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Sustainable Spas

From beachfront massage salas to high-tech-facial clinics, our modern relaxation centers have their roots in natural cures. So here is a tribute to a few of Southeast Asia's most sustainable practitioners, who tackle your troubles full circle. By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Published on Feb 10, 2014


You can’t get more cycle-of-life than the traditional Thai massage, the lineage of which traces back to the man believed to be a friend and private physician to the Buddha, Dr. Shivago Komarpaj, who performed the treatment in monasteries. So spend a little time meditating with us on a couple of the spas up in Thailand’s farm-fresh north.

A 3,000 square-meter organic garden snuggles into the sprawling ecosystem that makes up Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai. Its produce and herbs are used for everything from feeding the 800 local children in the care of the city’s Don Chan Temple to supplying the hotel restaurants’ kitchens to, yes, greening the resort’s Dheva Spa and Wellness Centre.

The ornate, Burmese-inspired spa lobby at The Dhara Dhevi.

An expert on medicinal plants as well as on traditional medicine along the Thai-Burmese border, Oxford lecturer Gerry Bodeker took a sabbatical to Chiang Mai to help create the spa’s herbal compresses, steam room infusions and its homemade soap using the fruits of the garden. He also designed a new landscaping scheme that, early in 2014, will help, not only the plants flourish, but also the kids at Don Chan—who will receive traditional medicines derived from the garden’s therapeutic crops.

Meanwhile, over at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, you can get lessons in traditional Thai healing during DIY Herbal Wraps and Scrubs sessions. Your private instructor will walk you through the roots of certain herbs as tonics: “Ginger, for example, has a hot and spicy flavor that not only tastes good but also provides health benefits including combating cancers, inflammation cough and sore throat,” spa director Chandarella Luzon says, adding that, from a beauty perspective, it’s known for its ability to prevent premature skin aging.

Then you’ll dig in and mix up a body scrub or wrap using all locally sourced and organic ingredients. Marly limestone (also known as Thai mountain clay), for one, calms skin, removes toxins, promotes a healthy glow and acts as a sunscreen. The bright yellow prai root has been used for centuries by Thai people to treat various ailments; as an antiinflammatory for muscular pain, swollensprains and wounds; and as an antiseptic.

Hands-on exposure to “healing methods handed down from generation to generation,” Luzon says, “gives guests a deeper sense of connection and authenticity.” Why else head to the ancient capital than to be treated by the real Thailand?

Dhara Dhevi 51/4 Chiang Mai-Sankampaeng Rd., Moo 1; +66 53 888 888;
Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai Mae Rim-Samoeng Old Rd.; +66 53 298 181;


Consult your Vietnamese elders, and they’ll wax medicinal about nan dien, the concept of healing through energy transfer. It takes different forms in different regions, but on a constellation of craggy rocks off the coast of Nha Trang, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay is making a serious play to become the epicenter of the varied indigenous therapies.

Warriors by the sea at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay

There are 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam, and a Six Senses tour of the country begins up in Sapa, where the Hmong and Dao are known for their traditional medicine—the former for their skin restoratives, and the latter for their herbal baths— “the end results of which are excellent physical health including very good complexion,” says spa director Christina Rieken. With that in mind, she launched a series of treatments prescribed by and using products handmade by these northern shamans. “Promoting their treatments was an excellent avenue to make people aware of their amazing culture,” she says, “and patronizing their products is a small way of helping their livelihood.”

Rieken’s team took a sojourn to Sapa for lessons in extracting essential oils (penduliflora to treat coughs, fevers and clogged sinuses; blanda for soreness and itching) and mixing the poultice and scrub recipes that are now available at Ninh Van Bay. A look at their nearly universally glowing skin should inspire spa-goers to follow the lead of Hmong and Dao women, who—for everything from clogged pores to stress to removing impurities after childbirth, as well as easing them through puberty and menopause—take to the baths in the chilly mountainous climes.

As long as they were up in the clouds, the folks at Six Senses hit the Central Highlands City of Eternal Spring, Dalat, where abundant flora blooms year-round a staggering 1,500 meters above sea level. The result? A soothing new herbal compress massage includes two homeopathic treatments for cancer, and prostate and ovarian health: diep ha chau (phullantus) and trinh nu hoang, or, The King’s Medicine. And apparently Rieken has royalty on the brain, because next on her checklist is a contemporary take on the custom care created for the old dynasties in the imperial city of Hue.

