Eastern style is taken to heavenly new heights at The Dheva Spa at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai. Alex Gorton gets pampered to within an inch of her life
Photography by George Apostolidis and Chris Caldicott
To open a destination spa in Thailand, a country so in tune with the art of massage it boasts its own signature style, makes perfect sense. To open it alongside a standalone Ayurvedic Centre (the first of its kind outside India) is ambitious, to say the least. And yet, situated in the tranquil surroundings of Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, it all comes together, in one exquisite pampering package.
Built over a five-year period, Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi is immense in scale and ambition. Situated on the outskirts of the city, it has arrived at a crucial point in Chiang Mai’s modern-day development, as the city transforms itself from rural backwater to hot destination. As little as 10 years ago Chiang Mai was a small, unsophisticated city with a glorious past as capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, but little in the way of luxury accommodation. A decade on it’s considerably more cosmopolitan, and makes the perfect base for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group’s first resort property.
Constructed over 60 acres (in the midst of which lies a working paddy field), the property will eventually hold 123 villas. Despite the obvious pull of the accommodation (huge, spacious and stylishly designed), the restaurants (French, Chinese and, of course, Thai) and the entertainment (a library housing 5,000 books, a shopping village, two swimming pools and an amphitheatre), the centrepiece of the property is undoubtedly the 3,100sqm Dheva Spa. It is modelled on a royal Burmese palace, complete with a stunning handcarved, seven-tiered roof representing the seven steps to nirvana, and it is obvious from first impressions that this isn’t just any old spa. Fortunately for guests who check in, the treatments and soothing interiors more than match the promise of its exquisite facade.
Walk into this pocket of paradise and a sense of calm floats over you as you’re greeted with a cup of herbal tea and shown into a small sitting area just off the reception. There’s no longer any need to think for yourself as for the next few hours you’re in the hands of the spa. Perhaps it’s knowing that a heavenly afternoon lies ahead, or perhaps it’s the result of being welcomed into such palatial surroundings, but even before the treatments begin, I know The Dheva Spa experience at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai could get me dangerously used to the good life.
This sense of calm pervades as you’re shown into one of the seven treatment suites – reason enough alone to come here. Much more than just standard treatment rooms, these are huge, self-contained suites, each with a steam shower, changing area, wet room (with heated marble table) and a treatment and relaxation room softly lit and gently scented, where the ambience transports you to a higher realm. And, if this level of luxury isn’t enough, you can always check into the Spa Penthouse where you’ll find a pool and five suites in which to be pampered for the entirety of your stay. Add to this a hammam, a steamy rasul and beauty therapy rooms, and you have a 21st-century spa haven.
The spa menu is extensive with European, Asian, Indian and Arabic treatments – from facials and body scrubs to manicures and pedicures. You can also choose from four different spa ceremonies, each lasting a delicious three-and-a-half hours. I plumped for the Lanna Ceremony, the spa’s signature treatment devised from local rituals. Lanna – ‘land of a million rice fields’ – is the ancient name of Chiang Mai. During the Lanna Kingdom (dating back to the 13th century), workers would return home exhausted from the paddy fields needing something to revive them. Without a destination spa to check into, they devised their own therapies and the energising Lanna massage was born.
Your body is slowly tapped along its energy lines, then massaged with a hot compress of herbs and soothing oils
Starting with a herbal footbath infused with miang (a local healing herb), your feet are gently massaged to begin the relaxation process. It’s then into the wet room to be scrubbed and wrapped and scrubbed again for the kind of supermodel skin you can only get from treatments like this.
Just when you think it can’t get any better, it’s time for the Lanna massage. Similar in parts to a traditional Thai massage, the difference comes when the therapist brings out a wooden nail and hammer. It may look scary and sound painful, but it’s actually very soothing as your body is slowly tapped along its energy lines and large muscle groups. And then the pièce de résistance: the massage using a hot compress of local herbs and turmeric that’s applied to tight muscle areas to improve circulation, followed by a soothing oil massage. Sheer bliss.
By the following day I was ready for my second treatment, and this time I opted for reflexology. It’s something I’d always wanted to try and I was intrigued to find out whether, as promised, the therapist could diagnose problems in the body from my feet. The spa offers Ingham and Chinese style reflexology; I chose Ingham. Practised as far back as 2,300BC, it aims to stimulate the foot’s reflex points, which affect corresponding areas in the body. I lay back on the very comfortable treatment bed as my therapist pushed and pummelled my feet, then pinpointed problems with my neck, shoulders and digestion – all areas with which I have trouble. I was then given the best neck and shoulder massage of my life before sitting down to a cup of tea and the spa’s scrumptious green-tea cookies (a reward for such an exerting afternoon).
Both treatments were carried out by expert therapists with care and pride in their work. Aside from the architecture, the design of the suites and the range of treatments, what most impressed me was the staff – which surely is the point. Having been massaged, scrubbed and treated everywhere from London to Mumbai, I am happily becoming something of an expert on the art of being pampered and I can honestly say that my two therapists were among the best I have ever encountered.
The Ayurvedic Centre promises to be equally impressive. Overseen by spa director Dr Suchada Marwah and her husband Dr Rajeev Marwah, an ayurvedic doctor, the centre is situated in a separate area that will eventually hold up to eight villas. It’s immediately obvious when speaking to Dr Suchada that she is the right person to run the project. After training in India, she then ran an ayurvedic centre in Bangkok and last year organised the first world congress on holistic medicine in Chiang Mai. Most important of all, she has a passionate knowledge of ayurveda.
A 5,000-year-old science, ayurveda is a complex and often misunderstood discipline. With the western world’s interest in eastern philosophies at an all-time high, many spas have jumped on the bandwagon, labelling one-off massages and treatments as ayurvedic when in fact they have, at most, only been influenced by the discipline. A real ayurvedic programme needs a minimum of three days for the effects to be felt; ideally, a 21-day programme is required for it to really start to work. It can be used to treat specific ailments, or you can sign up for a preventive programme that, put simply, is about realigning and rebalancing the mind and body. Ayurveda has been known to help with addictions and psychological issues as well as medical problems, and the facilities in the Ayurvedic Centre here will be among the best in the world.
Whether ayurveda appeals to your sensibilities or not, it’s clear that The Dheva Spa at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai will please sybaritic jetsetters who travel the world in search of such pleasures. And the friendly, relaxed atmosphere, outstanding staff and wide range of treatments will also attract less seasoned spa-goers, hopefully making it a place for everyone. And that, surely, should be what a spa is all about.
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai; +66 (53) 888 888