Wat Pho temple.


The Tradition: Thailand — with its dramatic landscapes, healthy cuisine, and Buddhist traditions promoting mindfulness — might as well be a spa idyll. Equal parts sacred and sybaritic, the country has a rich and longstanding wellness culture that blends ayurvedic principles and techniques with traditional Chinese medicine to formulate something that is distinctly its own. Considered to be a physical manifestation of the Buddhist tenet of metta (which means loving-kindness), Thai healing seeks to harmonize the body with natural elements around it. Sickness is a sign that our bodies are physically, mentally, and spiritually out of sync with nature. Thus, practitioners seek to cure by restoring balance to the body. Thai healing traditions came up through communities of monks hundreds of years ago (in fact, Thai massage was said to have been birthed at Bangkok’s temple Wat Pho, where there are stone carvings depicting monks performing the technique) and are very much tied to spirituality. Oftentimes, practitioners start services with a prayer or meditation before performing a physical evaluation. During some
A Thai massage.
Thai massages, therapists meditate throughout the service while manipulating a clothed client into a variety of yoga-like poses as they lie on a floor mat. Esoterically speaking, the goal is to transmit ideals of mindfulness and open energy pathways (called sen) in the body in order to promote internal healing; physically speaking, being deeply stretched this way and that like a wet noodle will put even the most strung-tight client into a deeply restorative state.

But Thailand’s influence on the spa world goes beyond what is becoming the commonplace Thai massage: More and more spas are offering services that are grounded in Thailand’s herbal healing tradition, which is based on the idea of purging the body of toxins. Wraps, scrubs, and rubs integrate fresh herbs and plants (many of which are used in Thai cooking) for detoxifying health benefits. Thai herbal massage, a modified form of Thai massage, integrates a warmed, ball-shaped, muslin or cotton compress that is kneaded into sore muscles. The compress is filled with aromatic ingredients like turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, camphor, and kaffir lime. Steam helps open pores so that toxins can be released and the herbs can be absorbed through the skin, which means the treatment can address any number of problems, from swollen limbs to respiratory issues. Some spas are even employing the warmed herbal compress in facials, using it to perform lymphatic drainage and pressure point massages. The moist heat and motion stimulate circulation, while the herbal mixture soothes skin issues. The result is a glowing complexion. Thailand even has its own bathing culture, and breathing in deeply while partaking of a Thai herbal steam bath is a surefire way to feel like you’ve been transported straight to the temples in Chiang Mai. Similar to a sauna, steam is piped into a chamber that is filled with fresh and dried herbs selected based upon your ailment. As with European bathing rituals, sweating helps toxins drain from the body, while the herbs are absorbed through open pores.

Diet also plays an important role in Thai healing. Much of the country’s food is naturally healthy, as it is low in sugar and fat and relies heavily on vegetables. Its high herb and spice content helps the body eliminate poisons by triggering internal detox systems. For example, the herb lemongrass stimulates the digestive and endocrine systems, while green papaya is chock-full of antioxidants and also acts as a digestive aid.