wellness

What It’s Really Like to Walk the Camino Frances

Everything you need to know about the Camino de Santiago, from the difficult first day to the frustrating ending — with all the serenity in between.

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes that end up in Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great’s body is said to be buried

Walking for 35 days. A 500-mile trek through northern Spain. It’s not everyone’s idea of a vacation. So what got our friend Susan to decide to take on the Camino de Santiago?

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Susan decided to hike the Camino de Santiago by herself

Blame Oprah. At least in part. You see, Susan saw Winfrey’s special about spiritual belief, and was intrigued by the camino. She was going through a transition in her life and wanted to do something epic.

There are at least eight different routes to choose from, and Susan decided upon the Camino Francés, the most popular option.

Here’s what this intense pilgrimage entails.

 

Why did you decide to do the Camino de Santiago?

I had heard about the Camino de Santiago back in 2011 when I was living abroad in Ireland. I always had it in the back of my head that it sounded really cool. I was burnt out as a lawyer and wanted to do something that was completely out of my element. I decided to quit my job and go back to school. I had about five weeks from my last day of work before my master’s program started, and the camino seemed perfect because you can do it by yourself and it’s safe. You can walk alone, but there are also lots of opportunities to meet other people from all over the world. When I told everyone I was going to go to Spain to walk 500 miles, they all said it sounded crazy — but also really cool.

The first day was uphill through the Pyrénées. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!”

I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

In the spring, the camino is less crowded than in the summer

When did you go?

There’s a ton of people in June, July and August, but not in May, when I was there. There are stretches where you don’t see anyone.

 

How long was the hike?

About five weeks. It took me a few days to get to the starting point. I flew into Biarritz, France. The walk starts in a town called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The overall route took me 32 days to walk 560 miles.

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

Some days involve hiking uphill in the Pyrénées, though some people find it even more difficult going downhill

What’s it like when you start the Camino de Santiago?

Scary. I didn’t prepare much. When I met people along the way, they had done so much research. I ordered hiking shoes and a backpack, and booked my flight. I got into Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. The first day I got there, it was pouring rain. I got up at 7 a.m., put my backpack on…and just started walking.

 

How was the French leg of the journey?

You only spend about a day and a half in France. Unlike in Spain, where everything’s well marked, there are no signs in France. Within the first 500 feet, I took a wrong turn, which I’m gonna blame on this girl from Hungary. I followed her, and after a while, we were like, this doesn’t look right. So we had taken an hour-long detour.

The second half of the day was uphill through the Pyrénées, so it was very difficult. It was raining and muddy, and I was thinking to myself, “What have I gotten myself into?!” I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it through the whole thing. And apparently, this was the easy route! We had heard horror stories from people who had done the harder route.

Things got so much easier after that. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about the huge incline ’cause I would have been really anxious about it.

 

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Look for this icon to keep on the camino

Was it easy to get lost on the camino?

There’s an app for the Camino de Santiago — which I didn’t realize until the third day. The app tells you all the different places you can stay, if it’s flat, if you have inclines or declines.

It’s called Buen Camino, which is what everyone says to you when you pass them. It means “good way.” You see yourself as a little yellow dot, so you can see if you’re straying off the path.

And once you get to Spain, it’s fabulous. The paths are marked with the shell that’s the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Every so often you’ll see a cement pillar with a shell on it. And when you’re in towns, there are yellow arrows.

 

What’s the terrain like?

At first it was a path through the mountains, but most of the camino is gravel. There are other days when you’re in the forest or have to walk on the street. It’s beautiful. At some points, you’re walking through vineyards. I liked the smaller towns more than the cities. It was so peaceful and nice. I tried to bond with nature and take in my surroundings.

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

The first thing you see in every village is the church tower

Who else was on the camino?

I didn’t meet a lot of Americans — mostly Europeans, Australians and Koreans. You have all ages, women, men. Most people were by themselves, though you did have some couples. Some people did it for religious reasons, but most were doing it as a spiritual experience, trying to take a break from their lives. Some people were really fit; some people didn’t last the whole time.

People formed little groups. Most of them stayed in the albergues, the hostels.

 

How difficult was the hike?

About seven days in is a town called Logroño, and there’s a big hospital there. And that’s where they say a lot of people’s bodies break down. They have shin splints, plantar fasciitis, knee injuries.

The declines are actually the worst. You’ve got a heavy backpack on, it’s gravel, and you have to support yourself and not fall forward.

Some people ended up taking shortcuts because they physically weren’t up for it. I didn’t take any shortcuts!

I was surprised I held up as well as I did. But I live in Chicago and don’t have a car. I walk a lot. I had some blisters, but that was doable — I just put some band-aids on those.

The training plans are pretty intense. They say you should walk an hour a day and then six hours a day on the weekend with your backpack. I didn’t do that.

I’m not a hiker, but I would say it’s a moderate trek. I’d say a third of it is more difficult: up or down, rocky terrain.

 

What kind of shoes did you get?

I didn’t have any light hiking shoes, so I ordered some cute pink ones. I did a lot of reading on discussion boards, and I knew I didn’t want anything too heavy. People thought they looked like running sneakers. I ordered them a month before, and wore them every time I’d go out to walk the dog to break them in.

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What’s Susan got in her bag? A couple extra outfits, toiletries, a hat, a portable charger, an extra pair of shoes, PJs, a rain jacket and a fleece

What was in your backpack?

They say to bring only two outfits — I brought three.

 

That would be the hardest part for us. We would’ve brought like 10 outfits.

There are services where you could have your backpack transported. I didn’t have a hiking backpack, so I bought one that was 34 liters. I brought tank tops, three pairs of stretchy yoga pants, small toiletries, a small sleeping bag — which I ended up ditching. You only need it if you’re staying at hostels. The second day I ditched a lot of stuff in my pack ’cause you just want to get it as light as possible. Bring a portable charger, just in case you’re in the middle of nowhere and your cell phone dies. I had a hat and an extra pair of shoes, one pair of pajamas, a rain jacket and a fleece, which I wore to bed a lot since I got cold. I had some pairs of thin hiking socks but ended up buying thicker ones when I got there that gave more support.

I ended up cutting two pairs of my pants and made shorts, ha ha. No shame! It’s one of those things you’d normally never do.

A lot of people that go in the summer get up early to hike before sunrise to avoid the heat. They bring headlamps to see in the dark, but I couldn’t imagine doing that on some of the terrain.

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Gravel paths, paved roads, stony mountain passes and dirt trails through the woods — every day on the camino offers something different

Take us through a typical day on the camino.

I’d wake up — I’d have all my stuff laid out and I’d take a shower the night before. So I’d grab my backpack and go, around 7 or 8 a.m. The night before, I’d look at the app and all the towns and figure out how far I was gonna walk. I’d always book beforehand online. A lot of people just walked until they got tired and would find a place. I liked to have the security of knowing I had a room — a lot of these places were in the middle of nowhere.

I never ate breakfast, so I’d head out. Around 10 a.m., I’d find a place to stop and get a café con leche and a croissant. There wasn’t a lot of great food — these are tiny towns that cater to the pilgrims, as they call us. And none of the pilgrims are looking for good food; they’re looking for cheap stuff. The menu was the same at every place.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. and go right to bed. And then do the same thing the next morning.

