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Grounded In Nature

A renewed appreciation for the natural world combined with a deep longing for collective healing is drawing many to visit south-east Asia’s finest wellness retreats, says Ianthe Butt, award-winning journalist and contributor to Condé Nast Traveller 

From waters fizzing with fish which tickle gilded sands on Thai islands, to Malaysia’s birdsong-soundtracked jungles where mahogany trees soar, Mother Nature dominates in South-east Asia.  

Offering more than a photo opportunity, healing wisdom drawn from the rich natural environment has long formed part of the cultural landscape, acting as a magnet for weary travellers looking to rebalance and recharge.  

The challenges of the last few years have pushed the importance of our own wellbeing – and the positive impact which nature can have on it – sharply into focus, resulting in a surge of interest in wellness getaways which tap into rooted-in-nature healing.  

Biodiversity Hotspot

A crush of greenery, home to rainforests dating back millions of years, where vines and flowers seem to sprout from every crevice, Langkawi island is a true biodiversity hotspot. Fittingly, the wellness offering at renowned forest retreat The Datai Langkawi has been crafted around Ramuan wisdom – a traditional Malay system for health and vitality which harnesses the power of plants for health and encourages living in harmony with nature.

Some 15,500 different plants grow on Langkawi, and many make an appearance in the spa’s bespoke Akar products. These organic scrubs, oils, and poultices, made using flora from three distinct Langkawi habitats (rainforest, mangroves, and sea), harness the likes of champaka, known for its antioxidant properties, and mangrove charcoal, which helps draw out impurities.

Since the reopening of travel to Langkawi, The Datai’s spa has been busier than ever. “With people having been isolated for so long, it seems there is a pent-up yearning for connection, be it human connection in the form of a massage, or connection with nature, through our Mandi Embun forest bathing ritual,” explains spa and wellness director, Louise Ward.

Mandi Embun (loosely translated as ‘bathing in the forest dew’) draws on centuries-old wisdom from Malaysia’s indigenous Orang Asli, who believed in the power of early morning forest strolls to improve spiritual and physical health. The Datai’s take comprises a dawn rainforest trek, an energising dip in a jungle creek as hornbills crash through the canopy above, with restorative stretching exercises. Massages also have a rainforest connection; Urut Melayu, a deep pressure therapy, sees long kneading strokes paired with local herb-infused oils to encourage healthy blood flow, while the relaxing Tungku Batu (‘heart of stone’) uses rocks – collected from a nearby riverbed – wrapped in warm blends of healing herbs offering deep muscular relaxation, and a tangible connection with the wild surroundings.

Power of Nature

This physical link with the natural landscape can be seen at Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle, in northern Thailand too. “There’s an ever-growing consciousness – and demand – to seek out wellness programmes rooted in local produce and customs,” says camp manager Macall Newman.

A signature massage here was directly inspired by the camp’s surroundings, the property fringed by thick ruak bamboo, which, as it turns out, was the perfect shape and size for a massage tool. And so a ruak treatment, using a tool crafted from the same bamboo combined with herbal oils to unknot deep-seated muscle tension, was born.

Cambodian forest enclave Shinta Mani Wild, which, like Four Seasons Tented Camp features in A&K’s Luxury Tented Camps of South-east Asia itinerary, has recently launched a collection of new three-night ‘Wellness at WILD’ programmes which have been designed to help visitors reconnect with nature.

ReWILD zones in on fitness featuring trail running and mountain biking aspects, Reconnect tackles rebalancing, and Restore is best for those seeking 360-degree R&R. Stays include plant-focused dining and unlimited Khmer Tonics Spa Treatments – including heated compress treatments packed with locally sourced medicinal Cambodian plants including turmeric (aka nature’s anti-inflammatory) plai, to ease muscular pain, immunity-boosting galangal, and rejuvenating kaffir lime.

As one would expect from boundary-pushing design doyen Bill Bensley, this is a wellness experience with a difference; elegant tents channel Jackie O on safari, Zen sunrise yoga sessions which take place atop a seven-storey tower come followed by an adrenaline-fuelled 400m zipline whoosh to breakfast, and the camp’s conservation efforts can be seen first-hand during anti-poaching patrols with Wildlife Alliance Rangers.

