We travelers are always seeking out unique experiences to better understand the local culture and to meet the people. And a great way to do this is by visiting a local spa. Not only do you gain a cultural experience, but you get to be pampered & rejuvenated after a hard day of travel or physical activity!
In fact, a spa visit is one of my favorite things to do, especially when traveling to destinations like Asia, Africa or the South Pacific – where the culture is distinctly different than my own. In many of these places (especially where the US dollar stretches further), spa prices can be quite reasonable, sometimes bordering on incredibly cheap.
For example, in Vientiane (Laos), my 2-hour full body massage with a hot herbal treatment was $15 plus tip (in 2011). However, not surprisingly, you will usually find spa prices at the high-end hotels (particularly in the big cities) to be not quite the same bargain.
Why Spa Stories?
I wanted to give you a flavor of the different types of spa & massage experiences you might encounter in your international travels. Together on our “spa jaunt,” we will visit spas in Thailand (Bangkok & Phuket), Vietnam, Fiji & Zanzibar, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Africa (Ethiopia & Tanzania). I will share a quick summary of each spa experience, along with photos to help paint the picture!
Besides enjoying a great massage, it’s so much fun to experience the local flavor and particular practices of each spa (and country). The facilities can run the full range – from a typical high-end spa in an international hotel (with multiple treatment rooms & a lovely décor) to a simple street-side shop offering just foot & leg massages in one big open room.
As it turns out, my spa & massage treatments often took place (quite conveniently!) at the hotel or resort where I was staying. Across the board (from elegant to simple), I was very impressed by the professionalism of all the masseuses (women and men) I met. Besides giving very good massages and other body treatments, they were also sweet and personable. Every one of these experiences provided me with some great travel memories!
- Upscale Asian Spas (Located at My Hotels)
- Spas at Tropical Resorts
- Laotian Spas (Not Part of a Hotel)
- Simple Massage Facilities (at My Hotels)
- Reflexology / Foot & Leg Massages
**Note: These experiences have taken place over the past decade or so. In each summary, I have shared the cost (at the time) of the spa & massage visit along with the year of my trip. Undoubtedly, prices have risen over the years, but this should still give you a good flavor.
Upscale Asian Spas (Located in My Hotels)
Shangri-La Hotel – Bangkok, Thailand (2005)
My love of the local spa experience began in Bangkok in 2005, while touring Thailand with two girlfriends. By sharing a triple room (and a great exchange rate), we were able to stay at the Shangri-La, one of the world’s best hotels (at that time). We were all excited to have a treatment at “Chi,” the hotel’s lovely spa. So, we each booked a 60-minute Thai massage because hey, we were in Thailand – so, why not!
Our spa experience started by riding the hotel elevator down to the spa in plush white bathrobes from our room – how decadent! The “Chi” spa was beautiful, serene, and Asian elegant. Fran, Breen & I had our appointments at the same time, so we headed off to separate treatment rooms.
We soon learned that a Thai massage is quite different than the Swedish massages we were accustomed to. For starters, you are clothed (in spa-provided tunic tops & pants) during the treatment. Rather than rubbing your muscles (with oils or lotions), the therapist compresses, pulls, rocks, and stretches your body in a variety of “assisted” yoga-like poses.
And, they do it using their fingers, hands, elbows, knees, legs, and feet! In some positions, the therapist’s hands fix the body, while the feet do the massaging. And yes, this can include walking on your back, like mine did. It was a bit startling at first, but not painful. In addition, Thai massage therapists apply deep muscle compression and acupressure to clear energy blockages and promote healing.
The Thai massage was definitely “interesting,” although the deep pressure was painful at times. Afterwards, Fran, Breen & I were in the spa lounge sipping our hot tea and comparing notes. Turns out, it was really painful for all three of us! We didn’t realize that we could have easily said something to the therapist to lessen the pressure. Lesson learned! However, it was still a lovely experience.
The total cost for the 60-minute Thai massage (with tip) was 2900 Thai Baht (~$70 in 2005) which is ~$88 with today’s exchange rates.
Holiday Inn Phuket Resort – Thailand (2005)
We ended our Thailand trip with 4 days of R&R on Phuket, a large island in the Andaman Sea with some of Thailand’s most popular beaches. We stayed in Patong, the main resort town, at the Holiday Inn Phuket Resort. Please don’t let the Holiday Inn name mislead you. This was a lovely, full-scale resort that also had an excellent spa.
