Chiva-Som, in the seaside town of Hua Hin along the Gulf of Thailand, is the kind of place that’s talked about in hushed tones, a closely guarded secret shared only among the most trusted of friends and confidantes. Because it’s not a hotel. It’s not even a resort. No, Chiva-Som is — and literally translates as — a “haven of life”.
The first I heard of this unique health and wellness retreat was from a Chinese entrepreneur and TV host who described escaping to “the little paradise” a few weeks each year for more than a decade. She said it was the only thing that kept her grounded amid her hard-charging career and fast-paced itinerant lifestyle.
Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by this magical-sounding land of healing. At long last — and just a few weeks before it closed for the fourth and final stage of its sweeping renovation — I made it to Chiva-Som and learned what all the fuss is about.
After the three-hour drive south from Bangkok, we approach the entrance to the resort on one of Hua Hin’s main thoroughfares. It isn’t quite the secret passageway I was expecting, but once inside it all starts to make sense. Chiva-Som occupies what was once the weekend retreat of founder Boonchu Rojanastien, who demolished his private home to create a place for family and friends to relax, recharge and “enjoy life”. Over the years, Rojanastien and his family added to the resort’s offerings and began to welcome people from the world over looking to find their way on the path to wellness.
Last year, the resort closed for six months to allow for the renovation of the guest rooms, gym and restaurant The Emerald Room. After closing again in May, it will reopen October 15 with a refreshed health and wellness area, indoor bathing pavilion, Niranlada Medi-Spa and Taste of Siam restaurant.
The first person to greet me, and presumably all guests at Chiva-Som, is general manager Vaipanya Kongkwanyuen. VP, as most people call him, was the director of food and beverage back in the 1994 pre-opening phase and went to work at several Aman properties before returning home last year. The much-loved fixture of the resort can often be seen greeting guests as if they’re old friends, which in most cases they actually are.
“More than half of our guests are repeat customers,” VP tells me proudly. While I can certainly appreciate the beauty of the surroundings and the comfort of my one-bedroom villa — one of 54 units that range from newly renovated Ocean Rooms and Suites to traditional Thai Pavilions — I can’t help but wonder what keeps guests coming back year after year. Apart from a handful of families with teenagers (the minimum age here is 16), most of the guests appear to be older couples from countries such as Germany, Russia, Australia and the UK.
Soon after I’m settled in, however, I begin to understand. First up, a health and wellness consultation with my appointed advisor. Ann patiently explains the dozens of programmes based on Chiva-Som’s six modalities: Spa, Fitness, Nutrition, Physiotherapy, Holistic Health and Aesthetic Beauty. Options vary from a minimum of three nights to 14 nights, each inclusive of daily wellness meals, fitness and leisure activities, and choice of massage or body polish. I settle on the Taste of Chiva-Som package, and select three spa treatments, two physio sessions and one fitness session to complement what looks to be an already full schedule.
Ann consults a colour-coded spreadsheet and sets out to book my stay almost down to the minute. It’s an impressive feat of juggling and scheduling, the results of which will be delivered to my room each morning so that all I have to do is show up at the designated place at the appointed time.
The part I’m most excited about is the daily massages, a choice of Thai, foot, scalp, invigorating and Chiva-Som Signature, and they don’t disappoint. But the most eye-opening experiences lean more to the medical. Dr Jason Culp, an American naturopathic physician who’s been with Chiva-Som for five years, begins our mindfulness-based stress-release session by placing a sensor on my finger and asking me to breathe normally for three minutes.
Then he turns the computer monitor to reveal my heart-ratevariability (HRV), which unfortunately signals that I’m a prime candidate for cardiovascular burnout and accelerated age-related diseases like dementia. But after Culp shows me a simple technique to slow down my breathing, my HRV improves dramatically and all of a sudden I feel like I’ve been granted a new lease on life. Equally enlightening is my session with a physiotherapist, who analyses my posture and stride before offering easy exercises that I can do each day to feel and look a thousand times better.
But my pursuit of wellness doesn’t end there. Chiva-Som has a strict digital detox policy, which forbids the use of devices in all public areas. Thankfully I became aware of the policy just before I was due to travel and bought a book at the airport, but the resort does provide a small library with reading material in various languages.
The food, meanwhile, is designed to not only taste good but also provide a highly nutritious foundation for life-long health. Two restaurants and a lounge area serve a range of Thai and international cuisine, and various juices, tonics and herbal teas. What they don’t serve is caffeine after 12pm and alcohol before 6pm, and the latter at prices that are no doubt designed to deter all but the most die-hard of drinkers.
The biggest surprise about the food is not how fresh and flavourful it is, but just how tiny the portions are. The first night I can’t help thinking I’ve been served a toddler meal by mistake when I see the miniscule mound of jasmine rice served alongside my baby bowl of red curry. But somehow I manage to get by without ordering seconds, and by the end of my three-day stay I’ve fully converted to this new and healthful way of eating. The drinking, of lack thereof, is a somewhat different story.
Between the meals, massages, fitness classes, aesthetic treatments, water-therapy offerings and even a visit to the resort’s community mangrove project and one of its organic gardens, the days are so packed that I don’t even make it to the beach until the morning of my departure. I manage a short stroll from the gate next to the pool and encounter a few horseback riders when a rainstorm sweeps through and drenches us all within seconds.
A bit of lazing on the beach would have been nice but I didn’t come to Chiva-Som to sunbathe or play in the surf. I came here to heal and to feel grounded, and I can always schedule in some beach therapy on my next visit, or the one after that, or the one after that…