How these resorts are reinventing wellness in Thailand

In Thailand, leading resorts are recalibrating wellbeing. Nature, local culture and eco-initiatives are as much a part of the wellness package as luxe cocooning and sun salutations.

At the Aonang Sanctuary in Krabi, four elephants are booked into the spa for a skin conditioning mud scrub. Under the watchful eye of the pachyderms’ mahouts, several guests from the nearby Banyan Tree resort are assisting.

They are knee-deep in an opaque lake, heaping handfuls of mud over the cracked, hairy hides of Somsri, Buatong, Kamsan and Poon Ngern. Exfoliation with a stiff brush is next. Rescued Somsri, 54, is so blissed out she appears to have drifted off into a nana nap.

The sanctuary aims to give elephants a more rewarding life. Some have been bought outright, others have owners who have been persuaded to let the elephants live in leisure rather than earn their keep carting logs or tourists on their backs.

We ‘bake’ for them, squelching together banana, boiled rice and protein pellets into big ‘meatballs’. And, yes, even elephants have dietary requirements: no salt for Poon Ngern.

Madness or a pathway to wellness? In Thailand, the post-pandemic wellbeing reset is an infusion of nature, culture and local enterprise that rewards the eco-conscious and the curious. These Thailand resorts are leading the way to a holistic wellness experiences.

The YHI Spa © Meliá Mai Khao

Meliá Phuket Mai Khao

On Phuket’s less-developed north-western coast, among the pineapple and watermelon farms, is the elegant, five-star beachfront Meliá Phuket Mai Khao. This Thailand resort opened in December 2021. The 100 villas and suites have plunge pools, outdoor bathtubs and open-air showers, set among avenues of strelitzia, black wattle and stands of casuarina.

Fifteen are designated Wellness Villas complete with vitamin-C showers – shower-head filters with vitamin C said to remove impurities from water. Guests can expect essential-oil diffusers, air purifiers, a FIT ball and yoga mat. Plus, a daily 60-minute massage.

A wellness activity menu includes tai chi, Thai boxing, high-intensity interval training, volleyball and beach energy walks. Your reward is a cocktail (most likely blue, courtesy of a butterfly pea flower infusion) in a cabana by the beachfront pool.

Bangkok-based architecture and interior design firm SODA designed this elegant Thailand resort. A stand-out feature are the stencilled screens, referencing the leatherback turtles that hatch on Mai Khao Beach. It is one of the only Phuket beaches where sea turtles still nest.

Meliá Phuket Mai Khao one of the most stunning Thailand resorts
Outdoor serenity © Meliá Mai Khao

Banyan Tree Krabi

There’s wellbeing every which way at Banyan Tree Krabi, on the west coast of southern Thailand. Both the foyer and the 72 suites and villas have the same scale and drama as the karst formations they look upon, rising from Phang Nga Bay like erupting molars.

Flanked by national park, Banyan Tree Krabi opened in October 2020. Since opening on Thailand’s Tubkaek Beach the resort has been honing its reputation as a premium wellbeing sanctuary, with dedicated villas, menus and workouts. In March 2022, Ayurvedic practitioner Dr Subhash Shanbhag, who radiates calm, was appointed wellness consultant.

On the self-improvement program: forest bathing (a deep listening to nature), appreciation awareness classes, walking and breathing meditations. There is also yoga, pilates, tai chi, Thai boxing, kayaking. And that date with elephants. A hydrotherapy session in the pool with noodles (of the polystyrene kind) has an invigorating techno soundtrack.

Banyan Tree properties are renowned for their spa treatments. The Banyan Tree Spa Academy in Phuket has trained more than 2,550 therapists for the Banyan Tree diaspora – some 48 resorts worldwide.

Launched in 2001 with an aim to combat poverty and promote gender equality, Banyan Tree Spa evolved the tropical garden treatment concept with its Eastern focus on spiritual, mental and physical harmony. Products for the ‘Banyan Facial’, for example, come from the academy labs. Each uses locally harvested jasmine rice as the basis for its moisturiser, exfoliator, mask and day cream.

Banyan Tree Krabi is one of the leading Thailand wellness resorts
A Banyan Tree Krabi suite © Kiattipong Panchee

Banyan Tree Samui

A standout spa experience is at Banyan Tree Samui. This immaculate resort boasts 88 serene villas on Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Called ‘The Rainforest’, it’s a hydrothermal immersion like no other.

