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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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