In fact, the resort was newly rebuilt. That’s because Phuket – in particular Patong – had been devastated by the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that tragically hit on Dec. 26th. And there we were in Patong just 11 short months later (early Dec. 2005). Remarkably, there was very little evidence remaining of the tsunami all around Phuket. The resilient & industrious Thais had been very busy. Truly amazing!
We spent 4 glorious days/nights in Phuket and I visited the hotel’s lovely “Aspara Spa” three times! Breen & Fran made a 4th visit the day I was out scuba diving. Since I wasn’t quite brave enough – yet! – to book another Thai massage, I opted for a 60-minute Swedish massage (~$40) and a 1 ¼ hour Hot Stone Therapy (~$53). Both were delightful.
Yes, we all fell in love with the Aspara Spa – it was beautiful & the prices were great! We also took advantage of the spa’s hot & cold plunge pools and their sauna. As Aspara “regulars,” we were quite sad to say goodbye as we headed to the airport to return home to the States.
Bangkok Airport Hotel – Thailand (2014)
Fast forward many years to 2014 – and I was back in Thailand at the end of a 2-week photo tour of Burma (aka Myanmar). Bangkok was just a quick overnight stay while in transit, which is why I decided to stay at an airport hotel.
I chose the very nice Best Western Premier Amaranth Suvarnabhumi, partly because the website said it had a good spa. After actively touring Myanmar for 2 weeks, I knew I’d be ready for a good massage.
As billed, the hotel’s “Ama Spa” was typical Thai lovely. By now, I was ready to “go local” so I booked a 90-minute Thai massage. This time, the therapist used medium pressure so there was no discomfort. In fact, my whole massage felt wonderful! The total cost (with tip & taxes) was 2318 Thai baht ($69).
Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa – Vietnam (2011)
At the end of an excellent 2011 Cambodia/Vietnam tour, a group of us visited North Vietnam’s Sapa hilltribe region. We stayed at the lovely Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa, nestled in the mountains. After a fascinating but misty & bitterly cold day of trekking (it was January after all!), I headed to the hotel spa for some pampering & warming up.
I booked their special 90-minute massage which was a mix of a Thai massage and an oil massage – with a focus on my feet & legs and head & neck. Following the massage, I lounged for a while in a traditional wooden bathtub with water that was nice and hot. After showering & dressing, I headed to the spa’s reception where I was given a watermelon slice & yogurt treat as the spa finale. The cost was $55 plus tip.
Spas at My Tropical Resorts
Koro Sun Resort & Rainforest Spa – Savusavu, Fiji (2008)
When my good friend (& travel agent) Fran shared that she had 2 round-trip tickets (free!) to Fiji & asked if I’d like to join her, it took just a nano-second to say Yes, Please! We would be spending five nights at the beautiful Koro Sun Resort on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu. The resort also had a dive center (I’m a certified diver!) & the acclaimed Rainforest Spa. Oh, boy – it sounded like South Pacific heaven!
Fran is another spa lover – yes, that same Fran from Phuket’s Aspara Spa addiction – so were excited to schedule a spa treatment while in Fiji. Koro Sun’s Rainforest Spa is located in the woods, at the edge of the resort’s large, tropically lush property. Since it’s a bit of a distance, you get there by a resort golf cart.
We booked the Spa’s 90-minute special – which included a special scrub, massage and banana wrap. When it was time, Fran & I reported to the resort lobby. There we met our two very sweet massage therapists, Mela & Oliva, who drove us to the spa in separate golf carts. Already fun! We then walked along a short path in the woods to a beautiful Fijian bure, which housed the spa. It was situated alongside a gurgling stream for more tropical tranquility!
Inside the bure, there were candles everywhere and two side-by-side “hers and hers” massage tables. First, Fran & I enjoyed a full body coconut scrub. Then we were wrapped in banana leaves like a cocoon to “cook” Fijian style (photo). The finale was an excellent full body massage. It was all great! It was dark by the time we finished, so we walked back down the path via flashlight to the golf carts – almost floating in pure Fijian Bliss! The total cost of our treatment with tip was $98.
