During my four-day visit at the luxe wellness retreat in Hua Hin, the royal beach-resort town on the coast of the Gulf of Siam, Sonyam recommends that I see the spa’s acupuncturist, have stress-release therapy with the physiotherapy team and book a Chinese stomach massage, called Chi Nei Tsang, to improve digestion. I tell her that I’m committed to excelling in the art of relaxation. I plan to utterly unwind, so I make a list and tell myself “Ambereen, don’t dream it; commit!” and then stress over hitting those targets. There is the agony of vanquishing sugar, dairy and caffeine; I’m wiped after the 17-hour flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok and three-hour shuttle-bus ride; and I’m worried about my husband and my tornado of a three-year-old son. They’re 13,000 kilometres away and I’m scheduling massages at a place ranked by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the world’s best overseas destination spas.
Chiva-Som translates to “haven of life.” The spa’s philosophy, says Paul Linder, the Swiss-born general manager, is rest, relaxation and improvement. Linder, who resembles actor Tim Roth (but more debonair), plays elephant polo, wears Tom Ford suits and doesn’t perspire, even in steamy 37°C weather. I’ve lived in the California desert for seven years, and waterfalls are sloshing down my face.
For my first treatment, Chiva-Som’s Signature Spa Haven Body Cocoon, I enter a room decorated in cool shades of avocado, cream and turquoise. Thirty minutes later, I realize that the colours are intended to distract clients from the treatment’s supreme heat. The masseuse scours me with an arabica-coffee-and-shea-butter scrub. After I shower away the grinds, she “marinates” me in scented oil and then wraps me in a cocoon of plastic and towels to encourage lymphatic drainage. I start to drift off while she massages my scalp but jolt awake because I’m convinced that fire ants are holding a sock hop on my torso. Sweat stings as it runs between my breasts, pools in my belly button and splashes over my knees. I hope I’m losing weight—not water weight but real fatty-tissue weight. Yes, it’s impossible. After 20 minutes the masseuse unwraps me, and somehow I’m not wrinkled like an old wallet or covered in ant bites; I’m soft from my neck to my heels.
I return to my spacious guest pavilion, which has a sharply peaked red-tile roof characteristic of traditional Thai architecture. The suite has teak floors, a vaulted ceiling, a sunken tub and a separate shower. Small touches elevate it: In the evening, when the maid turns down the bed, she leaves an orchid on the pillow and a bowl of jasmine petals on the nightstand and lights lemon-grass oil in the room.
Chiva-Som has something for both the tortoise and the hare: kinesis classes, sea kayaking, outdoor yoga, aqua-aerobics, cooking classes and Pilates and stretch classes. Sometimes I walk along the beach or wander the three-hectare property and imagine that I’m a princess, with minions to tend the koi pond and keep it stocked with orange and white fish as big as chihuahuas. There are jasmine bushes that scent the air, banyan trees and birds of paradise. It is private and absurdly lovely and attracts celebrities like tennis champs Serena and Venus Williams, Bollywood star Preity Zinta and singer Natalie Imbruglia.
The meals at Chiva-Som are labelled so that you know how many scrumptious calories and how much fats and protein you’re scarfing down. The biggest decision I make each day is whether I’ll eat the coconut sorbet or white-chocolate cake for dessert or the sea bass or poached grouper in ginger broth for lunch. I often request more deliciousness than my stomach can handle—and then I eat more fresh papaya and pineapple. Once, twice...well, every day I maul the minibar in my pavilion for Chiva-Som’s unsweetened chocolate chip cookies.
In my departure meeting with Sonyam, I’m surprised when she says that I’ve lost almost four pounds. I gorged. Sonyam wants to know what lessons I’ll take away from Chiva-Som and what traditions I’ll carry on at home. Healthy food in vast quantities, I offer. (Inwardly, I say “I am not giving up my awesome rouge clothes.”) Beyond that, I’m too relaxed to answer. I think that this was her point all along.
THE SPA DIVA
WANNA HOMSANOE, Chiva-Som’s spa manager
Drink up “Fresh lemon-grass tea. We serve it to guests chilled when they arrive—it’s wonderful for detoxification.”
Take a stroll “Hike to Khao Takiab, which is ‘Chopstick Hill’ in Chinese. The golden Buddha is on a cliff facing the Gulf, and it’s just a 30-minute walk along the beach from Chiva-Som.”
Night out “Hotel Sofitel Hua Hin on Friday nights. They have a great live Filipino band that gets everyone on their feet.”
Best eats “The Night Market for its seafood. The squid and pad Thai at the street stalls are amazing—better than what you find at some fancy restaurants.”
THE TEXTILE QUEEN
ASAYA TIMBLICK, Owner of Khomapastr Fabrics and granddaughter of the founder, HRH Prince Bovoradej Kridakorn
Wardrobe essentials “Caftans, jewelled sandals, cowboy hats and beach towels.”
Favourite spa “My beach house in Hua Hin, where I have specialist masseuses come and give traditional Thai massage—the real deal—for 300 baht [$9.50] for two hours.”
Divine Dining “The Sailom Hotel is a really old-school establishment right on the beach, and its restaurant has great seafood.
THE HOTEL DARLING
BOONTHIDA “BABY” AMATYAKUL, Managing director of the Dune Hua Hin Boutique Hotel
Musical vibe “I love bossa nova and the Hua Hin Jazz Festival.”
Best cocktail “Order the Sand Dune at the Dune’s Sky Bar. It has Midori melon liqueur and coconut juice.”
Fave spa treatment “The Barai Blend Massage at the Barai Spa at the Hyatt Regency Hua Hin Hotel.”
Packing essential “Sunglasses.”