Traditional Asian healing practices have fuelled the growth of the global wellness industry as a whole. Tatler traces ancient therapies’ evolution to modern-day remedies—and reveals top destinations in the region to experience the best treatments
Long before the term ‘wellness’ was coined or the concept of a luxury spa as we know it existed, the idea of nurturing oneself has been an integral part of many Asian cultures. The quest to achieve sound mind, body and soul is an essential aspect of Asian life—whether derived from bathing in mineral-filled onsens in Japan or slathering the skin with Ayurvedic oils customised to your dosha in India—and traditional practices are reaching an even wider audience today.
“Asia is definitely the centre of wellness. It is the birthplace of healing modalities that focus on prevention such as Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and meditation. I see a very fast adoption of integrated wellness retreats from our clients in Asia,” says Dervla Louli Musgrave, founder of wellness travel company Compare Retreats. In the next few years, the wellness tourism industry is set to grow at an unprecedented pace—it is “currently valued at US$639 billion and is on track to be worth US$919 billion in 2022,” says Louli—an upward trajectory that reflects the general trend of millennials’ increased spending on experiences.
The draw is immense: investing in improving your well-being is literally investing in your own health and happiness. In a world where there are so many things competing for your time, money and attention, putting the focus on yourself is a luxury worth paying for. Here, we delve into various Asian modalities and share our picks of the best places in the region for your next retreat.
India: The Mother of All Healing
It’s all in the name: Ayurveda means “the science of life” in Sanskrit, a healing system with a history dating back more than 5,000 years that many scholars regard as the oldest in the world. Its central principle is creating an optimal balance between the body’s three elements (or “tridoshas”) via a thoughtful recalibration of one’s lifestyle.
Ayurvedic retreats are primarily offered in India and Sri Lanka, with the largest concentration in Kerala, widely known as the centre of Ayurveda. While there is a high demand for Ayurvedic retreats, the scale at which it is offered globally is limited due to the challenges of executing it correctly. First and foremost, a certified Ayurvedic doctor must be present, and the ingredients used for the food and treatments are best when sourced directly from India.
Como Hotels & Resorts’ flagship Como Shambhala Estate in Bali is one of the few hotels outside India that provides a comprehensive Ayurvedic programme that remains faithful to tradition. The 23-acre property embodies the essence of spiritual Ubud. Surrounded by the forest—with the accompanying sounds of water and rustling of leaves—it immediately offers an incredible sense of calm that is hard to replicate anywhere else.
A three-day Ayurvedic retreat at the Shambhala Estate begins with a consultation with Dr. Prasanth, the resident Ayurvedic doctor. In the three days that follow, guests participate in customised programmes, which can include recommended menus with personalised notes aimed to facilitate better digestion as well as prescribed Ayurvedic treatments using oils specifically mixed to help address the body’s imbalance. On a recent visit, our most memorable was the Shirodhara, a treatment wherein warm oil is poured over the forehead to improve focus, concentration and relaxation.
Indonesia: A Holistic Journey
The magic of Bali and its people lies in their deep-rooted philosophy of Tri Hita Karana, which loosely translates as “the Three Causes of Prosperity.” With a focus on harmonious relationships, these three elements manifest happiness through one’s connection with God (Parahyangan), the natural environment (Palemahan) and humanity (Pawongan).
At Fivelements Retreat in Ubud—a sanctuary on Bali’s sacred Ayung River—over a three-day wellness journey curated by Compare Retreats, guests are connected with local healers who practice full body reflexology massage and metaphysical massage. A Taksu massage with Balinese healer Pak Tirka combines acupressure, energy healing and Balinese blessing for a relaxing and re-energising experience.
Those seeking to strengthen their spiritual connection can seek a blessing from the gods, through a fire ritual that pays tribute to the sun and helps to purge negative energy. Water blessing rituals are also available on the property, where holy water from the sacred springs is poured over you to cleanse your body physically, emotionally and spiritually.
China: A Balancing Act
The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong is a plush oasis in the middle of busy, crowded Central. The sense of serenity is more pronounced as we step into the Oriental Spa, which is spread over two floors. Though we were visiting as hotel guests, it’s interesting to note that the spa is also popular with well-heeled locals.
The search for balance is a thread that runs through much traditional Chinese medicine, and the Oriental Spa’s signature treatment, Oriental Qi, explores that principle. The spa also offers Chinese foot reflexology and a menu of Chinese modality treatment programs, available if prescribed by the Chinese doctor—including acupuncture, bone setting, cupping and moxibustion.
Developed in consultation with traditional Chinese medicine specialists and master aromatherapists, the concept of the Oriental Qi experience is refreshingly straight-forward: an answer to their guests’ appetite for simple, effective, authentic treatments in a luxurious setting.