It was kind of like “Groundhog Day” — but I loved every minute of it.

Every time you come up to someone — I’m a fast walker and would pass everybody — you would say hello, “buen camino.” If they seem like they wanted to chat, I’d walk with them for a bit. You’d see people you’d seen before, so it was very social. But I did spend a lot of the time by myself.

I would usually get to where I was going between 1 to 3 p.m. So I didn’t eat until I got there. A lot of people who stopped to eat breakfast and lunch got there much later. I liked to get there and relax — not that there was a lot to do there most of the time. But I’d walk around, and if I saw people I knew, I’d hang out with them.

I’d eat around 8 p.m. or so, and go right to bed because I was exhausted. And then do the same thing the next morning. It was kind of like Groundhog Day — but I loved every minute of it.

caminovineyards.JPG

Where’d you stay?

You can pay 8 euros for a bed at a hostel, and dinner was €10. You can do this super cheap — for about €30 a day. For me, getting a private room, I’d pay about €20. In a bigger city, like Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago, I’d stay at a hotel and pay up to €75 euros.

The smaller villages were very downtrodden and economically depressed. I wanted to tell these people, “You should raise your prices!”

 

How about pee breaks?

I didn’t take a lot. There’s not a lot of places to go to the bathroom. Maybe every 15 kilometers, there’ll be a small coffeeshop you could go in. I’m not a person who can pee outside. So this is going to sound weird, but I didn’t drink a lot of water during the day. I’m sure a lot of people would say that’s really bad. When I got to where I was going, I’d drink a ton of water.

 

Most people do pee outside, though?

Yes! I saw a lot of people peeing outside. It’s acceptable to do so. I saw people’s asses. I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

 

Were there differences between the French and the Spanish?

I don’t want to offend anybody. The French just weren’t as welcoming, though I was only in France for a day and a half. They don’t want to speak English to you. I don’t want to be an ignorant American saying they should speak English, ’cause I don’t think that. I felt like they were, why are you in my country? But maybe that’s not representative of everyone one else’s experience.

In Spain, everyone tried to speak English. They know what you want: You get your passport in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and you have to get it stamped at the hostels and cafés. And that’s what they inspect when you get to Santiago de Compostela to prove you did the whole thing, and then they give you a certificate called the compostela. I waited in line for two hours to get this. You have to walk at least 100 kilometers to get one — and what annoyed me is that it’s the same certificate, whether you’ve walked 100 kilometers or the entire 800 like I did.

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

For many, the Camino de Santiago is a spiritual journey — just don’t get bummed if you don’t “find yourself”

Was it a spiritual journey?

It’s funny — you’re walking 15 to 20 miles a day and are in your own head. But it’s not like I had all these deep thoughts and came to these epiphanies, which I thought I might! I was hoping to find myself, ha ha. A lot of your mind is taken up with thinking about the next town you’re getting to, following the trail, talking to people. I thought I’d have a lot of time to figure things out, but I didn’t contemplate life as much as I should have, maybe. You think you’re going to work out all the things in your life and come back perfect.

 

What’s it like when you finally get to Santiago?

It’s anticlimactic. You walk into Santiago and you think there’s going to be trumpets or a parade — you just walked 500 miles! It’s so crowded; it’s so commercialized. It’s very stressful. It wasn’t a good experience. Everyone ends up going to the Pilgrims’ Mass at the cathedral, where they say your name. But I didn’t end up going because I was in line to get my certificate.

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

The camino is technically a pilgrimage, so locals try to get you go into the village church

What then?

I didn’t think I was going to go anywhere else after Santiago. But I ended up doing it in less time than I had planned. You can keep going another 60 miles to the coast, an extra three days. And it was absolutely beautiful, a place called Finisterre. It’s right on the ocean and they call it the End of the World. That’s where the 0 Kilometer pillar is, so that’s cool. There wasn’t a lot of people there, and there’s a lighthouse and a guy playing bagpipes. There’s a beach with seashells. It’s very peaceful. It’s a great place to reflect and feel rewarded, rather than Santiago, which was so dispiriting. I got a room at a hotel that had a beautiful view of the ocean that wasn’t that expensive. It was such a fabulous way to end the trip.

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

Keep walking! Susan recommends going beyond Santiago to Finisterre, a lovely, more calm way to end the epic journey

A lot of people, if they’re not going to walk, they’ll take a bus. I took the bus back to Santiago since I was flying out of there. I ran into the Hungarian girl I met on the first day and other people, so I went out with them.

 

What surprised you about the Camino de Santiago the most?

I’m not a huge athlete or anything, so I was surprised by how effortlessly I was able to do it — apart from that first day.

I had always heard about the culture of Spain, but I was surprised by how poor a lot of the towns were. They’re all centered around the pilgrims. The places I stayed were acceptable, but I heard a lot of stories about people staying in albergues that weren’t. But when you’re paying €8 a night…

There was a lot of dirt and stray animals — it was a lot less glamorous than I expected. I didn’t realize how economically downtrodden this part of Spain was. But at the same time, the people were very generous and welcoming.

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

You can hike the Camino de Santiago very affordably — as low as 30 euros a day!

Siestas were crazy, too. Everything in town closes from 2 to 5 p.m. Hotels and restaurants tended to be open, but no grocery or clothing stores. I’d go to the store when it opened and get snacks for the next day.

Sometimes restaurants would be open, but the kitchen would be closed from 6 to 9 p.m. You could get drinks, but there wasn’t any food.

Religion was everywhere. Whenever you’d come into a town, the biggest building there would be the church — the first thing you’d see is that cross. So church bells were ever-present during my trek, which I really enjoyed. People would be there, trying to get you to go into the church.

 

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

Susan didn’t do a whole lot of planning for the trip — and it all worked out

What was the laundry situation?

I did a lot of sink-washing. But a lot of the places have washing machines, but not dryers. People would hang their stuff outside. But you’d have to get there first. Most of the time, I’d wash my stuff in the bathtub with shower gel.

It was simple. You don’t have creature comforts, but you have everything you need. Normally when I go on a trip, I bring big suitcases and all this shit. It was so nice to put everything into one backpack and that was it. I survived. Now I’m just gonna bring a backpack everywhere I go.

 

Really?

We’ll see.

 

Any final advice do you have for people who want to walk the Camino de Santiago?

Don’t plan too much. Take it as it comes — don’t overcomplicate things, because it’s all going to work out totally fine. –Wally

It’s acceptable to pee outside. I saw people’s asses.

I felt like people should have had a little more discretion.

Spa Day Heaven: Padma Spa at Plataran Borobudur

If you’re in Java, relax with a massage and scrub — though it’s all about the volcanic stone tub and epic view.

Our treatment room overlooked the jungle-covered mountain

Our treatment room overlooked the jungle-covered mountain

Indonesian hospitality is in full effect at Padma Spa at Plataran Borobudur Resort. The exotic teakwood villa that houses the space sits perched like a Javanese treehouse on a hillside overlooking a dense forest of teak, casuarina and rasamala trees.

The facility offers a wide range of options and features six treatment rooms equipped with bathtubs carved from volcanic stone taken from nearby Mount Merapi as well as a relaxation lounge, nail salon and gym. They also have a small but well-curated assortment of items for sale in the reception area.

Among the elements incorporated into the spa’s design are intricately hand-carved teak fretwork window panels reflecting the region’s cultural heritage.

