For travellers with long lists of must-do’s and must-see’s, their accommodation – be it a no-nonsense business hotel or an opulent five-star stay – is often but a place to rest. As for spa, it’s great if there’s time to squeeze in a massage after a day full of activities, but otherwise it’s hardly the highlight of a sightseeing holiday. Some hotel spas, however, are giving such travellers a reason to add a spa visit into their itinerary and indulge a little. Offering more than rejuvenation, they transform the relaxing journey into a cultural experience.


Sense of Place

It may not be the first thing that comes to mind when booking a treatment, but a spa’s design can determine the whole experience in subtle and pronounced ways. It begins not on the treatment bed, but once you step inside; or if you’re a guest at the Forbes five-star Oriental Spa Bangkok, before you even arrive.

A short ride on a traditionally inspired boat takes guests across the Chao Phraya River, located on the western bank. “The fact that one has to take a boat ride from the hotel to the spa sets the mood for the spa journey,” says Nartrudee Bridi, director of spa at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. The transition from the modern city is swift yet calming, which helps quiet the mind gradually and prepare it for the serene atmosphere of the spa. Once there, guests are invited into the charming sanctuary set in a restored century-old teak house.

Having recently undergone a facelift, the spa now boasts state-of-the-art hydrotherapy facilities and a relaxation lounge, but Bridi says that traditional Thai elements remain undercurrent in overall set-up and treatments. “The antique decor of The Oriental Spa is reminiscent of classic Siamese aesthetics,” she says. The rich warm accents, wooden flooring and traditional decor evoke a different era. By delivering a sense of place, the spa inspires fascination in the curious traveller, and creates an escape from the outside world that directs focus back to relaxation.


Indigenous Wisdom

While high-tech, machine-based treatments are readily available these days, many spas are drawing inspiration from indigenous healing traditions, reinventing them to suit modern needs, and at the same time connecting guests to local culture.

At The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Kyoto, guests can choose from a number of exclusive treatments that tap into the region’s wellness culture and ingredients. The Ryokucha Serenity Ritual, for instance, is especially popular. “It draws upon the hotel’s signature Green Tea Scent with rich antioxidant properties of green tea leaves from the Uji region of Kyoto,” explains spa manager Masako Kasahara. “This exclusive experience leads guests on a sensory journey while evoking tranquillity with a strong sense of localness.” It consists of a foot ritual with warm Ryokucha poultice, ESPA oil massage and a scalp massage, but before all this, green tea and a green tea macaron are served to begin this themed spa journey.

In places with a time-honoured medicinal system like Ayurveda and TCM, spas are able to translate the healing philosophies into sought-after treatments. “Guests are now seeking a more holistic approach to address the root cause of underlying issues such as stress,” notes Nichola Roche, Aman’s group director of spa. At Aman Summer Palace, Beijing, the spa has partnered with Tong Ren Tang – a former royal medical dispensary that treated the Imperial Palace of the Qing dynasty for centuries – to create a seasonal herbal poultice for massage. Roche adds, “Treatments blend modern practices with traditional techniques from China’s imperial past. Native medicinal herbs such as Eucommia ulmoides and Caulis spatholobi are utilised for their healing properties, which help promote blood circulation, tone kidneys and liver, and strengthen muscles and bones.”


More than a Massage

“Our guests frequently seek spiritual pursuits in combination with their spa experience,” continues Roche. In response, the heritage resort offers plenty of options such as tailored tai chi sessions, breakfast in the peaceful gardens and healthy specialties at the Ming dynasty-inspired restaurant. These activities outside the treatment room round off an authentic experience that merges wellness and cultural elements.

Taking a similar approach, Mi Xun Spa at The Temple House in Chengdu features a Spa Teahouse that offers healthy, traditional Chinese cuisine such as fresh bamboo shoots, Chinese gourd and purple sweet potato Chinese teacake, as well as a variety of teas including the native Sichuan Zhu Ye Qing. Guests can also learn Chinese calligraphy here. In addition, a simple ritual of wish making with a traditional coin is performed upon arrival at the spa – a small detail that makes a difference in the overall experience. As director of spa operations Kelly Coates-Xu says, “Every step at Mi Xun Spa has an element of traditional China.”

Over at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, guests have the flexibility to create their own cultural retreats by combining different activities. And if you prefer thoughtfully crafted programmes, Bridi has good news: “We will be introducing a Thai Wellness Programme, including 60 minutes of Muay Thai, an hour-long yoga session and a rejuvenating 90-minute Muay Thai massage that relaxes muscles, promotes circulation, speeds up removal of uric acid and other toxins, and enhances mood and awareness.”

The benefits of adding a cultural element into the spa experience is that whether you’re attending a programme or tailoring your own, it isn’t just another massage or facial (however good that may be); but during the relaxing few hours, you’re engaged with the local culture and perhaps learn something new, which makes it that much more memorable.


Article first published on Asia Spa