Matemwe Beach Village – Zanzibar (2012)
I met my friend Lisa in Zanzibar for 6 days of R&R, after a 2-week East African safari. However, Lisa needed the relaxation WAY more than me, since she was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania at that time! We spent four wonderful days at the Matemwe Beach Village. On the website, they describe themselves as a “Zanzibari guesthouse” – not a hotel or a resort. I will agree that the accommodations were simple, authentic & comfortable. Just perfect for us & reasonably priced! Of course, the beautiful beach was the star attraction.
And, yippee, Matemwe Beach Village had a spa, albeit a much simpler version than in Fiji. Theirs was an “open-air” spa, with two treatment tables sitting under a large thatched palapa (above right). Lisa & I booked our 60-minute Swedish massages at the same time. Just like in Fiji, we enjoyed them side by side. Najma, my therapist, gave me a great massage and it was only $30. In fact, I liked Najma so much, I returned the next day to have a 45-minute “facial” with her. She was lovely.
Typical Asian Spas – in Laos (not part of a hotel)
Champa Spa – Vientiane, Laos (2011)
After a month on the road, Vientiane was my last stop & I was ready for some final Asian pampering! Laos’ capital city of Vientiane is filled with affordable spas & massage-giving establishments, widely spread across the quality range. Remembering the old adage “you get what you pay for,” I sought out a high-quality spa for booking a massage to work out those last travel kinks.
The lovely Champa Spa fit the bill perfectly – so I booked a 2-hour massage. First, my feet were washed, and then I was taken to a 4-bed room with curtain dividers for my treatment. Like in Thailand, I wore a spa-provided top & pants. The therapist did a full body massage for an hour – which was very similar in style to a Thai massage.
Then she performed “hot herbal therapy” for 30 minutes. A head & neck massage completed the treatment. It was a perfect combo! Back out in the lobby/reception area, I enjoyed the usual cup of hot tea. And, I got all of this for the whopping price of $15. One could easily get spoiled in Asia!
Mandarina Spa – Vientiane, Laos (2011)
Even though I was only spending two days in Vientiane, I just had to squeeze in one more treatment. This time, I wanted to reward my hard-working feet that had covered oh, so many miles! Plus, I wished to try a different spa – just for variety – so I found Mandarina Spa. I can’t remember if this came from a recommendation in my guide book or the staff at my hotel – two of my usual best referral sources.
There at the Mandarina Spa, I enjoyed a wonderful 60-minute foot & leg massage for the still-hard-to-believe price of $7. My sweet young therapist did a great job – I learned she had been doing massage for 5 years. More hot tea was served at the end, before bidding thanks & warm goodbyes.
If you’d like to know more, here is a good article about Massage in Vientiane from Travelfish.org.
Simple Massage Facilities – At 2 of My African Hotels
Tanzania Safari Lodge – Tanzania (2012)
I was five days into an East African safari with my BTO photo tour group, visiting game parks in Kenya & Tanzania. We had arrived mid-afternoon at the Bougainvillea Safari Lodge (in Karatu) where we were spending the night before visiting wildlife in the nearby Ngorongoro Crater the next day.
Safaris are wonderful but the “nature of the beast” is that you spend long hours driving in vans, often over bumpy roads. My body was already craving a massage so I was thrilled to learn the hotel offered this service. While my tripmates were lounging by the pool, I headed to the hotel’s simple facility for my 1-hour full body massage for $40 plus tip.
The sign outside said “Massage Clinic” so I knew I was in the right place. The massage room itself was simple but clean. My therapist was a pleasant young woman in her 30s, who had been working there for 2 ½ years. She gave me a very good & professional full-body massage (in the more typical Swedish style). Aaah, just what the Doctor ordered!
Buska Lodge – Omo Valley, Ethiopia (2013)
Yes, indeed, my 2013 trip to Ethiopia to visit the Omo Valley & the colorful tribes that inhabit the area was one of my most exotic yet! In fact, National Geographic has called this remote region “Africa’s Last Frontier!” But that’s a whole other story – for later. Back to the subject of spas…
I was spending six days in the dusty frontier town of Turmi, population 1,000 & gateway to many of the Omo Valley tribes (like the Hamer & Kara). We were staying at the Buska Lodge, which was clearly the “best place in town!” Considering its remote location, this simple lodge did a pretty good job of providing guests with lodging necessities & some decent meals.
However, I was really surprised to learn that Buska Lodge also offered guests the option of massage treatments. Of course, I was game! So, in the Lodge’s dedicated massage building, I enjoyed an excellent 30-minute foot & leg massage by Gidon. He was really good! And, the cost was just $6. Gosh, who woulda thunk – a massage here in Turmi, in the “middle of nowhere!” I guess massage is more universal than I even realized.
