When spa treatments get weird

KEITH AUSTIN
Last updated 10:23 03/03/2014
Snake Massage
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SQUIRM FARM: A snake massage at Ada Barak's Carnivorous Plant Farm and Spa in Talmei Elazar, northern Israel

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I'm not much of a spa guy. For me, a spa treatment overseas just eats into the time I have for new experiences. Or just eating. After all, once you get inside a spa the only difference from the one at home is the accents, right?

Well, wrong. Spa treatments these days range from the mundane to the bizarre. There's a snail spa in Japan where you let snails slither across your face, leaving behind a mucous trail containing a cocktail of proteins, antioxidants and hyaluronic acid. This is said to be good for you.

At Ada Barak's Carnivorous Plant Farm and Spa in Talmei Elazar, northern Israel, a variety of snakes, including California and Florida king snakes, corn snakes and milk snakes, coil themselves around your bare torso. The larger ones apparently alleviate muscle pain.

For those of us who like a drink there are beer baths (those crazy Czechs), sake/green tea/coffee/ramen noodle spas (yes, the Japanese again) and red wine soaks (the Barossa Valley) while bird lovers might like to take in the Hotel Wailea Spa in Hawaii for an 80-minute facial of ultraviolet-treated, bacteria-free, powdered nightingale droppings, a facial popular with geishas who used it to repair skin damage caused by heavy makeup use.

And then there's the spa where you (meaning I) end up covered in dragonfruit pulp while wearing what is essentially a large paper nappy. Of which, more later.

So, needs must and all that: the luxury Anantara chain isn't called Anantara Hotels, Resorts and Spas for nothing. If you're going to stay there a 'treatment' of some kind is pretty much spa for the course (I couldn't help myself).

I have written elsewhere a sparse account of the 90-minute lavender and bergamot oil massage administered by the hideously cheerful Jukky, the masseuse at the Anantara Resort in Xishuangbanna, China.

According to the official literature the Xishuangbanna spa (run with steely resolve by the wonderfully named Ms Jingjai Wongarmart) has facilities which "echo the natural beauty of the rugged landscape and the swift-flowing waterway" while a "Thai-inspired menu of indoor and open-air treatments fuses with local Chinese elements".

Their treatments ... oh, let them tell it themselves: "Our treatments draw inspiration from ancient herbal remedies to restore and revive the body's inward and outward beauty. Along with timeless herbal elixirs, we introduce modern remedies for rejuvenation and detoxification, creating innovative and therapeutic treatments to restore inner peace and total wellness."

Somewhere, there is a PR course turning out stuff like this, rescuing words like "wellness" from the sinkholes of lexicographical history. There is also, I see from the Xishuangbanna website, a "tropical steam cave" at the spa which I somehow missed while being turned into a jelly by Jukky.

It was, to be perfectly honest, quite wonderful, if you like that sort of thing. Which I wasn't sure I did until Jukky peeled my drooling face out of that hole in the massage table. Heaven for me but for her, I suspect; like trying to pick a large rotting mango out of a pothole.

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A word to the wise, though (and to Anantara Resorts) - I suspect the combination of lavender and bergamot is anathema to elephants. We went on a wild elephant hunt shortly afterwards and didn't see one. That said, a pack of journalists all smelling of lavender and bergamot would probably have seen off the Nazis and lifted the Stalingrad siege.

The next point of call was the spa in the Anantara Riverside Resort (and Spa) in Bangkok where a young lady started proceedings by giving my feet a wash and a scrub up. I find this somewhat awkward as (a) having a woman kneel at my feet and wash them has apostolic/servile connotations that sit ill with what can only be some hideous and suppressed childhood foot trauma and (b) I am embarrassingly ticklish down there. This resulted not in relaxation but the nervous fear that she would run a nail along a tickle-heavy point and in the resulting convulsion I would accidentally kick her in the face.

A few days later, in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, I was stripped down again for a 30-minute coconut scrub (with the pulp, not the husk), a 30-minute neck and back massage followed by a 60-minute facial. After that I had skin more soft, smooth and silky than the proverbial baby's bum.

This, I start to understand, is why people with the time and the money to have these treatments regularly look like blemish-free mannequins. Ordinarily, you'd need a bucket of Drano to get rid of all the stuff they've sloughed off me in the past few days.

And so I headed off to the last port of call, the freshly minted Anantara Resort at Mui Ne on the southern coast of Vietnam which has 89 rooms, suites and pool villas, a pool, a pool bar and, of course, another bloody spa.

This was where the dragonfruit came in to play. And the nappy.

But first, the welcome drink: an intoxicating mix of dragonfruit, honey, ginger, orange juice and vanilla. It tasted wonderful and, given that the ensuing treatment combines a dragonfruit pulp scrub with a vanilla oil massage, it's wonderfully cost-effective.

Like all the Anantara spas the place is beautifully appointed and staffed with smiling young women who seem to float through the somehow rarefied atmosphere as if on wheels, a sort of Asian Stepford Wives, with dragonfruit.

Now, Asian dragonfruit (it is also grown in Mexico, central and south America and Israel) is a sort of pink mango covered in gnarly little pigs' ears. Open it up and the sweet, crunchy flesh is white and peppered with edible black seeds. It is, according to the website thaifood.about.com, a type of cactus and is low in calories while being high in vitamin C, calcium phosphorus and antioxidants. It can be eaten or worn - or both.

The only downside, as I explained later to my host, resort general manager Mark Eletr, was the paper nappy. In the other Anantara resorts the clothing of choice for the treatments is a pair of disposable black mesh underpants so fetching I was tempted to filch them.

But, no, at Mui Ne the only thing between the masseuse and my dignity was a pair of baggy white paper underpants that looked like nothing more than a nappy for grown-ups. To which striking image add the crushed contents of a dozen or so dragonfruit.

It could have been worse: one of the main local industries is the manufacture of fish sauce from anchovies.

Give them time.

A day or so later, as I returned to my room to pack, the management had thoughtfully left a gift on my bed, a little box, all pink wrapping paper, topped off with a bow. It was a souvenir of my stay from Mark Eletr: a pair of pristine paper underpants.

The writer travelled courtesy of Anantara Resorts and Spas and China Southern Airlines.

- FFX Aus

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