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In pursuit of the elusive calm

Return from a week in Thailand thrice rejuvenated. We have your itinerary handy

Published: Aug 4, 2016 06:35:48 AM IST
Updated: Aug 4, 2016 02:34:14 PM IST
In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image: Courtesy: Chiva-Som Thailand
The Chiva-Som wellness centre in Hua Hin, Thailand, relaxes the body, mind and soul

In 2007, my father was discovered with cancer of the brain. After aggressive doses of chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission. But my sisters and I felt a part of him was lost to the disease; his appetite was poor, his energy depleted, his cognition and memory affected. The treatment had been deadlier than the disease. Naturally, when I recently learnt that Chiva-Som, a wellness centre in Asia, had drafted a programme especially to address recovery from cancer, my heart rifled with hope; at least someone else might benefit from this. I arrived in Chiva-Som—two hours from Bangkok, in beach town Hua Hin—on a Sunday evening, and in dusk light, fed the koi in the resort’s expansive ponds. I knew I was at a serious joint because they asked me to sign an undertaking that I wouldn’t use my phone or computer in public spaces. A friend who works in Bollywood had recommended Chiva-Som to me. “I go there for a tune up,” she’d divulged, flicking her auburn mane. “And sometimes right after a big release, to recover.” She’d mentioned the rooms were worn over time and bore the air of a deposed aristocrat. Luckily, by when I got there, they’d undergone a huge and glamorous overhaul under Ed Tuttle; my own chamber, overlooking a placid stretch of sea, was a jewel of minimal excellence. In the balcony of my room, I took in the grounds, lawns dotted with manicured trees, traditional Thai style cottages and a restaurant by the sea.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Acupuncturist Hashi Satoshi has the most nimble hands and his knowledge of the body is comprehensive

I was ushered into a consultation room where, within minutes of my conversation with my health advisor, Pranchalee, I wanted to hand over to her the well being of my constitution; she exuded a potent mix of confidence, warmth, tact and knowledge. This deep, natural trust in the folks who galvanise Chiva-Som was a recurring theme over my stay. Every therapist convinced me I was in the right hands. As I soon learnt, the institution has its basics down on the money. My inaugural massage, at the able hands of another expert, Primavera, was exactly what I needed to recover from travel fatigue while a physical analysis the following morning from Mic Sira showed me how to correctly angulate my arms while swimming for better deportment. Chi Nei Tsang is advocated for folks with digestive issues while my most significant treatment was from Hashi Satoshi, their sage acupuncturist. Over the years, masters like Alan Wagner and the great Cuckoo, who sets up a Bedouin-like camp in Goa for two months of winter, have used needles on me; this is a practice I know well. Safe to say Satoshi has a matchless nimble expertise of hand; never mind a needle, he could slide a sword through someone without any sting at all. Satoshi’s knowledge of the body is comprehensive, instinctive, shamanic, and, after my second treatment. he said to me, “You say you are not stressed, but there is some deep anguish.” Then, shaking his head, he added, “It is not easy. It’s never easy.” Something in my heart folded from the gratitude of recognition. I knew I would return here, simply to encounter the full-bodied empathy of this kind, gifted healer.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image: Courtesy: Chiva-Som Thailand
Chiva-Som puts a lot of emphasis on green initiatives. Much of the organic produce is harvested at the resort’s farm

In addition to excellent therapists, Chiva-Som profits from the brilliant hand of chef Paisarn, jovial, informed, enthusiastic and absurdly talented. Rumour goes many Michelin chefs pass through Chiva-Som—the kitchen is sometimes in a tizzy in presence of lions of the ladle. But they need fear nothing. The kitchen at Chiva-Som would have Gordon Ramsay quake in terror—it is that perfect. The solitude of a monsoon evening found a perfect meal—lightly grilled snapper, a green Thai curry of magnificent balance. Chef Paisarn proudly took me through the resort’s farm, where much of the organic produce is harvested while Brian Anderson, their affable sustainable development manager, later showed me mangroves adopted by the founders of Chiva-Som, part of their award-winning green initiative.

At lunch with Chiva-Som’s empress-like general manager, Sheila McCann, I asked her more about the programme for people coming through cancer. “Most of the treatments existed on our programme,” she explained, “but it was curating them together, in a way that would benefit our guests most, that was the challenge.” Indeed, there is support at the level of diet, bodywork, and gentle healing that makes this programme breakthrough. McCann led me through other programmes on offer, explaining that while Chiva-Som is renowned for its wellness and anti-ageing, it also has a fantastic agenda for aesthetics (indeed, Bombay’s Botox Belt might plot this as their new pilgrimage). Their skin, eye and hair care sessions at Niranlada Medi-Spa were the best I’ve had, comparable only to that timeless legend, La Prairie, Switzerland.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image courtesy: Soneva Kiri
The therapists at Soneva Kiri’s spa offer rejuvenating massages

It’s easy to think of Chiva-Som in shimmering parlance—a resort to head to for fitness, weight loss, or toning. But if you’re open to its light, Chiva-Som will guide you to reach deeper into yourself and help you come away with important lessons of self-awareness. When we rid the excess, the toxins, the unnecessary, we glimpse what is true and real in ourselves. This is a powerful space to arrive at; to recognise how transformation that commences at the level of flesh and form can billow out into recesses of self.