Enter via a wall of lush rainforest to an ambient space of mosaics, ceramic wall tiles and slatted woods. Expect to be misted, steamed, drenched, stung by water jets, detoxified in the sauna, and scrubbed down with ice.

And that’s before you even reach the Vitality Pool, which has seven more variations on a water theme including hydromassage, a ‘lazy’ resistance river, more jets and pummelling waterfalls. The prize at the end is relaxation on a heated body-moulding lounger.

A ‘Rainforest Indulgence’ option includes an application of warm mud as well. Samui guests booked into the Wellbeing Sanctuary receive tailored holistic itineraries based on consultation.

Holistic wellness journeys at Banyan Tree

Wellbeing practitioner Bikram Keshari Patra says, “When we dream about a tropical beach vacation, we see ourselves relaxed and content, lying in a hammock under palm trees, looking out to a calm sea, without a care in the world. However, the reality can often be very different – we are still stressed about work, we worry, our minds refuse to switch off.”

Bikram takes classes in forgiveness meditation (targeting anxiety, depression, anger and emotion overload), sleep and sound meditations, and mindful movement. In 2021 alone, the Banyan Tree Group launched 16 Wellness Sanctuaries.

Woon Hoe Lee, executive director of wellbeing, says: “Our mission is to demystify wellbeing and democratise it. We want wellbeing to be inspiring, accessible and impactful, in a way that can be woven into everyday life. Our philosophy is that wellbeing is about the connection between self, others and nature – how we balance this dynamic within and without is at the core of a good life.”

Banyan Tree Samui is one of Thailand's leading spa resorts
Beach life © Banyan Tree Samui

Meliá Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north has a more urban take on wellbeing. We check in to Meliá Chiang Mai in May, a month after the hotel opens. It’s still smelling of fresh paint and purpose. Close to completion are an underground spa with seven treatment rooms and a herbal sauna.

Its strongest magnet, however, is Mai The Sky Bar, a rooftop lounge connected by a glass bridge and delivering river and mountain views. Would you like culture with that? Meliá Chiang Mai has nightlife and night markets both adjacent to the opulent hotel in the old walled city. Explore further to find artisan precincts selling quality textiles, ceramics, jewellery, umbrellas and fine wooden utensils made by hill tribes.

Spiritual imperatives include the golden Wat Phra That Doi Suthep atop the Doi Suthep mountain to the west, radiating Buddhist serenity, blessings and calming rituals. And the 13th-century Umong Thera Jan temple in the foothills, a network of tunnels and caves that create a cocoon of silence. Its shapes were the inspiration for the decorative archways at Meliá Chiang Mai.

Not surprisingly, given our hotel’s Spanish lineage, we even encounter a savoury Spanish afternoon tea. The table of tapas is memorable for its triptych of olive, white anchovy and blistered green pepper. Plus cubes of manchego cheese topped with diced poached quince.

Meliá Chiang Mai spa garden
The spa garden at Meliá Chiang Mai © Meliá Chiang Mai

Thailand’s finest: culinary offerings

Thailand is a foodie paradise. Yes, there’s pad Thai. But expect to graze on everything from contemporary Thai fine dining to spa cuisine to street food, fruit every which way, and banana-leaf parcels of sticky rice.

While staying at Meliá Phuket Mai Khao, Factor in a visit to the Buffalo Hub. This farm gives animals no longer required for rice harvesting something to do. Such as producing dung that can be converted to gas for cooking and, for 10 baht (40 cents) a bottle. This liquid fertiliser helps crops grow.

On the 11-kilometre stretch of beach that the resort fronts, locals help us catch small soft-shell sand crabs. Back at the resort that evening they are deep-fried during a cooking class. The star in a dish of glistening capsicums, chillies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass and crushed black pepper.

We have also returned with a bag of peppery ‘duck’s tongue’ greens (pak lin haan). They add punch to a soup we make from chicken stock, smoked dried prawns, lemon zest and coconut milk.

At Khao Soi Lamduan Faham by the Ping River and celebrated in the 2020 Michelin guide, we find the khao soi it is named for, an ambrosial soup of northern Thai curry noodles with chicken.

And at Baan Rai Yam Yen, 15 minutes out of town, we conquer a feast of northern Thai specialties. There are shrimp cakes, massaman beef curry, pork crackling bites and the signature Chiang Mai sausage. Somsri the elephant isn’t the only one in search of some conscious grounding.

Pla Salmon Nham Prik Oung © Meliá Chiang Mai

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