Reflexology / Foot & Leg Massage
Siem Reap – Cambodia (2011)
As you may know, Siem Reap is a resort town & the gateway to nearby Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s world-famous 12th century temple complex. Siem Reap used to be a sleepy little town (back when I first visited in 2005), but now it’s overflowing with tourists who have come to see one of the world’s greatest sights!
I was last in Siem Reap on a group tour in 2011 – also to visit magnificent Angkor Wat. We had a free afternoon, so my friend Peter & I went out to explore the town. As we were walking down one of Siem Reap’s main streets, we stopped to chat with a couple adorable young women standing outside the Morodock Beauty Spa. They encouraged us to have a 30-minute foot & leg massage – for only $4.
How could we resist? So, in we went. The staff washed our feet in the lobby, before taking us back to a curtained room with four chairs that somewhat reclined. Peter & I sat down and enjoyed a very good foot massage over the next half hour. In fact, Peter was so impressed that he went back the next day – it was that good! We each paid a total of $5, which included tip. What a deal!
Inle Lake – Myanmar (Burma) (2014)
In 2014, I visited fascinating Myanmar on a 2-week photography tour. After spending two nights on lovely Inle Lake in over-the-water bungalows, our tour group headed to nearby Nyaungshwe, a small peaceful town which serves as the gateway to the Lake, for a couple more days.
Our first evening in town, we had pizza at our tour leader Karl’s favorite restaurant, then headed out in search of ice cream. Ah, a man after my own heart! We were successful – and found a little shop selling different flavors of ice cream. While ordering, I noticed they were offering Thai & foot massages in their adjoining rooms. Since it was only 8:40pm, I inquired & said yes to having a 45-minute foot massage right then!
The foot massage area was a simple room with a line of chairs, filled with other customers. My masseuse was a sweet young woman who gave a very good massage. I love having my feet worked on, so I was a happy traveler! The cost was 3,000 kyat – around $4. My tripmate Corbin waited & went back the next evening for his foot massage.
Tokyo Narita Airport – Japan (2014)
As you may have noticed, a variety of “day spas” seem to be popping up at airports around the States & the world. It certainly makes sense as travelers often have long layovers and are a captive audience. That was certainly my case in 2014 when I had a long connection time at Tokyo’s Narita airport on my way home from Seoul, South Korea. So, as you might have guessed (by now!), I went in search of an airport spa.
Voila, I found Raffine Refresh Salon. I gleefully sauntered in and ordered a 45-minute reflexology massage. The treatment included 40 minutes of reflexology/foot massage plus a 5-minute soak with lavender! The total cost was 4860 yen = $44. The therapist was a real pro – she did a wonderful job! She even sent me home with a reflexology foot chart after discovering a sore spot on my foot – saying it was my stomach. I guess, after 3 weeks of international travel, it was time to get home to my “normal” foods!
Final Remarks & Some Tips
I hope you have enjoyed our little jaunt around the world, experiencing the wide variety of wonderful spa & massage experiences. I also hope that you have been inspired to seek out your own unique spa experiences wherever you may travel – especially when visiting places (like Asia) where the culture is quite different.
Of course, you always need to be discerning about your spa/massage establishment, especially if it’s not part of your hotel. You want to make sure you don’t end up somewhere sketchy (like below)! Luckily, your hotel staff, guidebooks and travel websites can provide you with trusted spa recommendations!
“Happy Ending” Massages
The vast majority of spas you will encounter overseas are legitimate spas providing quality, professional massages. However, there may be a few places, especially in some Asian countries (like Thailand), where “happy ending” massages (with sexual encounters) can take place. I don’t need to go into detail here, but you can check out this excellent article from TripSavvy to learn more on the subject of happy ending massages. It includes what to look for in avoiding such seedy places (which luckily are pretty obvious!)
Finally, you might want to have a look at two other posts I’ve written about unique spa & outdoor bathing experiences – this time in Iceland & Turkey:
- Visiting an Authentic Turkish Bath (Hamam) in Antalya, Turkey
- Iceland’s Blue Lagoon & Myvatn Nature Baths: Outdoor Soaking
Comments: Have you have some unique spa experiences overseas? Please share. Were there some of my experiences that surprised you or that you particularly enjoyed? Any questions or other comments.