Guests start with a detailed questionnaire based on wu xing, the five Chinese elements—metal, wood, fire, water and earth. This is followed by a therapist consultation to decode lifestyle habits and the guest’s current state of wellbeing. After that, the two-hour experience and oils are customised to help restore balance, or qi—the vital energy that runs through the body. Using traditional Chinese techniques, the Oriental Qi spa experience stimulates acupressure points along the meridian channels to achieve balance.
Thailand: Honouring Ancient Wisdom
“Thai Traditional Medicine (TTM) believes in the natural order of the universe,” says Suchanont Baosuwan, Thai Traditional Medicine Practitioner at wellness resort Chiva-Som in Hua Hin. “This system of medicine dates back more than 3,000 years, and incorporates the philosophies of traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and local indigenous practices.”
At the core of Thai traditional medicine is the belief that earth, wind, fire and water—each element representing a specific bodily function—must be balanced within the body. This is achieved through herbal remedies and Thai massage—practices that are held sacred by Thai people, as well as the government, which has worked tirelessly in the last decade to preserve traditional healing methods. Today, TTM is used by approximately 20 per cent of the Thai population and is gaining popularity worldwide.
“Thai Massage is probably the best known TTM therapy that is practiced globally,” says Baosuwan. Massage is available everywhere in Thailand, but it’s not just for tourists—for many Thais, it is an essential part of therapy, healing and overall wellness, and a deeply spiritual practice. Traditional Thai masseurs perform wai khru—a ritual in which they honour the “father of Thai traditional medicine,” Jivaka, the personal physician of Buddha—before performing a massage.
Chiva-Som in Hua Hin is a pioneer in the wellness industry, having first opened its doors 24 years ago. It continues to stay on top of the game, with an unshakeable reputation for its world-class programmes and facilities delivered in a luxury beachfront setting. Guests have included Kate Moss, David Beckham, Serena Williams and royalty from around the world.
In November 2019, Chiva-Som reopened after a spectacular five-year, multi-million-dollar refurbishment to bring a fresh, modern take to the seven-acre resort, including a complete overhaul of the Niranlada MediSpa, Thai Pavilions, Emerald Room, Orchid Lounge, library and fitness centre.
Japan: Water in The Midst
For the Japanese, water carries a cleansing and regenerative power. This is why onsens (hot springs) are such an integral part of their culture. The combination of natural heat and up to 19 different minerals in volcanic spring allows the body to repair itself. Watsu, a therapy that combines water with Shiatsu techniques, is a form of aquatic bodywork done in water temperatures of roughly 35 degrees Celsius.
Amanemu is inspired by traditional ryokans, or bathing retreats, and features traditional low-slung tiled roofs, spacious pavilions and elements in wood and stone, all working to provide an enclave of peace. The Aman Spa is themed around water, with a large onsen, two private onsen pavilions, a Watsu pool and an expansive yoga studio with an outdoor deck overlooking a garden. Soaking in the onsen is not only relaxing but also a memorable experience especially at night, when the property is lit by candles.
At Amanemu’s Mindfulness and Relaxation Immersion, an hour-long Watsu session involves wearing floatation devices and being moved back and forth through the water by an experienced shiatsu practitioner—experiencing fluid movements combined with gentle stretches and finger-tip pressure to points in the face, torso and back. Practitioners liken the experience to your body remembering what it was like as a baby floating in your mother’s womb—safe, peaceful and free from cares of the world.
Philippines: Natural Mystic
Rooted in ancient beliefs and mysticism, the traditional healing art of Hilot has been a strong pillar in Filipino culture long before the Spanish arrived.
Hilot is a hands-on approach to healing, where a therapist—known as a manghihilot or albularyo (which translates to medicine man)—combines massage techniques, herbs, intuition and mind-body connection to treat his or her patients.
The intention and the energy of the healer plays an important role in the process, following the belief that Hilot’s purpose is to heal the person and not the disease. Traditionally, these skills are passed on from wise elders to aspiring young healers.
(Related: The Tatler 10: Asia’s Top Wellness Retreats)
The Farm at San Benito, a wellness retreat just 90 minutes’ drive south of Manila, is a tranquil paradise set against tropical forests and regal mountains where peacocks roam and misty sunrises make for a magical beginning to each day.
Here, Hilot is embraced as part of the wellness programme through a number of treatments—Hilot Tapal, a warm healing massage that soothes pressure points; Hilot Aruga, a nurturing massage rooted in care and compassion; Hilot Kasuyo, a couples’ treatment to enhance mental and emotional wellbeing; and Hilot Kalan for men and Hilot Lakambini for women.
Daphne Chen-Cordeiro, Rachel Duffell, Erica Fong, Coco Marett, Chloe Pek, Emilie Yabut-Razon