The first thing we noticed was the volcanic stone tub, big enough for both of us.

The room offered floor-to-ceiling views across the jungle valley to the temple of Borobudur.
The spa is on the grounds of Plataran Borobudur

The spa is on the grounds of Plataran Borobudur

Java Nadi Massage

Our visit began with cool towels and cups of ginger tea. Wally and I opted for the 60-minute Java Nadi massage. The spa director suggested we add a body scrub from the treatment menu. We agreed to add the 45-minute Lakshmi scrub — and were glad we did.

When we entered our treatment room, the first thing we noticed was the freestanding Merapi stone soaking tub, big enough for both of us. Flooded with natural light, the room offered floor-to-ceiling views across the jungle valley to the ancient Buddhist temple of Borobudur in the distance.

After we had changed into our robes, our feet were placed in basins of warm water to soak. Each therapist added bath salts, kaffir lime wheels, lemongrass, dried pomelo slices and peppermint essential oil, which gave off a delightfully revitalizing aroma.

Various natural ingredients are used in the spa’s treatments

Various natural ingredients are used in the spa’s treatments

We were asked to lie face-down under the top sheet on our massage tables. The tone from a single-note energy chime resonated as it was tapped three times before beginning.

The word “nadi” refers to the pathways or channels of energy that run throughout the human body. Java Nadi is a healing technique rooted in centuries-old traditions. Its aim is to restore balance and energy to the body.

A unique combination of slow, fluid movements, incorporating deep kneading and thumb pressure, this hands-on holistic treatment eases muscle and joint pain while increasing circulation.

When our massage had concluded, we experienced the hammam-like Lakshmi scrub: an aromatic combination of sandalwood, ground rice, lemongrass, candlenut and grapefruit that left our skin silky smooth.

Wally didn’t want to ever get out of the volcanic stone bathtub

Wally didn’t want to ever get out of the volcanic stone bathtub

Duke relaxes in the milk bath after the massage and body scrub

Duke relaxes in the milk bath after the massage and body scrub

We finished by relaxing (OK, there was some goofing off as well) in the dramatic bathtub, which was filled with a lemongrass milk soak. As we gazed out the window, it felt like we were hovering over the landscape. Eventually, I was able to convince Wally to leave the tub.

I wanted to take home the earthenware teapot, batik robes and energy chime — but I didn’t want the bad karma. We loved every minute of our experience, and it put us in a deep state of relaxation. –Duke

Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa
Dusun Tanjungan
Borobudur, Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56553
Indonesia

Taksu Spa: A Wellness Wonderland in Ubud

Try the Esalen massage at this gorgeous spa that offers healthy meals, yoga and other treatments.

Wally relaxes on the bridge at Taksu, after his amazing Esalen massage

Wally relaxes on the bridge at Taksu, after his amazing Esalen massage

Like the wardrobe that leads to the magical realm of Narnia, the unassuming building at the end of the lane doesn’t even begin to hint at the wonders that lie behind it.

Then came a massage unlike any other we’ve experienced.

It was as if a Balinese dancer (or, more appropriately, a four-armed Hindu goddess) was moving her arms in all directions at once.
The buildings at Taksu are nestled in lush greenery

The buildings at Taksu are nestled in lush greenery

The Quiet Stretch of Buddha Street

The night before our appointment, Duke and I found ourselves wandering around Ubud. It was still new to us, each street opening up like a flower, revealing its own personality. We had just crossed Jalal Dewisita, strolling down Jalal Goutama, which I nicknamed Buddha Street. Suddenly we were filled with a sense of calm. The restaurants that were open didn’t blast music. Conversation was subdued, respectful. Everyone seemed to have come to an agreement that this stretch of the street would offer a quiet oasis.

I turned to Duke and said, “I feel like this is where Taksu will be.” Sure enough, about five steps farther, we saw the sign for Taksu off to the right. As my dad, who tends to get words adorably wrong, has said, “ESPN runs in the family.”

There’s a very zen feel to the spa

There’s a very zen feel to the spa

Taksu Spa: A Hidden Oasis in Ubud

Once you step beyond that unassuming façade at Taksu Spa, you enter another world. The grounds are situated in a small valley, which a river literally runs through. The rains were so intense recently, the spa had to raise the bridge that spans the ravine.

Statues of the Buddha are tucked into various nooks on the spa grounds

Statues of the Buddha are tucked into various nooks on the spa grounds

Paths wind through zen gardens, ending in a small copse with a Buddha statue. Go off in another direction and you’ll pass a building that houses one of the two yoga schools or the Hindu shrine for the staff to worship at.

These poles are part of the hydroponic garden, growing herbs and veggies

These poles are part of the hydroponic garden, growing herbs and veggies

Enjoy a quiet meal or snack at the café

Enjoy a quiet meal or snack at the café

Other trails lead to a hydroponic garden growing basil, lettuce, mint. Then you’ll come to the chill out zone and café, meandering past water features and an affordable all-you-can-eat salad bar in front of the open kitchen, where the smiling chef waves amidst his culinary creation.

Namaste

Namaste

Taksu is one of those foreign words that has no direct translation. It acts as a linguistic suitcase, packing in a lot of meaning into those five letters. One way of defining it is as the essence of the spirit, explains Jero, the spa’s marketing advisor, who took us on a tour of the complex. It’s often a trait performers search for: a divine inspiration channeled into the ability to captivate an audience.

This cool waterfall feature is the centerpiece of Taksu, and helps create the relaxing atmosphere

This cool waterfall feature is the centerpiece of Taksu, and helps create the relaxing atmosphere

That idea of wellness pervades everything at Taksu, from massage to yoga to healthy food options. In fact, they plan to open a wellness center as well, to help people live a wholesome lifestyle, learning what foods to eat and good behaviors to follow.

We had our massages in a building at the far end of the bridge

We had our massages in a building at the far end of the bridge

Our First Esalen Massage

Jero led us across the bridge, under a curtain of banyan branches, to a group of rooms at the far end of the grounds. Duke and I were shown into a room and told to change into those black mesh panties that fit as flatteringly as a shower cap.

We let the masseuses know we were ready and lay side by side. And then came a massage unlike any other we’ve experienced. It was as if a Balinese dancer (or, more appropriately, a four-armed Hindu goddess) was moving her arms in all directions at once.

Most massages focus on one area at a time, starting with the right shoulder, then on to the left shoulder, followed by the lower back, then moving down to the legs… But during this massage, the masseuse would simultaneously sweep up my leg while kneading my back. She’d work on one of my shoulders while somehow massaging my arms at the same time. The massage felt holistic, especially compared to past treatments, and you never knew what was coming.

What was this magical massage technique? I wanted to know. It’s called Esalen, and those long, sweeping strokes, the stretching, the acupressure, even an exchange of energy that sounds reminiscent of reiki — it’s all part of a school of practice created in the 1960s in Big Sur, California.

Post-massage smoothie, juice and amuse-bouche

Post-massage smoothie, juice and amuse-bouche

The shrimp was spicy and sweet — and delicous

The shrimp was spicy and sweet — and delicous

Duke and Wally became obsessed with cold soups in Ubud — they’re refreshing and can be found on many menus in town

Duke and Wally became obsessed with cold soups in Ubud — they’re refreshing and can be found on many menus in town

Afterward, as Duke and I enjoyed smoothies and a light lunch of chilled soup and spicy honeyed shrimp, we felt utterly recharged, ready to explore the bustling town of Ubud and its surrounding jungle.

