, diabetic and any other personalized diet. Although the sparely elegant design of the rooms, public areas and landscaping are inspired by a Thai Buddhist æsthetic of and indulgent comfort, resort business development director Sharon Menzies says that the holistic approach of the programs remain free of any kind of religious influence.

‘This is not the resort that sells itself as a honeymoon destination,’ Menzies says pointedly. ‘There is no [hard] liquor on premise. Treatments are less about pampering and more about clients finding balance, and learning habits they can carry over into their real world and marriage.’ However, for couples who want a more thoughtful honeymoon or serene renewing of vows, this is an ideal place. Visitors are able to gain a more intimate view of their own and their loved one’s health issues dietary needs and fitness goals. These realizations in turn allow for a better care over both body and spirit. The resort notes that they also have fertility experts on hand for couples who want to start planning families.

Shortly after arrival, a counsellor at the spa has visitors fill out a simple assessment form in order to promptly set the personalized wellness plans into motion. The counsellors will most likely steer visitors away from the treatments they would be most likely to select off a spa menu if left to their own devices. While a body scrub and line-erasing facial may sound more tantalizing due to familiarity, as I experienced, treatments such as reiki, a Thai digestion-focused massage, tend to be more appropriate for long-term well-being. The reiki practitioner who worked on me was practically psychic: she had me figured out even though we did not have any conversations! The results were quite enlightening and habit changing, and the lemongrass iced tea served across the resort as an accompaniment to meals and workouts proved quite wonderful as well.

An array of fitness classes, suitable to all tastes, are available at the resort. Yoga and stretching, Thai boxing, mountain biking, hiking, aqua fitness, pilates, tai chi chuan, Shaolin wushu and even a golf clinic launched in early 2010 are all modifiable to a variety of fitness levels, the lush jungle greenery and laid-back fitness instructors only adding to the enticement of the programmes. The workouts are not negated by the meals available, as often happens at resorts. Food served on premise is both delicious and informatively presented with cards explicitly stating calories and nutritional benefits in detail. Through its Thai menu selections are not as hot and spicy as street food, they still prove flavourful, satisfying and sophisticated, and you can of course add more peppers as desired.

Where the hotel newsletter and web site offer “try this at home” recipes, cooking classes further empower and motivate visitors to make changes in their diets without sacrificing flavour. They additionally provide the added experience of shopping the local food markets for base ingredients and spices with the hotel chef.

While the close-knit, family-style approach of the staff, the plush, romantic ambiance of the common areas and the resort’s close proximity to golf and shopping make Chiva Som seem like idea spot for a small executive retreat or bridesmaids’ retreat, Menzies cautions that the resort is best experienced solo or only with your significant other. She reemphasizes that the spa experience is not about the quick fix of a fruity body scrub or facial with high-end European products but rather about the first step towards a lifetime of wellness. She also says that although they have a shuttle to the markets, the staff encourages visitors to spend as much of their time on property as possible.

‘We want each visitor to have a tailored experience that will have meaning to them when they leave, and we do not want cliques to form among guests,’ she says. ‘We respect the wishes of guests who want to remain solitary during the course of what can be a highly personal and introspective time of healing. However, for more social solitaires or couples we offer activities, guest speaker sessions and “talk tables” in our dining areas, where they can meet people from all over the world. The privacy element is also important, as we also offer medi-spa treatments and packages where visitors can recover in a private setting if they choose.’

Besides a customized approach for maintaining the face and body that is their fortune, guaranteed anonymity and freedom from the prying eyes of the paparazzi and red carpet pressures act as an alluring feature for celebrities and captains of industry. The “no photography” on premise policy can be quite appealing for all guests, providing an egalitarian approach to the luxury health retreat experience. Menzies explains that this is accomplished in part due to the 95 per cent Thai staff who treat everyone equally as a valued guest, regardless of whether they are top A-listers from Japan, Europe, Australasia or the US or just people who come to escape the craziness of everyday life.

However, there are celebrities who openly sing the resort’s praises. Famous guests who serve as brand ambassadors include Elle Macpherson, Elizabeth Hurley and Collette Dinnigan. Hurley and Dinnigan even have items from their beach fashion lines for sale at the resort’s boutique alongside Chiva Som’s branded line of food products, spa beauty remedies, fitness and meditation DVDs and hard-to-find items such as jewellery from southeast Asian designers and stingray leather goods.

Though group outings are discouraged as the reason for one’s first trip to Chiva Som, Menzies mentions that the resort is looking into the possibility of hosting small executive retreats. These group events would come with strict conditions such as restricting the group to eight or fewer guests, and the ground rule that all money, planning and strategy related items be left at the Mercedes limo door. ‘If you go with associates, the idea is to learn good life practices that will counterbalance the less than healthy habits and pitfalls that come with your career,’ Menzies adds. ‘Everything here is hands-on, from fitness plans to dietary plans, skin care, counteracting stress and so on. If you come with a small group to bond, the idea is to know yourself first before you apply your new life lessons to the rest of the world.’


WHILE BANGKOK MAY BE a logical starting point when exploring Thailand’s history and culture, smaller towns that help fuel its economy add another intriguing perspective. This is particularly true if you happen to be a fan of Thai food, reported to be one of the fastest-growing ethnic cuisines worldwide. Thai food ranked sixth in an international survey developed by the Kellogg School of Management and Sasin Institute to test the popularity of international foods worldwide.

Followers of Tommy Tang’s Easy Thai Cooking television series inform you that if you want to truly get to know Thailand’s cuisine, you have to go to the source. This advice rings especially true when it comes to Thai Hom Mali Rice, formerly known as jasmine rice. Though Chiang Mai and Bangkok offer everything from the in-your-face sensory allure of street food to posh fine dining, a short stay the agricultural town of Nakhon Sawan—the Thai capital of its global rice industry and site of the 2011 Thailand Rice Convention—is a real eye-opener.

The route between Bangkok and Nakhon Sawan is dotted with rest areas that deftly splice together the mentality of an old-fashioned truck stop and mall food court. A rest area near Singh City, for example, includes a sweets’ bakery where everything is made from fish including pound cake and ice cream. If only gefilte fish makers could get in on their secrets! The Singh City stop also features Coffee D, a local chain that offers a refreshing, if not more conventional taste of the Thai heartland through excellent green and Ceylon (black) varieties of Thai iced tea brewed through an espresso machine.

Even with Nakhon Sawan’s agricultural underpinning, there is still culture to be found in environs. From Central Park’s green, sprawling sibling, Sawan Park, to impressive waterfalls such as Namtok Nang Nuan and Namtok Mae Krasa to Buddhist compounds and local museums such as Chan Sen Ancient City and Chan Sen Musuem, the variety to be found in Thai culture is visible throughout. The Bonito Chinos Hotel embodies the town’s humble-but-ambitious attitude with a décor that emulates big city boutique hotels. Its Pink Peony restaurant stays true to Nakhon Sawan’s agricultural roots as it serves up Thailand’s version of the country-style breakfast that could have been prepared by somebody’s mother in the morning rustic but excellent family-style dinners at night.

The variety of experiences available in Thailand, from wellness resorts to agricultural towns, enchants visitors to escape urban life and take the time to breathe and rediscover themselves. •


Nearby Monkey Island







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