It was a busy week for me last week in the big smoke shopping for the fall line of clothes for both Stuff & Nonsense and our new store, Twang & Pearl. Though I enjoy the smorgasbord of restaurants, the abundant window-shopping inspiration, and the urban anonymity afforded even in the most bustling cafe, the city truly exhausts the crap out of me. (Sorry for saying crap, but really, it just does). I grew up in Vancouver, but have been gone from it long enough that my familiars no longer give me the sweet nostalgic pangs they used to after I first moved to the ‘country’. Instead, my nostalgia pangs have been replaced by headache tweaks, and the simple act of getting from A to B had me sincerely longing for my white mischief fueled days on Varkala Beach. Therefore, I didn’t hesitate to accept a dear friend’s invite to tag on a visit with her to Whistler for a little spa indulgence.
I’ve been meaning to try the Scandinave Spa and it definitely lived up to its enthusiastic referrals. We didn’t have time for a treatment but experiencing the Scandinavian baths left me more rejuvenated and energetic than I’ve felt in months. The design of the outdoor baths harmonizes with the landscape organically as you hop from hot (eucalyptus steam room, cedar sauna, or whirlpools) to cold (plunge pools or a outdoor showers) to rest (loungers by an outdoor fire pit or lovely even-temperature sanctuary rooms with big picture windows showing off mountain vistas that few places in the world can compete with). The only thing that would make the Scandanavian Spa at Whistler better would be if it relocated to Salt Spring Island.
Alas not all ‘spas’ are created equal, and as destinations all over the world are jumping on the big spa business bandwagon, it can sometimes be a tricky world to navigate out there. Here’s a list of 5 lessons I’ve learned while spa hopping around SE Asia to help other aspiring ‘spa whores’ everywhere. And speaking of spa whores …
Lesson #1 learned in Ubud, Bali: When you get a recommendation from a self-ascribed ‘spa whore’, spend the big bucks. It will be worth it. One afternoon while hanging out at ‘Naughty Nuris’, an expat-saturated street side restaurant in Ubud, serving up some mean BBQ and a truly wicked fall-down-drunk-after-one martini, we struck up a conversation with a clearly relaxed and happy Aussie who proclaimed to have tried every spa in town. She heartily recommended not only her favourite spa, but also the best treatment with a particular practitioner. On the way home I booked myself in for the following day. It remains one of the most delightful (albeit a tad pricey for SE Asia ~ around $50 for one and a half hours) spa treatments I’ve ever had, with a lovely jungle view, and a soothing real time jungle-chirping soundtrack (with which no North American spa background relaxation music could possibly compete). Happily sedated, I noticed the Aussie from Naughty Nuri’s on my way out getting a foot massage. She saluted me with a knowing insiders smile, which I enthusiastically returned.
Lesson #2 learned in Chiang Mai, Thailand: Expensive doesn’t always mean better (aka Friends shouldn’t let friends get plucked). Thailand is famous for its traditional massages, of which I’ve had many. It’s kind of like yoga without having to do any of the work, as a practitioner is molding your body into poses for you. In Chiang Mai where we spend most of our time in Thailand, there is an overwhelming plethora of spas: everything from street side foot masseurs to seriously posh resorts. On my first visit to Chiang Mai a friend and I decided to get waxed at a nice upscale feeling spa near the Night Market, before our trip down South to the beach. We chose a pricier spot, thinking we shouldn’t mess around where waxing is concerned. My friend went first and after almost half an hour she came out with a slight grimace and I went in. We didn’t speak, as ‘How was it?’ isn’t generally a question you ask a friend after a waxing. Half way through my half hour I finally realized what had taken so long. The ‘aestheticians’ had been using an ineffective home sugaring product and after fifteen minutes of fruitless de-fuzzing and lots of muttering, the two young girls pulled out the tweezers and began ‘plucking’ at my leg hairs. My friend and I, still mostly hairy, had a good laugh after we got over the embarrassment of how much money we’d spent.
Lesson #3 learned in Luang Prabang, Laos: Even if you’re mired in excruciatingly Canadian politeness, it’s okay to walk out of a treatment if you’re grossed out. When we were in Luang Prabang, the spa scene was just emerging. I tried two of the three spa services I tracked down – and incidentally found my most favourite natural pineapple-flavoured Thai soap in the first one, to which I am still addicted. At the second one, the young girl massaging me was clearly inexperienced, which I was okay with as she was only charging about $5 for an hour long massage. However, she also had a cold and was continually pausing to wipe her nose with her hand and then re-starting the massage afterward. I shared this story with the Aussie in Bali and she was floored on my behalf.
Lesson #4 learned in Fort Cochin, India: Always check out the room you are to be massaged in before you pay for your massage (and particularly in India try to get a recommendation from another western tourist before booking). I’ve wanted desperately to have an ayurvedic treatment in India ever since our first trip there. However, India being, well, India, the spa just didn’t ever really seem to fit with the chaos and dirt that makes up most of our days travelling in Rajasthan. So when we found ourselves in the balmy southern state of Kerala – where ayurvedic treatment centres are as plentiful as auto rickshaws – I decided to book myself in at a place recommended by our lovely homestay. After paying around $75 for a two hour treatment, I was ushered into a very small ‘room’ with dirt-smeared impermanent walls. Recycled water bottles filled with oil and an old propane heater were stacked in the corner. I was directed to strip down under a fluorescent tube light in front of my three female practitioners, and was handed a makeshift cotton thong. The treatment started with a head massage while I perched on a grimy plastic stool. I spent the next 40 minutes lying on a hard wooden table while oil was heated and poured in streams down my body. With my eyes closed to the surroundings I actually found the warm oil river enjoyable. However the wooden table was ridiculously uncomfortable, and at the one-hour mark I’d had enough. After politely saying I was not up for the massage half of my treatment, I was showed to a less than clean bathroom with a dirty bar of soap to wash up. Honestly it’s the only time in India I’ve ever felt truly ‘taken’. I was so embarrassed I couldn’t even tell Joe about it until later that night after a couple of Kingfishers. In hindsight I should have left as soon as I saw the room. However, I’d still love to go to a Keralan ayurvedic treatment centre for an extended stay sometime. I will just have to do much more research first.
Lesson #5 – learned in Thailand, Laos, Bali, Vietnam, Burma, & even India: When you find yourself in a beautiful locale where spa treatments are as affordable as they are enjoyable you should indulge as much as possible. Always tip generously where warranted. Sometimes I’ve even given a tip equal to the cost of the treatment, especially in a resort setting where I really want to reward the actual practitioner. You will be a more relaxed and happier human being as a result. I know I am.