It was midnight when our flight arrived in the musty Bangkok airport. Instead of bothering to schlep into the city, we spent what remained of the night at the airport hotel. The next morning we headed by car for Chiva-Som, a grand spa in Hua Hin, a beach town two hours south of Bangkok that King Rama VI made fashionable in the 1920's. As Bangkok expands—exponentially, it seems—it is reaching closer and closer to Hua Hin, so the area isn't considered as stylish these days as the country's plush island resorts like Phuket and Ko Samui. Even nature is playing rough—according to a story in that morning's Bangkok Post, erosion is quickly wearing away Hua Hin's pearly beach. Still, the royal family remains loyal to it, and our driver mentioned that King Bhumibol was visiting his Hua Hin palace that very day.
I caught a glimpse of an official-looking guard as our car passed the palace entrance, but that was the whole of it; the king's presence amounted to just a rumor, a wisp that blew away—and as soon as we entered the resort, so did the rest of the world. Chiva-Som is built on a series of seaside hills that roll down to the beach several miles from the center of town. It is actually a large collection of snow-white buildings and pavilions and ponds and fairy bridges set amid thickets of broadleaf shrubs and succulents. Every nook and alcove at Chiva-Som has something beautiful tucked into it: a reflecting pool, a stone Buddha with a pensive face, terra-cotta pots, swags of Thai silk textiles. Once I crossed into the main reception building I lost any sense of a busy town nearby, any sense of the racket from the highway right out front, of the royal entourage that might or might not have been next door, even of the thumping waves on the beach just beyond the Chiva-Som swimming pool.
While our room was being prepared, John and I were led out to a shady porch off the main entrance to study the spa menu. It was a dreamy, green morning and the place was quiet except for a groundskeeper grooming a hedge of pink hibiscus. An overhead fan tapped out a steady tick-tick-tick and a crow chuckled in a breadfruit tree. The menu listed the usual spa indulgences, such as massages and herbal wraps, but it also had a more clinical menu of iridology, detoxification, organ massage, and flotation tanks. Guests—never more than 112, mostly Japanese and Australians and a few Americans—often stay for two weeks, typically with serious weight-loss or health goals, spending their days detoxifying and realigning and nibbling on Chiva-Som's low-fat cuisine.
There is something therapeutic about the place, rather than purely sensual—more an experience of purification than of hedonism. In fact, there's nothing sexy about it. The men's and women's spas are segregated, and only a few treatments can be done by a couple together. We were both dying for a massage but signed up for a few curatives, too. John decided to meet with the iridologist, who would analyze his physical condition by studying his irises. I signed up for chi nei tsang, an internal-organs massage, which sounded like an X-Files episode, and a Thai boxing lesson, in case I felt more like fighting than relaxing.
THE NEXT MORNING, JOHN HAD HIS IRISES PHOTOGRAPHED (prognosis: general good health, though various spots and featherings revealed that he's prone to headaches and has a sensitive stomach). In the meantime, I met with the internal-organs technician, a birdlike woman with darting gestures and a trilling voice who was convincingly outfitted in a lab coat and sensible shoes. We were in the Chiva-Som spa, a serene streamlined building with fountains and orchids around every corner. After leading me into her office, the technician directed me to lie down on a gurney, then prayed quietly while I peeked through my mostly closed eyes. Then she began to palpate my belly.