As I was swimming in the bay outside my room in Soneva Kiri, an island so private and luxurious that it may be reached only by private jet, I found myself thinking of the great tide that swallowed so many lives only a few years ago. The incredible natural splendour of Thailand around this distinctive island reminded me of Rilke’s lyric submission that ‘beauty is only a terror one can still endure’. From all corners of Soneva Kiri, the water is tremendous, dramatic, at times pacific, at times daunting. There had to be a price this much beauty would extract, I thought, as I reeled into an inlet corralled by coconut trees. But on my first evening, plunging deeper into sea, the threat and might of the sea was lost to my enjoyment. Consumed with an otter’s aquatic delight, I twisted and loped through sorcerous waters.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image: NAHM
The delicious stir-fried prawns at Nahm at the Metropolitan by Como in Bangkok

One can imagine what this matchless location might have seemed to Sonu (founder-CEO of the Soneva Group) and Eva Shivdasani, the power couple of barefoot luxury in Asia, on first sight. One of the rare untouched corners of Thailand, the island would have had the thrill of a distant remove and an almost ascetic calm. Thankfully, the Shivdasanis chose to only further amplify this calm and beauty by creating a resort whose visual and design imprint is sophisticated but nominal. You can glimpse twin forces at work: The industry and vision of an Indian (Sonu) and the pared down design sensibility and management proficiencies of a Swede (Eva, who is a former model). It’s little wonder that their resorts draw Hollywood royalty (think Gwyneth Paltrow) and captains of industry looking for some downtime. Indeed, as I strolled the private shoreline, I thought I saw Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives, and while the staff never let be known who was guesting at Soneva Kiri, the Latina firecracker required no intimation.

Andrew Abram, the charismatic managing director of Soneva Kiri, took me through the property and at dinner we talked about Soneva Foundation, set up by the Shivdasanis to invest in projects with a constructive influence on environment and social aspects of industry. As part of this, they had initiated the Slow Life Symposium, which explored how to advance businesses while also being sensitive to locals and the environment. This year, the symposium will be held in November at Soneva Kiri and will be attended by luminaries such as Jonathon Porritt, of Forum for the Future, and Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It heartened me to learn that the easy luxury, of which I was beneficiary, was generating revenues to help with larger ecosystems of thought and better manage our universe’s limited resources.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image courtesy: Soneva Kiri
Dining in a wooden nest at Soneva Kiri, hauled up into the air, is a dramatic experience

While at Soneva Kiri, I read, wrote, and, well, fell into the able hands of therapists brilliantly managed by spa manager Mark Sands (who told me of his own years in India, from where key staff were sourced, including their yoga teacher and the wonderful Dr Amit, an ayurvedic doctor from Goa). The spa has a visiting master programme and I enjoyed the calm, dignified and spiritual energy work of Yangdol, a Tibetan healer now domiciled near Mysuru. Her hands were wise and she did what a great treatment can: Let me slip more efficiently into myself. I had a similar experience of release in the reflexology by Dr Amit, falling into a deep sleep from which I arose almost unsure where I was. Now that I’m in my thirties, and slightly paranoid about ageing, the facial by Khun Meaw was meant to repair and restore my face; briefly, after my treatment, I did not resemble a car accident, much to my joy. Villa operations manager Manjit Ghosh told me of their outdoor theatre, but I confessed I was not a big screen fan. Rather, I was taken up by their organic farm, where fronded lotuses slumped over teal ponds, and I was frequently invited to tear into delicate pale purple flowers that speckled my salads. Later that evening, I was hoisted into a wooden nest, which is hauled up into the air, among a canopy of trees, overlooking the sea—the experience is dramatic, and I was glad to be alone. One of the best things I realised at Soneva Kiri is how I enjoy such experiences with myself. When I was younger, ‘tree-pod dining’ would have been a romantic endeavour with a significant other. Today, the battery of time alerted me that if I was ever back in such a nest—suspended in mid-air —with someone whose company had begun to rail me, I’d have committed the most reasonable thing: Flung myself out of my vestibule.

In pursuit of the elusive calm
Image courtesy: Chiva Som Thailand
The cleansing diet at the wellness centre

My meals at Soneva Kiri were a joyous affair; I’d recommend an evening drink at The View followed by a meal there. On two nights in a row, my ceviche snapper came tickled in exactly the right volume of lemon juice, perfectly complemented by my main course of polenta with roasted squash and goat’s cheese. There’s a chocolate and ice cream salon, the sort of outfit one has to pull away from with an almost physical force. (I did go there one night, knocking on its glass door like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory: Luckily, it was shut, confirming it was a Dahlian scheme, indeed).   

The writer Tash Aw had advised me to stay at the Metropolitan by Como in Bangkok. “Their restaurant, Nahm, is my favourite place to dine in all of Thailand.” Aw was right —Nahm, housed in a corner of the sleek and elegant Metropolitan, is peerless. On both my nights in B-town, I dined there, working through the virtuosity of chef David Thomson’s culinary perfection. Starting with egg nets of prawns and wild almonds, gliding on to a king fish salsa with pomelo, I was dissolving into gastronomic heaven when a grilled catfish landed before me with tamarind and chilli relish.

The next day, I sneaked out to check the shopping in Bangkok—at my age, being shallow is an allowance of the years—only to concur that everything my friends had told me was rubbish. The malls are huge, featureless, cold and expensive: If you’re looking for steals, head to outlets outside Florence. But if you’re looking for a calm exit from marvellous Thailand, step into the Metropolitan pool. Immured by trees, under an iron blue plumage of sky, you might forget this is a busy Asian metropolis where the cunning way to dodge traffic is on a motorbike taxi (I adore these daredevils of speed and gutsy lane dodgers).

I’ve often wondered where I’d live if not in India: I wonder if Thailand, with its big city tension and small island serenity, might end up as point of escape.

(The writer flew on Turkish Airlines)

(This story appears in the July-Aug 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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