You’d never guess that all this lies at the end of a quiet street in Ubud. Part of the appeal of Taksu is that magic of discovery, though there are plans to renovate the spa’s façade, to give a better hint at the gorgeousness just beyond. –Wally

Wally, with that post-massage glow

Wally, with that post-massage glow

A refreshed and reinvigorated Duke

A refreshed and reinvigorated Duke

Taksu Spa
Jalan Goutama Selatan
Ubud, Kabupaten, Gianyar
Bali 80571
Indonesia

Kanyakumari and the Healing Waters of Cape Cormorin

A Kovalam day trip to the southern tip of India will wash away your sins.

The restaurants in Varkala, another day trip from Kovalam, put their fresh catches on display

The restaurants in Varkala, another day trip from Kovalam, put their fresh catches on display

Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to spiritually cleanse themselves with a quick dip?

Our friend Kelly visited the beach town of Kovalam in the state of Kerala, India. Her new friends from a yoga retreat kept talking about a day trip to the southern tip of the county and bathing in the spiritually healing waters found there.

I took one look, and said, “I’m going to get like 15 different flesh-eating bacteria if I go into this water.”

Kanyakumari is where three bodies of water meet: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The spot is also referred as Thriveni Sangamam and amongst English speakers as Cape Comorin. It’s about a two-hour and 45-minute drive down from Kovalam. –Wally

Tell us about the day trips you took from Kovalam.

We went to Varkala, which is an hour and a half north of Kovalam. It has a similar vibe, but it skews much younger. Kovalam seems like a place where older people come to retreat.

Varkala has a similar beachy, hippie vibe as Kovalam but skews younger

Varkala has a similar beachy, hippie vibe as Kovalam but skews younger

We also went to the southern tip of India, Kanyakumari. We visited Suchindram Temple and a couple other touristy things. The temple was white and had seven windows to symbolize the different stages of enlightenment.

Include Suchindram Temple on a day trip to Kanyakumari

Include Suchindram Temple on a day trip to Kanyakumari

There’s this idea that if you bathe in the waters of Kanyakumari, you’ll be cleansed of your sins. I was with a bunch of super granola, hardcore yogis, and they were so all about getting in this water. I took one look, and said, “I’m going to get like 15 different flesh-eating bacteria if I go into this water.” There were tons of people there, and the water smelled bad.

The Thiruvalluvar Statue on a small island off of Kanyakumari depicts a famous Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for  Thirukkural , a collection of couplets on ethics, politics, economics and love. His statue is 133 feet tall — the same number of chapters in his famous tome

The Thiruvalluvar Statue on a small island off of Kanyakumari depicts a famous Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for Thirukkural, a collection of couplets on ethics, politics, economics and love. His statue is 133 feet tall — the same number of chapters in his famous tome

So you didn’t end up getting in the water?

Well…they ended up talking me in. Very reluctantly, I finally got in.

Three bodies of water converge at Kanyakumari, and local lore has it that you can wash away your sins by swimming here

Three bodies of water converge at Kanyakumari, and local lore has it that you can wash away your sins by swimming here

That’s called hippie peer pressure.

I wouldn’t put my head in. They were like, “No, you have to — otherwise your sins won’t be cleansed!” And I was like, “I’m good.”

We were pretty much the only white tourists there. A large crowd of men gathered around the area where my friends and I were bathing. People were taking videos and photos.

 

Did you find that people were fascinated with you as a white woman?

Everyone wanted to take a selfie with me. I’m on so many random people’s cell phones and Facebook pages.

At one point, I decided that I was sick of everybody looking at us, so I took pictures of them.

Ayurvedic Treatment in Kovalam

Our correspondent undergoes bizarre and intense Ayurveda practices in South India.

Ayurveda treatments often involve an oil that smells like peanut butter, and they can be quite intense

Ayurveda treatments often involve an oil that smells like peanut butter, and they can be quite intense

The more I heard about Ayurveda, the more intrigued I became. Why the heck isn’t this a major trend here in the United States, like yoga, acupuncture, or heck, even cupping? Could someone please inform Gwyneth Paltrow she needs to start a new fad?

Our friend Kelly went off to India to attend a yoga retreat to break out of a rut in her practice. While in the beach town of Kovalam in the southern state of Kerala, she also investigated Ayurvedic treatments.

“Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences,” Kelly told us. Here she describes her intense Ayurvedic treatment during her stay in India.

You would lay down on a table and have this oil receptacle that was hung by a chain. A woman would slowly drizzle oil over your forehead, back and forth, for 20 minutes at a time.
The quality of your hair, how oily or dry your skin is, how cold or hot you get — all of these factor into what your dosha is

The quality of your hair, how oily or dry your skin is, how cold or hot you get — all of these factor into what your dosha is

What exactly is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is the practice of balancing your body’s natural constitution, also known as your dosha. Everyone is one of three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. They’re aligned to different elements. I’m a pitta dosha, so I have certain imbalances in my body that Ayurveda tries to correct.

The doctor did an assessment. Your dosha is made up of physical traits as well as personality characteristics. As a pitta dosha, I’m supposed to eat cooling foods. There’s a whole diet I’m supposed to follow.

The three doshas at the center of the star are aligned with different elements and characteristics

The three doshas at the center of the star are aligned with different elements and characteristics

What was the facility like?

I went to two. The first one was super sketch. I went twice and decided it was maybe violating some child labor practices. The second facility was a proper one. It was beautiful inside — a huge wooden, three- or four-story hospital.

 

Describe the Ayurvedic treatments.

If you want treatment, you have to sign up for a minimum of 10 days. Every day I went for about three hours. The way that it broke down was, they would do a massage for an hour, and then a variety of treatments, depending on where I was in the Ayurveda course.

There was a treatment where they would take cotton cloths filled with herbed powder that they would dip in really hot oil and smack all over my body. Smack, smack, smack, smack!

The Ayurvedic oil they used smelled like peanut butter. The oil is believed to cure basically everything, so they use it in almost all of their treatments.

After that, they would do a powder massage rub. There were three women who would work on you together, in unison.

There were baths with this milk substance, which they’d heat and pour over you again and again. There were herbed water baths. There was this one treatment where there was a wooden pillar with a hanging oil receptacle. You would lay down on the table and you’d have this oil receptacle that was hung by a chain, and the woman would slowly drizzle it over your forehead, creating a line, back and forth, for 20 minutes at a time.

 

What was that like?

It was very relaxing — but a lot of the treatments were actually very stressful, especially after 10 days.

There a bunch of quizzes you can take to determine what dosha you are. I’ve taken a few — and gotten varying answers. I also tend to get dual prakriti, which signifies that I’m influenced by two doshas. From what Kelly has said, that means I’m a big ol’ mess. –Wally

Yoga Escape in Kovalam, India

Experiencing Ashtanga yoga classes in Kerala taught by David Garrigues.

The Ashtanga yoga studio in the beach town of Kovalam, where Kelly began each day

The Ashtanga yoga studio in the beach town of Kovalam, where Kelly began each day

Our friend Kelly, a delightful, brave young woman, went off to India on a whim to join a yoga retreat run by David Garrigues.

