Monday, 11 May 2009

Spa-ing and Soaking: Same-Same but Different?

One could state that soaking is an increasingly popular past time, not only here in Southeast Asia, but worldwide. But to be able to state this, one would need to know how many soaks there are and the number of visitors, i.e. back it up with some data. Which are not available.
But leaf through any travel related print and, sure, there will be an increasing amount of articles and more advertising on ... spa's. But is going to the spa, the same as taking a soak?

Soaks and soaks of sorts
Soaks, as I understand them, are soaks in natural waters. They become soaks as the waters are usually warm or hot. Looking for where these natural waters occur in the heated substance, one is looking for hot springs. So soaks are in their majority hot springs.
I say in majority, as here in Southeast Asia, we experience a prolonged period of hot weather. So hot, that shallow bodies of water warm up and could be considered as soaks. As could be the sea, which surprisingly sometimes fails to cool the swimmer.
During the heat, cooling down is often a better option and it's no secret that I enjoy waterfalls as much as or just as much as hot springs. One factor in their favour, is that there are many more waterfalls. Possibly because of their numbers, unnatural enhancements are less obvious to come across upon. And here in Southeast Asia if there's no road, no car park, no amount of food stalls, it can't be worth it ... But for me (and my family) that's just the attraction. What better way to unwind, cooling off naturally, in a natural environment, 'au naturel'?

April this year, Yak Loam Lake Ratanakiri province, Cambodia: the 'coolest' soak.

Define spa!
But I'm digressing. So are spa's not the same as soaks? The word spa, you'd be surprised to know, is actually a shorter version of the Russian word '
spasibo'. Which was the word Peter the Great used in 1717 when offered water, as he was sojourning nearby the town now known as Spa located in the Wallonian Ardennes.

Why they changed the name of the town remains a mystery, considering it had been used as a soaking site from the 14th century onwards. Anyway, such was the significance of this happening, that today the global relaxation industry is greatly dominated by the word. Though the word spa is largely eponymous with any place having a natural water source that is believed to possess special health-giving properties, in practice spa seems to have more in common with other wider themes such as health tourism or wellness rather than soaking itself. Massages, wraps, facials are all standard ingredients one can expect at a spa. What's more they have little or no relation to the existence of natural springs, be they warm or cold. And their health claims seem mostly unfounded. Spa's are nearly all located in or near urban areas where they can provide a 'retreat' from the outside world and/or on beaches where tourists may well be tempted off the beach to a, as naturally possible, property to indulge.

What all spa's have in common though is an emphasis on a different distinctness with a hope for attracting the well-heeled. The more exclusive the better. Especially here in Southeast Asia, spa's aim for the upper class.
AsiaSpa puts it like this:
'Targeted at wealthy professional women aged between 30 and 50, AsiaSpa invites its readers to step outside their everyday urban environment and escape to a tranquil world where body and mind are refreshed'.
Though I might have a weakness for the mag, for instance it includes issues such as this month (May 2009) a special: 'The Family Issue'. With articles such as 'how to... be a super parent' and 'yoga for fertility'! However it's commercial emphasis and pretension to highlight the distinct rather than the true natural , certainly doesn't endear itself.

This penchant for exclusiveness is in contrast to say northern Europe where thermal bathing is open to all. But class associations are made between town's. i.e. Harrington for the lower class, Royal Spa Leamington for the upper class. This is also evident in other European nations. Places such as Evian or Baden-Baden are known as places where the upper class hang out, so to say.
In Holland (and Germany) though, spa's as such are scarce and sauna's are there to give what is essentially is a spa experience, though with the emphasis on taking a sauna, with the possibility of other upgrades (wraps, massages) or extensions (sunbed). Significantly these are less distinctive for upper / lower class. And they emphasize social contact.

One could compare this culture very much akin to that of onsen and sento in Japan. Though a soak may be great, a soak with great (new) friends is even better.

This all seems quite in contrast to spa's, where relaxation is the mantra such that tranquility becomes all enveloping (see above quote). And to muffle away the odd a-natural sound here and there, they offer background sounds, a fast flowing stream, gentle waves, rustling leaves, etc.. Believing that socializing is again against human nature, rooms are parted and separated.
The most exclusive massage I had here in Phnom Penh was a joint massage, the joint being a door between the massage rooms which was opened, rather than a room where at least both of us would lie. Possibly by de-socializing the experience it becomes more exclusive: "Oh ,I had a plunge pool all to myself". And how long did it take to get bored?

So ..., not the same?
No, I believe. A spa for me, is there for the convenience of a cheap massage. In contrast seeking a soak is an undertaking, getting out, an expedition, a voyage of discovery, a search for the holy grail and a possible reward at the end. But, all -in-all a lot of fun and interest.

I mean, in Southeast Asia what makes some of the most exclusive spa's differ from each other?
Take Tamarind Springs on Thailand's isle of Samui. It goes all out to tempt the tourist off the beach and it certainly looks great.

Hmm, would you pay to experience this? Nature is a plenty in Thailand.
'Tamarind Springs Forest Spa, Samui is inspired by its superb location – its lush coconut groves gently sloping into a valley of huge granite boulders bordering the island’s jungly interior. Built out of love and respect for this unique landscape, every effort was made to fluidly integrate this Samui spa into the existing indigenous surroundings.

The magical forest surroundings will help you to completely unwind.
The Forest. At The Forest guests enjoy drifting between the fragrant herbal steam cave and cold water rock pools, snacks and refreshments in the tea sala, before their massage treatments in open air pavilions.'
Is this much more different than a soak? Possibly, because the customer is king, hygiene is high, quality is good. But most Thai soaks offer a massage and the waters are more inclined to have therapeutic qualities. Then again at Tamarind Springs you do get disposable underwear!

Over at Losari (Central Java) it's more of the same (massage), though they have a hamam and not a steam room. It claims:
'An oasis for tranquility and renewal'

Anantara at the so-called Golden Triangle:
'Whether you choose an exotic fruit peel or a signature four-hand massage, Anantara's spa therapists will tailor every treatment to ensure your relaxation. From the moment you step into the spa's three-storey mountainside reception room, you'll feel infused with a sense of calm'.

Anantara Spa: Enticing? What happened to the view?
But again a number of massages to choose from, possibly an extensive choice, just to make it exclusive. But nothing more than a typical hot spring, other than exclusiveness with a price to fit.

Again they are different but also similar. Soaks, now those are different! They are naturally tranquil. No need to blend in some background muzak. Now let's hope the developers don't impose themselves and make spa's out of those great soaks!

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