One consequence of shooting an episode on spas in Asia for my Discovery Travel & Living show is that I get massaged a lot. So far I have been to the Oriental Spa in Bangkok (the trend-setter for day spas all over the world), the Dhara Dhevi spa in Chiang Mai (quite spectacular), several spas in Hong Kong (many of which have mastered Chinese medicine) as well as spas in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Phuket.
My two favourites however are Indian spas. As much as I love the experience of the Oriental spa which begins with a boat ride across the Chao Phraya and takes you into a tree-filled oasis in dirty, overcrowded Bangkok to discover a world you never imagined existed, my favourite day spa is in Agra.
I am not alone in this. Britain’s Tatler magazine, an early champion of the Oriental spa, decided last year that Kaya Kalp at the Mughal in Agra was the world’s best day spa. For me, the best part is that it is only a three-and-a-half hour drive from Delhi and thus easily accessible. Moreover, despite being far larger and more expensively fitted than the Oriental spa, it is also a lot cheaper.
My experience at Kaya Kalp made me wonder: are Indians making a mistake by going abroad for the spa experience? Could we get it at our doorstep?
Till now, the evidence has been mixed. The Oberoi chain has excellent spas but they are hardly Indian. They are run for the Oberois by Banyan Tree, a Far Eastern resort group. The Taj has invested time and money in its Jiva spas but even though they have improved a lot over the last year or so, I am not a big fan.
On the other hand, individual properties have managed to run excellent spas. The only good thing about the Park Hyatt in Goa is the spa. The Four Seasons in Bombay has a brilliant spa where, despite Four Seasons’ international provenance, many of the best therapists are Indian.
Spa managers will tell you that it is difficult to get Indians to understand the concept of a spa. The original spas were European operations run by over-muscled female nurses who pummelled your body. But the concept only took off after east Asian hotels began running spas that integrated Asian therapies and an Asian ambience with the original European idea. It is no accident that Thailand is often regarded as the spa capital of the world. The Thais have a long tradition of massage and it is even taught at the Buddhist shrine of Wat Po in Bangkok. Though Thai massage now has slightly dodgy connotations, its origins are entirely pure. Thais will tell you that the best masseur is often an old blind man who moves across your body guided only by the energy fields.
The contribution of the Oriental hotel and other upmarket Thai properties (the first Banyan Tree spa was in Phuket) has been to sophisticate and finesse traditional massage so that it seems like a combination of therapy and sheer pampering. Spa managers often argue that India does not have the same tradition as much of east Asia. In India, massage is done by pehelwans and maalishwalas who slap your thighs with gusto. Alternatively, you have the very worthy Kerala tradition where massage is used to cure a variety of ailments. I’m sure that Kerala massage works but it certainly has nothing to do with pampering: you lie on a wooden bed while a swarthy Malayali gentleman roughly slaps very smelly oil into your body.
Plus there is the gender problem. Until recently, it was difficult to get anything other than a same sex therapist in India. Spa experts claim that men do not relax in quite the same way with male masseurs as they do with the gentler touch of female therapists. This may or may not be true (by the way, I actually think that it makes sense) but experience shows that the best spas all over the world are those with female therapists.
Indian spas try to get around this problem either by importing their therapists (from Thailand or Indonesia usually) or by looking to the north east. The north east strategy is superficially appealing. To the untrained eye, north eastern girls may look like Thais but I am not sure that it works as an approach to massage. In my experience, north eastern therapists are as good or bad as therapists from the rest of India.
At the Four Seasons in Bombay, they’ve gone beyond the north east strategy and I suspect the same will happen at other spas. The only exception appears to be Tibetans who I have found – and you can accuse me of racial stereotyping – understand spa treatments better than most Indians including those from the north east. Fortunately, there are Tibetan communities all over India including a massive settlement in Karnataka, so therapists of both sexes are easy to come by. Now that the gender problem is largely a thing of the past – few Indian spas insist on same sex therapists any longer – Indians are ready to build some of the world’s finest spas.
And perhaps we have already. Last week, I shot for Discovery at Ananda In The Himalayas and I have to say that as a resort, it was easily the equal of anything I have seen anywhere in the world.
Quite apart from the natural beauty of the location (it is near Rishikesh), the elegant design of the villas (even the standard rooms were classy) and the high quality of the cuisine (cooked by my old pal Sumit who used to be the chef at Delhi’s Orient Express), Ananda is actually an exceptionally well run resort. When you spend as much time on the road as I do, you get a feel for well managed properties. And I was pleasantly surprised by the excellence of Ananda’s service. In many ways, it is the nearest any non-Oberoi hotel comes to a Vilas property (its owners are members of the extended Oberoi family) and it is certainly far superior to Wildflower Hall, the Vilas property it most closely resembles.
My shooting stint at Ananda got me thinking. If Kaya Kalp is one of the world’s best day spas and Ananda is an internationally praised resort spa (it regularly features on lists of the world’s ten best spas), then why can’t India build more top class spas?
In the old days, guests checked into hotels tired and jet-lagged and wondered how to relax. Now they simply book a massage – many spas offer jetlag-recovery massages – and let a therapist work the tension out of their bodies. More and more hotels have recognised this though characteristically, Bikki Oberoi was the first Indian hotelier with the guts to close down an entire restaurant (the old Baan Thai in Delhi) and to build a spa in that space. My guess is that Indian hotels will have to devote more and more square footage to spa areas. At the Taj in Bombay, the new spa is a welcome addition and if you close your eyes and forget that it is a Jiva spa, it is not bad at all.
In Thailand or Bali, guests expect excellent spa facilities and always get them. Judging by the success of Kaya Kalp and many of the new Indian spas, I think India is now in a position to match the Far East.
The area where there is vast scope for development is the spa resort. Indians have tired of going to hill stations as they have all become ugly, over-developed, overcrowded urban conglomerations. Even Goa is in decline as a quality destination. The best way for hoteliers to get around this is to build spa resorts. That way, guests are free to wander around the countryside or the beach but there is something special to do while they are still in the property.
That has been the experience of the rest of Asia. But Indian hotels have been slow to rethink their resort hotels as spa properties. One exception is ITC which is rebranding the Mughal, one of its oldest properties dating back to the mid-70s, as a spa resort. And I guess you could argue that the Park Hyatt in Goa has got it right by making the spa its unique feature.
The spectacular success of Ananda and the emergence of a spa culture within India suggests that this is the way to go. We have demonstrated that we can run spas that are even better than the Far East’s. Now, it is time to build more.