The town of Kovalam charmed Kelly — you can read about its strange walled-in sidewalks and the quirky treehouse-like B&B she stayed in here. –Wally

We do yoga to understand God and prepare ourselves for enlightenment.
Our fearless adventurer, who had a major breakthrough in her yoga practice during her two-week stay in India

Our fearless adventurer, who had a major breakthrough in her yoga practice during her two-week stay in India

What brought you to Kovalam?

I went to practice yoga. I had been thinking about going to India for a few years, since I started practicing. I was kinda stuck in a rut with my yoga practice. I hadn’t been progressing, and I decided a good way to get out of it would be to go to India.

 

Why India?

That’s the birthplace of yoga. That’s where the Ashtanga tradition is from —  it originated in Mysore, India. Ashtanga yoga is basically a set number of postures in each of the six series. It’s super traditional. You do it every morning.

I didn’t end up going to Mysore, but I did practice with David Garrigues, a prominent Ashtanga teacher, in the South of India, in Kovalam. He’s based in Philadelphia but has been traveling around a lot.

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things — though I don’t know if most people do a spur-of-the-moment thing with India. I made the decision very quickly. I booked the trip after thinking about it for about five minutes.

Sometimes you need a helping hand to move past a gatekeeper pose

Sometimes you need a helping hand to move past a gatekeeper pose

What was the yoga retreat like?

Every morning, I’d get up at 6 a.m. and do yoga for about two hours. Sometimes there were sutra classes, or we’d go back in the afternoon for an asana [yoga postures] theory class.

What was interesting is I had a lot of challenges with my body over the two weeks I was there. I was in a program that was pretty physically demanding. At the same time, I was getting my body worked on three hours a day at an Ayurvedic clinic. And so the whole time I was there, I was intensely aware of the experience of being in a body. I would feel more frustrated when I couldn’t do a yoga pose. It felt more emotional than it usually does.

But by the second week, I was doing poses that I could never do. That’s a big deal in Ashtanga because in order to move to the next posture in the series, you have to be able to do the one preceding it. People get stuck at what are called gatekeeper poses. I was stuck at Marichyasana D. It’s basically a really deep twist, where you bind behind your knee. I broke through that, with an assist, and I had never come close to doing it before. And I felt like crying — it was really intense emotion.

Some of the more intense asanas, or yoga postures

Some of the more intense asanas, or yoga postures

What appeals to you about yoga?

There are eight limbs of yoga, and asana is just one of them. It’s this all-encompassing spiritual practice to actually do yoga. There are the breathing practices, meditation and other ones. All of it ladders up to this idea that we do yoga in order to understand God and prepare ourselves for enlightenment.

It isn’t associated with any religion — that’s a common misperception. It pairs really well with Buddhism and with Hinduism, and there are definitely shared influences.

Not a bad spot for some evening yoga

Not a bad spot for some evening yoga

How did you feel by the end of your trip?

It was the definitely healthiest I’ve ever felt in my life. I was not ready to come back. I wanted to stay.


Kovalam: A Hippie Haven in Kerala

This small beach town in South India isn’t your typical Indian experience — but it has its own intensity.

A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

Most people who travel to India don’t do so on a whim. But Kelly was at an impasse in her yoga practice and sought a spiritual kickstart. So when she saw that David Garrigues, a yoga instructor she admires, would be in a small beach town in the South of India, not five minutes had passed before she had booked her ticket.

Here Kelly shares her life-changing Indian spirit journey. –Wally

Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

In Kovalam, all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.
All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

Tell us about Kovalam.

It’s a small town on the beach, but super touristy. Apparently, Kovalam used to be this hippie haven. I remember on my second day there, I was sitting in this restaurant overlooking the ocean and looking around and being like, What are all these random people doing here at the edge of the world? You have these old ladies from Russia who are decked out in all of this costume jewelry, and you have the beautiful, sleek yogis and the Brazilians who are there backpacking through India, and it just seemed like such a strange group of people who had gathered there.

Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

The other thing that struck me was the overwhelming sense of anonymity. This was a place I could navigate as my true self versus the self that I have cultivated here with my friends and work.

Most of the locals spoke English, which I didn’t expect. I’ve heard a lot about India, but I think the experience of this town was a lot different. Though I will say there was a certain amount of chaos — leaving the airport in Trivandrum and getting to Kovalam was insane: people on rickshaws and bikes weaving in and out of traffic.

It seemed like everything was in a different stage of being constructed or being torn down. And there were people burning garbage, fires lining the street, and all this new construction, and in front of that, there’d be old men in loincloths selling fruit. It was this bizarre mix of new construction and old tradition.

Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Where did you stay in Kovalam?

I stayed at a place called Johny’s Beach House. It was like stepping into a jungle. It’s only four rooms. But he has this huge garden — there are literally monkeys that will climb through the trees there.

Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

Johny built Johny’s Beach House, this hilarious, quirky treehouse, four years ago and he’s been running it ever since. He comes from this really small village and worked his way up in the tourism industry in Kovalam and now he’s the highest-rated place to stay. Which all of the other hotels are really baffled by because they don’t understand why this tiny little treehouse four-bedroom B&B is the top-rated place. But the thing is, when people stay there, they aren’t rating the B&B itself — they’re rating Johny, because he is such a personality, with this quirky sense of humor and is super engaging and really creative. That is his space, and it’s completely a representation of him.

Breakfast at Johny’s

Breakfast at Johny’s

Every morning Johny would make me this porridge with bananas and cardamom and different nuts when I’d get back from yoga. And I’d eat it on my balcony and read my yoga books. It was beautiful.

 

Did you ever feel unsafe in Kovalam?

There was only one time. I was coming home late. In Kovalam, the way that the town is structured — all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. I bet they’re 7-foot walls. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.

That was the challenge: getting anywhere. Google Maps doesn’t have all those tiny twists and turns, so I would literally allot 40 minutes to get to a place because I was like a mouse in the middle of a maze — even if it was a 5-minute walk away. Because the sidewalks were built around the homes, there would be dead ends; the sidewalk would turn into a dirt path that would go into somebody’s house. I got lost a bunch of times and one time had to be rescued.

It’s actually sad. Johnny told me that as the tourism industry took off in Kovalam, a lot of these hotels and restaurants and visitor homes built up the walls to prevent locals from entering their properties. And so in way, it was this discriminatory measure, to appeal more to the tourists.

It was a problem if you were coming toward a group of men and they didn’t make any sign of moving. That happened a few times, and it’s very intentional — people do that on purpose with women.

A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

There was one time I was coming home late. There was a little dog I made friends with while I was there and it hung out outside of Johny’s Beach House and it would follow me around everywhere. I would go find it in the morning and he would follow me to the market or the beach. So he was my little buddy for two weeks.

This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

Did you name the doggie?

He was just little Sweeters. So this one night I was walking home and there was a drunk man who I think was maybe following me. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was starting to get that danger feeling, and a few moments later, I heard the dog start growling. Sweeters was snapping at the man. So I ran to the gate, opened it really fast and shut it.

 

What was it like being in such a small town?

Everyone watched your every move. The locals would ask, “Where are you from? Where are you staying? What are you doing?” And then they’d track me. They’d say, “Oh, I saw that you were at the blah-blah-blah the other day.” Or I’d meet somebody at a restaurant and they’d say, “You’re studying with David.” Everyone knew everyone’s business, which was really crazy.

