East meets West in tran­quil set­ting of new Thai spa

North Shore fa­cil­ity of­fers tempt­ing ar­ray of treat­ments that have their roots in tra­di­tional prac­tices of farm­ing fam­i­lies in Thai­land

Vancouver Sun - - Arts& Life - YVONNE ZACHARIAS

First, we had Thai cui­sine. Then we h ad Tha i m u s i c a n d food im­ports.

Now, we have a new im­port in the form of Bri­tish Columbia’s first Thai spa.

It comes to us cour­tesy of Neata Aut­tapong and Jac­ques Goutier, a cou­ple who have recre­ated a lit­tle cor­ner of a coun­try they both love in North Van­cou­ver. With Aut­tapong be­ing a Thai na­tive and Goutier be­ing a Cana­dian, they are the per­fect em­bod­i­ment of the hy­brid na­ture of Thai spas. It is east meet­ing west.

Step inside the newly opened Thai Spa at 987 Marine Drive and you know you have stepped into an oa­sis of calm. You are in­stantly im­mersed in the ex­otic spicy smells and hand­carved teak decor of Thai­land. If only mo­men­tar­ily, you are trans­ported to an­other world.

The place has a tempt­ing ar­ray of of­fer­ings, rang­ing from fa­cials ($89 to $119) to mas­sages ($85 to $119) and one 31/2- hour pack­age that costs $ 295. Ev­ery inch of the place is beau­ti­fully ap­pointed, right down to the spray of bright red flow­ers in the women’s wash­room.

Ev­ery­thing has been im­ported from Thai­land, in­clud­ing the staff of five. The spa is dif­fer­ent, too, in that it uses all nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, ap­peal­ing to a grow­ing back- to- na­ture beauty move­ment. Even its body scrubs use fresh in­gre­di­ents like fruit and veg­eta­bles.

Hav­ing had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence in spas, the whole ex­pe­ri­ence of visit­ing this one was a mem­o­rable ad­ven­ture.

Aut­tapong is a wisp of a wo­man whose ado­les­cent fig­ure and youth­ful face be­lie her 29 years. I felt enor­mous next to her even though I’m not that huge. She presents a curious blend of ef­fi­cient ser­vice and gra­cious hos­pi­tal­ity, en­cap­su­lat­ing in that bun­dle of en­ergy the car­ing na­ture and gen­tle ways of the Thai peo­ple.

Her body lost in loose-fit­ting garb, she greets me at the door and im­me­di­ately asks me to re­move my clumsy run­ning shoes and put on slip­pers. She then of­fers me a cup of ginger

tea. I am asked to fill out a med­i­cal form.

We climb a stair­case lead­ing past a maze of dark­ened rooms with a bed in the mid­dle, ei­ther on the floor or oth­er­wise cov­ered with colour­fully wo­ven bed­clothes. There are lit can­dles ev­ery­where. In the back­ground are the sooth­ing strains of Asian mu­sic.

On the top floor, I am asked to lower my feet into a foot bath that is full of a spicy con­coc­tion of float­ing leaves. Aut­tapong ex­pertly mas­sages them with her sur­pris­ingly strong hands, work­ing her way through the toes and the bot­tom arch. The ex­pe­ri­ence is oddly hum­bling. Western­ers are used to be­ing touched al­most ev­ery­where but on our feet.

I vaguely re­mem­ber that Catholic car­di­nals some­times wash each other’s feet. Maybe this is the same idea.

Full of an­tic­i­pa­tion and a lit­tle ap­pre­hen­sion, I am led to one of the rooms. Aut­tapong in­structs me to change into loose garb sim­i­lar to hers and then climb un­der the cov­ers into the bed.

She en­ters the room. I hear the clear sound of a lit­tle bell that sig­nals the be­gin­ning of an in­tensely phys­i­cal and spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence. She pro­ceeds to give me the tra­di­tional Thai mas­sage which in­volves a mas­sage of the pres­sure points among the body’s 10 ma­jor en­ergy chan­nels known as “sen” lines. When one of th­ese be­comes blocked, we be­come sick. Open them up and the body is suf­fused with en­ergy, or so the Thai think­ing goes.

And what a mas­sage it is. Pro­ceed­ing me­thod­i­cally, she bends and pulls and stretches my arms and legs, gen­tly stretch­ing the joints and mus­cles. I move into a tran­scen­den­tal state, hardly aware of what is go­ing on around me.

Ev­ery now and then, I hear her tiny voice ask­ing how I am do­ing and whether I would like greater or lesser pres­sure. It seems to be com­ing from so far.

She in­structs me to flip face down, then she works all the back ar­eas, at one point climb­ing on top of the bed to stretch my body parts back­ward. She ar­rives at that lo­ca­tion so nim­bly, I only be­come aware she is there when it dawns on me that she couldn’t pos­si­bly be stretch­ing me the way she is if she were at my side.