Six Senses Ninh Van Bay Ninh Hoa, Khan Hoa Province; +84 58 372 8222;


Taking its name from an ancient Javanese pure herbal mixture, Bali-born Jamu Traditional Spa centers its philosophy on inherited Indonesian traditions. It is practically an imperative for this center of wellness to pass down its healing knowledge to Balinese women from disadvantaged households. Jamu Spa School, which trains would-be therapists from across the world, has since 2005 provided full scholarships to approximately 100 students, the vast majority of them young women. “We are dedicated to the advancement of women,” says founder Jeannine Carroll, “their independence to be free to choose their futures.”

Therapists in training at Jamu Spa School

The first step is a three- to six- month commitment to learn the full repertoire of expected spa treatments, as well as reflexology and Balinese massage. Essential to the curriculum: human anatomy and physiology classes, and a thorough reviewing of case studies that makes for a sort of MBA in holistic healing. In fact, the scholarship program is as much about placing graduates in four- and five-star resort jobs in Bali and abroad—places as far-flung as Greece, China and Lebanon— as providing them business acumen and leadership skills. Some of the upwardly mobile graduates have already gone on to become spa managers.

“The program strengthens the decision-making ability of women, who now have a voice because they earn substantial incomes and can make educated choices for their families and beyond,” Carroll says. “Whole villages are now able to move out of poverty into a more prosperous life.” We’d definitely call that a comprehensive cure.

Jamu Spa School Jln. Raya Siligita I, No. 1, Nusa Dua; +62 36 128 6595. Jamu Traditional Spas at Alam KulKul Boutique Resort, Kuta, and Tandjung Sari Hotel, Sanur;


There are few greener pastures to contemplate the merits of holistic healing than a massage bed at the Soneva Kiri resort on Koh Kood, Thailand. This “eco-topian” retreat has taken on advanced responsibilities as a wellness provider, elevating the health of the environment on par with that of its guests.

If spa-going is about nature’s cures, a treatment actually begins the moment you set foot on the property, which is gently nestled among 40 hectares of natural savannah on the island’s best beach—but sends its healing juju far beyond Koh Kood’s shores, funding such initiatives as reforestation in northern Thailand and wind turbines in India. From maintaining a fully self-sustainable water supply to constructing on-site wetlands to organizing staff-wide community service days, Soneva Kiri has so much eco-cred to spare that they aim to be carbon-positive by 2015.

The spa's reception at Soneva Kiri, Six Senses Spa, Koh Kood

Follow the raised walkways dotted with barefoot staff through the resort to the spa. The welcome area and 10 rooms sink into the natural surrounds with the use of strictly re-growth timber and natural building materials.

The most obvious evidence of their dedication to your well-being: All resort guests are invited, gratis, to an Ayurvedic consultation by a trained practitioner. The process involves a general discussion about health, habits and hardships, and concludes with a litany of recommendations for lifestyle adjustments.

Fresh from Bangkok, my big-city ailments were immediately apparent to the doctor, who diagnosed a pitta body type that, in Ayurvedic terms, means I’m fiery, irritable and have strong desires. (Correct.) He suggested dietary and behavior changes for my pitta-pacifying regime in thorough detail, such as bathing more in moonlight and, less romantically, eating mung beans, along with two feats tricky in Thailand: decreasing both my chili consumption and exposure to heat. He then prescribed a four-handed Abhyanga massage treatment. Who was I to disagree?

In line with the resort’s pervasive philosophies, the treatments make best use of the local environment by relying on just that to provide the raw materials required. In the Soneva sense, locally sourced means gathered inside the boundaries of the resort, which boasts extensive herb and vegetable gardens that also service the restaurants. Produce includes thyme, ginger, basil, kaffir lime, lemongrass, aloe and other elixirs and remedies direct from Mother Nature herself.

My therapy began with a head rinse in warm, herbal oil, the ingredients for which are—naturally—grown and produced on site. It was a transformative dowsing. Then, within the immersive architecture of the forest-engulfed treatment room, I entered my healers’ realm.

The synchronized massage strokes from what seemed like a family of hands utterly relaxed me, though apparently I had a lot going on internally—normalizing of blood pressure, eliminating of impurities and liquefying of toxins. The treatment seemed to reinvigorate aspects of my mind, body and spirit that I didn’t know needed attention. Other compound curatives include Touch of Light, which involves rubbing a melted herbal candle into the muscles and a chakra balance to regulate energy flow, and Jungle Escape, composed of an herbal scrub under a bamboo mist shower and an herbal Thai massage.

To fully wrap yourself in the green mantle, you might retire post-spa to the skylight-ceilinged Eco Villa, where the private pool is filled with filtered rainwater and the air-conditioning unit is solar powered. Yep, even Mother Nature has a sense of irony.

Soneva Kiri, Six Senses Spa, Koh Kood +66 3 961 9800; soneva-kiri/explore/wellness.




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