People would ask me, “Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” It was very intrusive.

You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

What was the most interesting Indian custom you encountered?

I really like the head bob. I had to ask Johny, “What does this mean?” And he was like, “Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.” And I was like, “Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.”

But I also found myself kind of doing it.

Because Johny and I became friends, I was able to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to as a tourist. I spent a lot of time on the back of Johny’s motorbike, clinging on for dear life, struggling to breathe through the pollution. But it was like seeing this area through the eyes of a local.

We went to this really bizarre restaurant in Trivandrum. It seemed like this restaurant was a converted version of a twisty parking garage ramp. There are all these booths along the far wall as the restaurant spirals upward. I guess it’s the place to go in Trivandrum if you want coffee or dosa, which is like a crepe.

Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

What was the food like in Kerala?

I’m obsessed with food. But surprisingly, I was underwhelmed.

The yoga studio that I go to in Chicago, the owner was coincidentally in Kovalam at the same time, doing a completely separate retreat. So I spent a lot of time with his people, and he had a house and has been going there for 20 years. He knows everything about Kovalam. And he had a neighbor friend, this woman, who made all of this food for us for our final meal. It was thali [the Indian version of tapas] served on a banana leaf — it was definitely the best meal that I had.

Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Kelly: What does the head bob mean?

Johny: Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.

Kelly: Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.

Wat Chom Thong and Vipassana Meditation Retreat

A Thai Buddhist temple dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat at the base of Doi Inthanon known for its free meditation courses.

Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong houses a holy relic: fragments of the Buddha’s skull

Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong houses a holy relic: fragments of the Buddha’s skull

En route to Doi Inthanon to see its waterfalls and soaring modern pagodas, our driver Tommy asked us if we wanted to stop at a temple at the base of the mountain.

The wat he wanted to share with us is about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai and is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat.

“That’s my sign,” I told Tommy, excited about that fact for the first time in my life.

“That’s lucky!” he exclaimed.

The temple is one of the most revered in all of Northern Thailand because it supposedly holds bits of the right side of the Buddha’s skull.
The temple is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat — like this fancy fellow

The temple is dedicated to those born in the Year of the Rat — like this fancy fellow


Learn More About the Chinese and Thai Zodiac


The names of Thai temples tend to be mouthfuls. This wat, Phra That Si Chom Thong Woraviharn, is no exception.

This misshapen statue is supposed to be of a lion

This misshapen statue is supposed to be of a lion

Holy Skull Fragments

It was built in the mid-1400s atop a hill, Doi Chom Thong, which the Buddha is said to have visited. In fact, he supposedly even stated that the site would one day be home to one of his holy relics.

This small shrine, or mondop, is where the holy relic of Chom Thong is kept

This small shrine, or mondop, is where the holy relic of Chom Thong is kept

That prediction came true, and the wat is one of the most revered in all of Northern Thailand because it supposedly holds bits of the right side of the Buddha’s skull. The relic was found in 1452 and is described as being smooth and the size “of jujube seeds” and the off-white color of “dried medlar flowers.”

At most Buddhist temples, relics are stored in chedis like these — but not at this one

At most Buddhist temples, relics are stored in chedis like these — but not at this one

The oldest structure at the wat is the golden chedi. What’s interesting is that the pagodas known as chedis don’t house the relics as at most Thai temples. Instead, they’re stored within a mondop, a small temple-like shrine framed by tall thin columns.

The Buddha’s skull fragments are taken out of the mondop on important Buddhist holidays for devotees to pay homage to them.

The viharn is the main building on site

The viharn is the main building on site

The focal point of the assembly hall features numerous Buddhas, elephant tusks and an elaborately carved centerpiece

The focal point of the assembly hall features numerous Buddhas, elephant tusks and an elaborately carved centerpiece

Visiting the Viharn

The main building on the wat grounds is the Lanna-style viharn, which contains gorgeous wood carvings. The statues, many of which are gold or are covered in gold leaf, the teak beams, the intricately carved shrine, the light diffused through the bright orange umbrellas, which symbolize enlightenment and are compared to halos in the Christian tradition — they all lend the space a warm, intense glow.

It’s not unusual for viharns to have multiple statues of the Buddha

It’s not unusual for viharns to have multiple statues of the Buddha

Some of the statues are covered in gold leaf

Some of the statues are covered in gold leaf

Look up — even the teak ceiling is elaborately painted 

Look up — even the teak ceiling is elaborately painted 

Walk around the altarpiece — it’s so elaborate it should be seen from every angle

Walk around the altarpiece — it’s so elaborate it should be seen from every angle

On our way out of the wat, Duke and I stopped by a vendor’s table near the entrance to buy a small ceramic rat to put in the shrine in our bedroom.

We found a garage-like building out back with this strange contraption

We found a garage-like building out back with this strange contraption

The temple is also home to the Insight Meditation Center, founded in 1991 by Phra Dhammungkalajarn Vi (aka Phra Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo). Our chauffeur Tommy proudly informed us that his cousin is the director of the meditation center. If you’re in no hurry and are intrigued by, or already a practitioner of meditation, here’s more information about this fascinating option.

Those staying at the meditation retreat wear white

Those staying at the meditation retreat wear white

Q&A About the Insight Meditation Center at Chom Tong

Where’s the meditation center located?

Behind the main temple. Look for the CMQ Lanna International Library.

 

What happens at the meditation retreat?

Students receive individual instruction in vipassana meditation. Your guide will educate you in an intensive form of a technique developed by Mahasi Sayadaw, a Burmese monk, with sequences of mindful prostrations, walking and sitting meditation following the teachings of Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo, a local monk.

Exercises are led in English and Thai, and work to apply mindfulness to the body, feelings, mind and “mind-objects,” known as the Satipatthana, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a device that stops evil, stops bad deeds, stops defilement. … We will have pure hearts always.
— Ajaan Tong Sirimangalo

What is vipassana meditation?

Vipassana is a word from Pali (the classic language of Theravada Buddhism) that means seeing clearly or seeing through. It’s often translated as “insight,” and practitioners of vipassana meditation attempt to see through the true nature of reality.

Vipassana strives for a clear awareness of exactly what is happening as it happens. Practitioners bring their minds to rest, focusing on only one item and not allowing them to wander. When this is accomplished, a deep calm pervades the body and mind. It’s also described as using concentration as a tool by which your awareness can chip away at the wall of illusion that cuts us off from the living light of reality so you can see the impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and selflessness of physical phenomena.

It takes years to master, but one day the meditator is said to chisel through that wall and tumble into the presence of light. This transformation is called liberation and is permanent.

The vipassana meditation technique was developed by a couple of Buddhist monks

The vipassana meditation technique was developed by a couple of Buddhist monks

Umbrellas, like the one in the viharn, symbolize enlightenment

Umbrellas, like the one in the viharn, symbolize enlightenment

Why should I go?

There have been studies recently that show the benefits of meditation in reducing everything from anxiety to depression to pain.

“Why should we be mindful?” asks Sirimangalo, who still teaches at Chom Thong. “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are a device that stops evil, stops bad deeds, stops defilement. … during the time when we are mindful, evil won’t enter in to reach our hearts. We will have pure hearts always. It is like dark and shining light. Mindfulness is a shining light; all defilements, all evil states, are like darkness. When the bright light shines, the darkness disappears. For this reason, we should be mindful at all times — our mind will be bright, clean and peaceful all of the time.”

