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The Ultimate Massage

Alexia Silvagni

Photo: Alexia Silvagni

"Innnnnhale," she cooed, "and exxxxxxxhale, and smile at your neighbor."

"My neighbor?" I started to sit up. She poked my side.

"Liver!" she announced, sounding pleased. "Innnhale . . . and exxxxxhale, and smile at your neighbor." She was so absorbed in her exploration of my abdomen that I couldn't bring myself to ask which of my neighbors she had in mind, and why I should smile at them, and whether she was suggesting that I hadn't smiled at them in the past. On second thought, she might have said, "Smile at your navel," but I decided it didn't matter much anyway; if she wanted me to smile at anyone or anything, I was perfectly willing.

Chiva-Som is a wonderful but deeply solemn resort. The dining room is romantic, with its jade walls and mountainous bouquets of orchids, lotuses, and jasmine, but there are calorie counts on the menus, and wine only if you ask with some urgency. When you request a drink, you will be offered juice, and if you explain you want a drink drink, it will be suggested that you take a taxi into town, which John and I did one night when the healthfulness and purity and mellowness started to drive us crazy. We ended up in some Hua Hin swingles bar with bad carpeting and tarty waitresses, a sharp reminder of the Thailand Chiva-Som definitely does not represent. After having a few umbrella drinks we checked our e-mail in a stuffy, overlit cybercafé and walked amid the souvenir booths and market vendors on Hua Hin's main drag, the late-night heat heavy with the smell of chilies and fish paste, the clatter of town as loud as if it were midday. We lasted less than an hour before we raced back to our cool white room. For the next three days, we remained happily ensconced in the almost surreal tranquillity of Chiva-Som, being wrapped and dunked and cleansed and massaged.

"We are not about denial," someone said to me at the Regent resort's welcome cocktail party a few days later. We had left the beach and taken a two-hour flight north to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-biggest city, which rests at the foot of the sacred mountain Doi Suthep and the teak forests that lead to the Burmese border. The Regent is 20 minutes outside Chiang Mai, in the steep hills that jut up from the plains, a scatter of teak buildings and gazebos set around glittering green rice terraces. It is a setting so rich and sumptuous with color and smells and textures, so bubbling over with gorgeous things—with frangipani and jasmine and malabar trees, and parrot-shaped heliconia and blue-headed lizards—that you are instantly drunk with the look of it and want more right away. If for one moment I had wondered whether the Regent was much like Chiva-Som, the sight of a large chocolate cake on a dessert cart and the banging of a "cocktail drum" signaling evening drinks made that moment pass, and it was banished completely once I read the activity list: "Enjoy cocktails in the Elephant Bar." "Visit a local antique gallery." "Attend our weekly buffet BBQ." "Cocktails at the pool."

OUR ROOM WAS A TEAK COTTAGE decorated with northern Thai products—the robes and slippers were made of rustic printed cotton, the television and CD player were hidden in a handsome teak cabinet. We had our own porch, which gave us the sense of being suspended in the trees, and an astonishing view from the bed of the resort's rice paddies, which are worked by locals using water buffalo and traditional tools. John and I went overboard and booked a two-hour couples' massage at the hotel's Lanna Spa. We walked to the spa along a path that winds around the cottages and pools. At one turn there was a stone Buddha; at another, a clay pig with splayed legs. As we rounded the last turn before the spa, we came across an old rice wagon with a woven cane hood—a stark sight, graceful but mournful-looking, as if long ago a harvester had been interrupted and left his empty wagon behind.

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