The room is warm and pleas­antly pun­gent. There is the sound of mu­sic and bub­bling. I feel like a com­pli­ant and pli­ant rub­ber doll.

Once the tra­di­tional Thai mas­sage is com­plete, Aut­tapong pro­ceeds to the Thai herbal com­press mas­sage. For this, I am told I must re­move all the my clothes and crawl back un­der the sheets, face down.

Oh, re­ally?

I com­ply.

Mean­while, there are aro­matic herbs in­clud­ing ginger, lemon­grass, tumeric, cumin, cam­phor and some­thing called plai wrapped in muslin sim­mer­ing away inside a small cooker that looks like a veg­etable steamer. She gin­gerly lifts them out and be­gins rolling them all over my skin, pay­ing par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the pres­sure points. She deftly lifts the bed­clothes off one side or the other so I never feel to­tally ex­posed.

Ah, so good.

While flipped over again, this time face up, I look at this curious elfin wo­man who car­ries the knowl­edge of the an­cients in those prac­tised hands of hers.

She tells me that she has been do­ing her art since she was 12, with she and her sis­ter giv­ing each other mas­sages and giv­ing them to her grand­mother and her ail­ing fa­ther in her na­tive rural vil­lage in Thai­land. In the case of the lat­ter, she and her sis­ter wrapped him in herbs af­ter he was ren­dered nearly im­mo­bile by a stroke. He be­came mo­bile again and lived an­other 10 years un­til smok­ing claimed his life.

A pity. Yes, smok­ing is bad, bad, bad, we agree.

Us­ing the heal­ing prop­er­ties of the herbs, fam­ily mem­bers give each other th­ese mas­sages to ease the suf­fer­ing of hard labour on farms. So good for fam­i­lies, says Aut­tapong. Fam­i­lies are so close in her home coun­try, she ex­plains, that grown chil­dren of­ten climb into bed with par­ents or each other for warmth and com­fort.

When she was grow­ing up, there wasn’t even elec­tric­ity in her vil­lage. Now there is, which is good and bad. Elec­tric­ity has brought tele­vi­sions and an erod­ing of the old, rich cul­ture she cher­ishes.

Thai­land is a coun­try in rapid tran­si­tion, dan­gling be­tween the old un­hur­ried rhythms and mod­ern ma­te­ri­al­ism.

So much has hap­pened so fast. It has be­come the land of the pam­per­ing spa with a spa in­dus­try worth $85 mil­lion U.S., ac­cord­ing to web­sites. The coun­try has seen the in­dus­try grow by 64 per cent over the past three years with 80 per cent of the cus­tomers be­ing in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors. Spas have be­come as ubiq­ui­tous there as 7Elevens are here.

There are many rea­sons for this. One is a ready sup­ply of herbs. An­other is the Thai peo­ple with their gen­tle, car­ing but ef­fi­cient ways and their home­grown knowl­edge of holis­tic heal­ing. Iron­i­cally, a west­ern phe­nom­e­non, namely the bur­geon­ing of the spa in­dus­try, has brought about a re­nais­sance of an east­ern one, namely the use tra­di­tional Thai herbal recipes and reme­dies.

Then, too, Thai spas draw on the coun­try’s deeply- rooted Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture which ra­di­ate a sense of har­mony, peace and calm.

You need to look no fur­ther than the plan for the cer­e­mony for the grand open­ing of the Thai Spa for ev­i­dence of this. It in­cluded Thai monks per­form­ing a blessed chant, a tra­di­tional Thai bless­ing dance fol­lowed by a Thai greet­ing dance.

Aut­tapong has a dream, she says, of sell­ing th­ese pouches of herbs in Van­cou­ver which she feels would be ben­e­fi­cial both to the farm­ers back home and to peo­ple here. Giv­ing a mas­sage with them is not so hard, she ex­plains. She can teach me and oth­ers, eas­ily. While ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a new coun­try, she wants to share her knowl­edge of the Thai lifestyle with Cana­di­ans.

She and Goutier see the spa as a prod­uct of their happy two-year mar­riage. “We wanted to cre­ate some­thing to­gether,” said Goutier. Aut­tapong said Goutier is such a good guy, so will­ing to sup­port her in mak­ing her dreams come to life.

I no­tice she has been work­ing so hard in the steamy at­mos­phere to give me th­ese mas­sages that some strands of hair have pulled loose from her neatly pulled back do.

Aut­tapong reaches up and hugs me as I am about to leave. I am deeply grate­ful for the ex­pe­ri­ence she has given me. I emerge into the cool win­try air both re­laxed and in­vig­o­rated, feel­ing as though I am com­ing out of an­other world. yzacharias@png.canwest.com

GLENN BAGLO/ VAN­COU­VER SUN

Neata Aut­tapong demon­strates her mas­tery of the mas­sage at the new Thai Spa.

GLENN BAGLO/ VAN­COU­VER SUN

Neata Aut­tapong and Jac­ques Goutier en­joy tea in the lobby of their new spa in North Van­cou­ver.

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