Pinch therapy is a thing. So is smack therapy. And whoever first said “take a breath” to halt panic attacks knew what they were talking about. All this I learned from a few short, immensely fruitful days remedying my enervated self at Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Hua Hin, Thailand.
It is a three-hour drive from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The ride, though in a faultlessly comfortable Mercedes-Benz E Class and for the most part along smooth highways, is sadly longer than the flight from Singapore. If you’re prone to cabin fever and don’t want to risk bad traffic, consider flying private directly to Hua Hin Airport.
I checked into Chiva-Som with my share of baggage: A sleep deficit the size of Venezuela, the pressure of overdue story deadlines looming over my head and project reports due all at once, and run-of-the-mill ennui. So, although here I was in a tranquil Thai resort complete with a lake with a waterfall and lush tropical greenery, looking forward to a reset and rejuvenation, I was by no means in a state to let go, relax and be present.
The first forced intervention really helped: Digital devices (including e-readers) are strictly prohibited from use except in your own room or the Library to ensure privacy for guests as well as to encourage a digital detox. Wonderful! I had an excuse to be uncontactable for most of my three days here.
I immediately missed my phone camera though, when zipping around by buggy for a quick introductory tour of the picturesque seven-acre compound. The resort only has 54 rooms – a mix of suites, rooms and villas – and a good number of fitness studios, open-air workout spaces, indoor and outdoor pools, and wellness facilities. Everything is within an easy 10-minute-or-so stroll, one point to the next.
My Thai Pavilion villa is a minimalist’s dream and so easy to fall in love with. Teak wall panels and flooring evoke an almost Japanese feel, while the bathroom has a sexy, modern spin with lots of white and reflective surfaces.
I was advised by my butler to start my mornings with an energising, cleansing cup of hot water with a squeeze of lime – three nubby green ones sat on a saucer on the sideboard in the foyer that housed the dining accoutrements. Here was where I found daily missives: Printed summaries of my day’s progress, and my customised health and wellness programme for the next day.
A selection of pillows and a firmer or softer mattress were just a call to Housekeeping away, but I found the existing ones perfectly fluffy – and from my first night there, slept more soundly than I had in months. I’m sure my full days of workouts, treatments and massages, topped off with my nightly ritual of petal-strewn butler-drawn baths in the beautiful large tub, also helped.
Chiva-Som, which translates to “Haven of Life”, has offered Western diagnostic and treatments married with Thai hospitality, and Asian healing and alternative health practices since 1995.
The 24-year-old resort has undergone a complete renovation over the past few years, which saw all the Suites, Ocean Rooms and Thai Pavilions made over, and the Fitness Centre significantly upgraded. The resort shuttered in May for the final phase. The main Health & Wellness Centre houses consultation rooms and, in the basement, separate men’s and women’s spas that comprise heat and water therapy facilities as well as a maze of treatment rooms. It’ll have a thoroughly modern feel ruled by teak, Thai silk and bamboo when the resort reopens in mid-October.
My journey towards mind, body and spirit wellness began with two consultations. First, Dr Jason Culp, an in-house naturopathic physician, monitored my heart rate variability with a finger sensor (the Apple Watch or Oura ring can do the same).
The chart measuring the time interval between my heartbeats was an erratic mess. Immediate thought: I was on the brink of a heart attack. But I was not, Dr Culp assured – lots of stressed-out people clock in these crazy charts when they first arrive. And there is a superbly easy fix: Controlled breathing, which can trick the body into a physiological state of calmness and regulate a jumpy heartbeat.
“Breathe in for five seconds, and out for five, with no pauses in between. Do this for 10 minutes, three times a day, to increase relaxation and balance the nervous system,” Dr Culp said. Implausible as it might sound, it actually worked. A short five minutes of such conscious, diaphragmatic breathing, and my heart rate looked almost completely reset to normal!
This breathing technique can even be used to cope with physical pain, Dr Culp said. He had to adapt my breathing counts to four seconds intake and exhaling for six, as he noted that I struggled to continuously inhale even for five seconds – my lungs just could not expand. It was something I had noticed the one time I tried jogging with my dog, and I put it down to being really unfit.
I next met with a health and wellness advisor to talk through my concerns, and she proceeded to fill my schedule with massages (which I got to choose), therapies and yoga sessions by the hour, starting with the 7am Mantra Meditation. I was super pleased: For someone as lacking in self-discipline and motivation as I, all these done-for-you treatments are a godsend – I just had to show up.
My very first therapy the next day was Cranio-Myofascial Release, where a physiotherapist used manual techniques and a vibration tool to ease knotted muscles and loosen the fascia, a cling-wrap-like membrane, from the muscles that it too-tightly sheathes. Lying face down on the massage table, I used Dr Culp’s breathing techniques to “breathe into the pain” as the therapist was using a “skin rolling” technique on my back, where my flesh was pinched and slowly rolled upward.
Suddenly, where my lungs used to seize after inhaling for three seconds, I could take a continuous breath for 10, 11 – what’s this?! – 12 seconds! I raised my head and exclaimed this discovery in amazement. My therapist explained that she had just released the fascia of my back rib cage. I spent the next few days – and weeks – taking huge breaths just to check that my lungs were still there. I kid not, that 30-minute treatment was life transformative.
Really helpful for my aching back was a one-to-one Super Stretch session with a fitness instructor, with lots of deep stretching and manipulation of my hip and back muscles.
I later had a Stimulating Hip & Thigh Treatment that involved rigorous slapping moves and deep massage, to boost blood and lymph circulation to target cellulite and fluid retention. Definitely one of the most interesting massages I’ve had. This was followed by a relaxing Chiva-Som Signature Massage, and the Chiva-Som Signature Deep Hand Massage, where the therapist somehow found and released pain points along my arms that I never knew were there. Particularly interesting was a Thai method of detoxification where she used her nail to rub my fingertips, to break down a build-up of toxins. I do this myself time to time, and am heartened that there isn’t always that palpable “bubble-like” sensation that indicates toxin accumulation.
Another great aspect was three round meals of wellness cuisine. Fruit and vegetables from Chiva-Som’s organic farm a short drive away (it has a larger one outside Hua Hin) featured heavily on the menu, but it wasn’t all greens and grains. There were red meat, dairy and carbs – all fine, in moderation. Portions are kept petite, but as I wasn’t on a calorie- restriction programme, I could order freely from the menu, which is the same for the two restaurants, and also if you order in-room. There’s an extensive a la carte breakfast menu, with a buffet of fruit, cereal, nuts and an array of lesser-seen preserves and toppings such as pollen.
It’s tempting to linger over a long meal at the seaside Taste of Siam restaurant, which also has Saturday bbq dinners, but the more formal Emerald Room, I was told by the resort’s General Manager Vaipanya Kongkwanyuen, was intentionally done up by the architect in an oppressive jade theme to discourage people from sitting around after a meal, and to get out and on ASAP. Proper shoes are required at the restaurants for dinner, so don’t pack just sports shoes and flip-flops.
The three days passed too quickly, and the daily grind quickly put the tension and weariness back into my body. But thankfully, new tricks like the breathing method and even self-administered “skin rolling” have given this old dog a bone. Still, not a week goes by without my thoughts wandering back to Chiva-Som and planning for my next retreat.