“The intention is to draw from our wildly exquisite surroundings to create raw, immersive experiences that get guests out of their heads – thinking and doing – and into their bodies – feeling and being – away from their screens and in nature,” explains wellness director Solveig Gevers.  

Song Saa Island Haven

Another of Cambodia’s acclaimed wellness spots, island haven Song Saa, in the Koh Rong archipelago, continues to weave its calming ocean surrounds into its wellness offering. As one of the few places in the world where bioluminescent plankton can be glimpsed regularly in the waters after dark, starlight meditation sessions will see experts guide guests in using these spectacular glimmering visuals to aid mindful meditation.

Combining a range of therapies, soulful Kamalaya on Thailand’s tropical Koh Samui – legendary for its authentic, nourishing roster of wellness retreats – has launched a new Resilience and Immunity programme which homes in on equipping people to tackle the challenges, anxiety and grief brought by the last few years. “Designed to transform the immune system, while building mental and emotional resilience … it’s beneficial for anyone wishing to feel more robust and fortified in the face of life’s uncertainties,” says founder Karina Stewart. Another popular choice is the Asian Bliss programme, which fuses ancient wisdom spanning elements of Thai massage, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine. 

New Spa from Zannier Hotels

As for a newcomer making wellness waves, look no further than Bãi San Hô, the latest opening from Zannier Hotels. Held in the clasp of lizard-green paddy fields and forested hills with views out to a shimmering kilometre-long bay on a secluded peninsula in Vietnam’s Phu Yen province, the setting is as about immersed in nature as it gets.

At its heart, the Hoa Sen spa pays homage to nature at every turn, taking its name from the lotus flower, which in Vietnamese culture represents beauty, serenity, spiritual elevation, and transformation. A combination of indigenous healing arts and contemporary knowhow form the backbone of Bãi San Hô’s wellness directory.

Each treatment is attached to one of five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and spirit – and makes use of predominantly plant-based, local, and natural ingredients. Highlights include bathing traditions – considered integral in Vietnamese culture to aid renewal and revival – such as the Tay Bac Rebalancing Bath. This combines local brandy and ginger to stimulate blood circulation, and Inspiration of Vietnam a ‘fire’ treatment which uses age-old acupressure techniques to loosen tension and boost energy flow to the body’s Yin and Yang channels, followed by traditional vacuum cupping on the back to boost positive energy levels.

After many travellers expressed a keenness to embrace living in the moment – again, a sentiment sharpened post-pandemic – Bãi San Hô has already ramped up their yoga and meditation classes, which foster focus and remaining present. This, coupled with a resounding desire from guests to remain close to nature, has seen the launch of sessions set by the sea, accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, and at dusk, when the sky phases through a kaleidoscope of warm colours, to take full advantage of Mother Nature’s mood-boosting mastery. 

Chosen by our travel specialists to surpass your highest expectations, A&K Favourites are a collection of luxurious hotels which offer our clients a little something extra on check-in.

Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Reached by river boat through exotic bamboo jungles, the Golden Triangle Resort offers its own take on inimitable Four Seasons luxury

The Datai

Langkawi, Malaysia & Borneo

An ancient rainforest on the north western tip of Langkawi Island is home to The Datai, an exclusive, romantic hideaway bordered by a white sandy beach and the supreme tranquillity of the Andaman Sea

Bensley Collection Shinta Mani Wild

Koh Kong, Cambodia

Get ready for a luxury camp experience like you’ve never seen before

Song Saa Private Island

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Located in the untouched archipelago of Koh Rong off Cambodia, the two islands which make up Song Saa (Khmer for 'the sweethearts') are the natural setting for this hotel – the first of its kind in Cambodia

Kamalaya

Koh Samui, Thailand

For complete relaxation and rejuvenation, look no further than Kamalaya in Koh Samui

Zannier Hotels Bãi San Hô

Vietnam, Asia

Stay in a stilted villa by paddy fields and indulge in Vietnamese cuisine at Zannier Hotels Bãi San Hô located between the hillside and white sandy beach