 

How do I go about reserving space at the retreat?

Make a reservation in advance — otherwise they can’t guarantee that space will be available. They ask that people arrive around 1 p.m. You can email the International Department at reservationchomtong@yahoo.com.

 

What’s the dress code?

The retreat is affiliated with the wat (temple) and follows their rules of modesty. Men can wear T-shirts, but tank tops and sweats aren’t allowed. Shorts should cover the knees. For women, shirts should cover their shoulders, not expose their chests and should be at least elbow-length. Skirts or pants should reach the ankles. They also would like you to limit your makeup and perfume use.

That being said, while you’re at the retreat, they ask that you wear white clothing that fits their sense of decorum. You can bring your own, borrow some from the center or buy some at vendors just off the temple grounds.

In the winter, especially December and January, it can get quite cold. You’ll want a sweatshirt  or jacket and socks if you visit then.

 

What should I bring?

  • Toiletries, including toothpaste and soap
  • Toilet paper
  • Passport
  • Digital alarm clock and/or timer
  • Flashlight
  • Flip-flops or sandals
  • Water bottle
  • Insect repellent

 

How long will the course be?

While you’re welcome to stay for as long or as short as you like, they recommend 21 days for the basic course. Once you’ve taken that, you can do a 10-day retreat. No previous experience with meditation is necessary and all courses are individual, so they start the day you arrive. Keep in mind that if they’re fully booked, those who are staying longer are given preference.

On your first day, you’ll be given an introduction to the course and will meet with your teacher.

 

How much will this cost me?

Nothing — though the organization does run on donations, in line with the Buddhist principle of dana (generosity). Donations to the center help pay for electricity, water and general maintenance. Donations to the teachers cover their living expenses, as they’re all volunteers and don’t make a salary. Donations for food pay for the two meals a day prepared by nuns in the temple. –Wally

Rats! You’ll see lots of depictions of them at Wat Chom Thong

Rats! You’ll see lots of depictions of them at Wat Chom Thong

Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong Worawihan
Ban Luang
Chom Thong District
Chiang Mai 50160, Thailand

Fah Lanna Spa: A Thai Massage and Tok Sen Escape in Chiang Mai

Which direction will  you  go?

Which direction will you go?

What is tok sen? How is Thai massage different? This spa and café provide a relaxing retreat from a busy vacation in Thailand.

Sadly, Wally and I don’t indulge in spa treatments as often as we’d like. Between everything fitting into a day, making time to pamper ourselves becomes a low priority. After days spent exploring ancient temples, ziplining through the jungle and bathing pachyderms at the Elephant Nature Park, a relaxing respite from our adventures was just what we both needed.

A boardwalk across a koi pond creates an enchanted world at the spa

A boardwalk across a koi pond creates an enchanted world at the spa

With the ethos “easy to find, but hard to forget,” Fah Lanna Spa is located on a quiet street in the northern part of the Old Town in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were warmly welcomed by the lovely Miss M on our arrival. As we passed into the reception area, the sound of the outside world receded and we found ourselves in a tranquil and intimate open-air courtyard framing the blue sky above, which is appropriate, as the word fah is Lanna for sky.

I felt like a tuning fork as the mallet made contact with the wedge, resonating deep into my musculature. The knocking was precise and never painful and left me feeling blissfully relaxed.
Miss M will hook you up with a customized massage

Miss M will hook you up with a customized massage

We were seated in the garden terrace and served a cup of ruby red roselle tea accompanied by a cooling cloth lightly scented with Fah Lanna’s signature scent. The tea has a flavor similar to a less tart cranberry and is made from the dried outermost crimson-colored sepal of the hibiscus flower.

“We choose roselle tea because it’s refreshing and it cools the body,” M explained.

A few of its additional health benefits include antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which help reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The foyer at Fah Lanna incorporates elements of a traditional Lanna kitchen, including these drying baskets

The foyer at Fah Lanna incorporates elements of a traditional Lanna kitchen, including these drying baskets

As we enjoyed our tea, we filled out our consultation forms, which included a diagram asking us to circle the specific areas we would like our massage therapists to focus on and what level of pressure we would like applied. I tend to hold tension in my shoulders, so I circled both shoulders and lower back and specified medium pressure. Wally chose the traditional Thai massage, while I decided to give the tok sen massage a try. M reviewed our preferences, confirmed our treatments and gave us a tour of the grounds.

The rooms at Fah Lanna Spa are named for local regions and the handicrafts they’re known for

The rooms at Fah Lanna Spa are named for local regions and the handicrafts they’re known for

Paying Homage to Local Culture

M explained that the award-winning interior reflects traditional Lanna style. The reception area where we were seated is modeled after a Lanna kitchen, complete with handwoven rattan rice-sifting baskets suspended in the air and filled with medicinal roots and herbs left to naturally desiccate. A wooden walkway framed by lush tropical greenery traverses the freshwater pool of the inner courtyard, which is filled with koi. Each of the 25 treatment rooms are named for different districts in the Chiang Mai area and reflect a captivating mix of the traditional regional handicrafts for which they are famous.

The muted palette combined with a wonderful olfactory component further enhance the feeling of peace and calm. I asked M what this was and she smiled and led us to one of the sources. A clay pot typically used to steam rice acts as a conduit for a combination of 108 herbs, slices of kaffir lime and cassumunar ginger, known as plai in Thai, releasing an intoxicating scent. The house-made ginger tea steeping on the terrace also contributes to this wonderful sensory mélange.

“The Lanna people walk and talk slow,” M told us, “which is good for a spa environment.”

After our tour, M introduced us to our massage therapists. Wally’s was named Joy and mine Nok. Could their names be any more perfect? We were led to our private treatment rooms and changed into comfortable, loose-fitting pajama-like clothing.

As my session began, Nok asked me to place my feet into a basin of warm water. She squeezed the juice of two kaffir limes into the water and exfoliated my tired feet with a botanical tamarind and salt scrub.

Thai massage is a bit different than the typical type of massage you get in the States

Thai massage is a bit different than the typical type of massage you get in the States

Thai Massage: Time to Get Bent Out of Shape

Combining elements of acupressure and yoga-like stretching, Thai massage is a pleasantly intense way to start the day. This technique dates back over 2,500 years and was developed by the personal physician to the Buddha himself, Shivago Komarpaj. Considered to be one of the four pillars of Thai traditional medicine, it’s an important component to relaxing the body after extended meditative practices.

There isn’t any oil used, as you might be used to. Instead, Thai massage increases flexibility through stretching, pressure-point manipulation based upon acupuncture points to increase circulation to promote overall health.

Joy got right up on the table with Wally to knead his aching muscles, and a few times she bent him into various positions. “She stretched muscles I never knew I had,” he told me.

After being gently pulled and pummelled, Wally was left feeling relaxed and refreshed.

The tok sen tools of the trade

The tok sen tools of the trade

Tok Sen: This Knock Knock Is No Joke

While Wally tried the Thai massage, I chose the tok sen therapy, a signature specialty of Northern Thailand and the spa. This technique requires special tools: a mallet and wedge blocks made of tamarind wood. Legend has it that the best tok sen mallet and hammer comes from the wood of a tamarind tree struck by lighting. (I can neither confirm or deny that mine was.)

This traditional type of Lanna massage takes its name from the rhythmic sound of the wooden hammer hitting the wedges. Tok means “to hit,” while sen refers to lines of energy that run through the body. By working these pressure points with a steady staccato rhythm, the vibrations release toxins from your body and clear blocked energy. The tapping is carefully applied at either a medium or strong pressure.

Before the vigorous tapping began, Nok applied a menthol balm to my back, which first felt cool on my skin and then warm. I had chosen medium pressure as I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to handle anything above that. I felt a bit like a human tuning fork as the mallet made contact with the wedge, resonating deep into my musculature. The knocking was precise and never painful and left me feeling blissfully relaxed.

Lots of goodies in the gift shop

Lots of goodies in the gift shop

Making Scents

After our treatments, we visited the well-curated gift shop and were served Thai sweet rice crackers and ginger tea. Wally was more dignified than I and only ate one of his rice crackers, while I greedily devoured both of mine and had a second cup of tea.

The spa has its own signature line of exceptional organic wellness products that are available for purchase in its gift shop and online. So even if you can only go as far as your bathroom, the aromatic scents of their products will inspire your own Lanna sanctuary.

Whether or not you stop in for a spa treatment, Fahtara café is a chill place to enjoy a coffee, smoothie or delicious meal

Whether or not you stop in for a spa treatment, Fahtara café is a chill place to enjoy a coffee, smoothie or delicious meal

Fahtara Coffee

We enjoyed lunch at Fahtara Coffee, part of the spa complex, and although I would have loved to have ordered a coffee after our treatment, it seemed counterintuitive, so we each got smoothies: passionfruit for Wally and mango for me. For lunch, Wally ordered the spicy Bangkok-style glass noodle salad with shrimp, calamari and mussels, and I decided on the pad krapow, Thai basil chicken, which had a nice amount of lingering heat to it. Lunch for two, including the smoothies, came to 460 baht or roughly the equivalent of $13.

We were joined by one of the spa’s owners. When he learned this was our last day in Chiang Mai, he said, “You saved the best for last.”

While we sipped our smoothies, he told us more about the spa, which opened at the end of 2011 and has since expanded. The concept came entirely from his boyfriend, who’s from Northern Thailand, while he handles accounting and business operations.

“He’s the artist and I’m German,” he joked.

In short, Fah Lanna is an incredible experience, where you’re sure to find a treatment that is right for you. You can even arrange complimentary pickup from your hotel.

The goal of the spa was “to have something beautiful inspired by traditional culture, but rustic, homey and cozy,” the owner told us. Mission accomplished. –Duke


Fah Lanna Spa

57/1 Wiang Kaew Road, by the corner of Jabhan Road

Near Chang Puak Gate, Old City

50200 Chiang Mai, Thailand


Makkha: A True Spa Experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The aromatherapy massage at this delightful day spa is a treat for your senses.

Awaiting our aromatherapy massages in Makkha’s gorgeous lobby

Awaiting our aromatherapy massages in Makkha’s gorgeous lobby

For the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is decidedly laidback — especially when compared to the frenetic pace of its capital Bangkok. But it’s still nice to escape an itinerary packed with temples and daytrips, which is exactly what Duke and I did when we visited Makkha Health & Spa, tucked down one of the Old City’s narrow side streets.

 

Beer, the delightful receptionist at Makkha

Beer, the delightful receptionist at Makkha

We were welcomed to the spa by the lovely Beer, who immediately made us feel at home, which is fitting as Makkha occupies a 50-year-old traditional Lanna-style home with wood-paneled walls. Soft light glows through intricate latticework, surrounded by polished dark teak.

Beer brought over cups of bael tea, made from dried slices of the thick-skinned spherical fruit, also known as wood apple. The tea has a distinct, smoky aroma with a hint of sourness and has been used for centuries as an Ayurvedic digestive tonic. It reminded me of chai, Duke of matcha (though I’d trust Duke’s palate more than mine). These were accompanied by a tightly coiled cold towel, which we’re never 100% clear what to do with, so we rub our hands and forearms and usually do a quick cooling scrub to the back of our necks.

So beloved is the bael tree that a folktale exists in the sacred Hindu text the Garuda Purana about a hunter on the night of Shivarathri, an annual festival celebrating Lord Shiva, the blue-skinned deity. The story goes that the man climbed a bael tree while waiting to hunt animals that had come to quench their thirst at a nearby pond. Also beneath the tree was a Shiva lingam, and as he waited, the hunter absentmindedly plucked some leaves, which dropped onto the linga. Through this unconscious act, he had worshipped Shiva and attained moksha, a concept similar to nirvana.

The rooms at Makkha are soothingly neutral — letting the massage experience come to the forefront of your senses

The rooms at Makkha are soothingly neutral — letting the massage experience come to the forefront of your senses

We had opted for the two-hour body scrub and aromatherapy massage. We were led to our respective treatment rooms, instructed to take a quick shower and asked to change into the mesh underwear the spa provided. The shampoo, from a Thai company called Wan Waan, is essential oil-based and doesn’t lather (read: chemical-free). I had never experienced a shampoo like this before and really enjoyed it — plus, no conditioner necessary! In fact, we liked it so much we purchased a bottle of the lavender shampoo to take home.

When the therapist returned to the room, she began with the scrub, sloughing off the grime that accumulates during travel. The first targets are your legs and feet — excellent for weary travelers who have been walking almost nonstop for days.

Somehow she seemed to keep both hands moving over me, but switched from scrubbing salts to oil without pause. Maybe she was magic. The scrub does a great job of exfoliation, leaving you feeling rejuvenated. It reminded Duke of a slightly less intense, much more pleasant-smelling hammam scrub.

The Wan Waan essential oil-based products the spa uses are available for purchase

The Wan Waan essential oil-based products the spa uses are available for purchase

Aromatherapy Massage: Heaven Scent

Beer had mentioned that Makkha’s signature scent is jasmine, which I selected for my aromatherapy massage. Its warm, floral scent filled the room, making it easy for me to imagine myself in a tropical garden. Thinking of its mosquito-repellent properties, Duke chose citronella. Lavender, rose and orange cinnamon are also available.

It began with a deep tissue massage through a sheet, a traditional Thai technique. She then proceeded to climb up onto the table, straddling me, and used her hands, forearms and elbows to knead out my knots.

I like a strong massage to work through my knots and tension. I’m glad I didn’t check “extra strong,” though. These women have powerful hands. You can request a gentle, more relaxing rubdown if you prefer. Really, though, there’s something so wonderful having a masseuse knead your muscles until they go from as taut as a pulled string to relaxed and reinvigorated. When it gets sort of painful — no pain, no gain, as they say — I focus on the music.

Makkha Health & Spa’s lobby

Makkha Health & Spa’s lobby

After our massage, Duke and I were served sticky rice with mango, refreshed and ready to face the afternoon.

Forget the crowded outdoor market massages and treat yourself to the warm and welcoming Makkha Health & Spa. It’s the perfect way to relax and recharge before or after an adventure. –Wally


Makkha Health & Spa

38/1 Soi Ratchamanka 8 Phra Sing Amphoe Mueang

Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand