East Meets West In Tranquil Setting Of New Thai Spa

North Shore facility offers tempting array of treatments that have their roots in traditional practices of farming families in Thailand.


First, we had Thai cuisine. Then we had Thai music and food imports.

Now, we have a new import in the form of British Columbia’s first Thai spa.It comes to us courtesy of Neata Auttapong and Jacques Goutier, a couple who have recreated a little corner of a country they both love in North Vancouver. With Auttapong being a Thai native and Goutier being a Canadian, they are the perfect embodiment of the hybrid nature of Thai spas. It is east meeting west.

Step inside the newly opened Thai Spa at 987 Marine Drive and you know you have stepped into an oasis of calm. You are instantly immersed in the exotic spicy smells and handcarved teak decor of Thailand. If only momentarily, you are transported to another world.

The place has a tempting array of offerings, ranging from facials ($89 to $119) to massages ($85 to $119) and one 31/2- hour package that costs $ 295. Every inch of the place is beautifully appointed, right down to the spray of bright red flowers in the women’s washroom.

Everything has been imported from Thailand, including the staff of five. The spa is different, too, in that it uses all natural materials, appealing to a growing back- to- nature beauty movement. Even its body scrubs use fresh ingredients like fruit and vegetables.

Having had little experience in spas, the whole experience of visiting this one was a memorable adventure.

Auttapong is a wisp of a woman whose adolescent figure and youthful face belie her 29 years. I felt enormous next to her even though I’m not that huge. She presents a curious blend of efficient service and gracious hospitality, encapsulating in that bundle of energy the caring nature and gentle ways of the Thai people.

Her body lost in loose-fitting garb, she greets me at the door and immediately asks me to remove my clumsy running shoes and put on slippers. She then offers me a cup of gingertea. I am asked to fill out a medical form.

We climb a staircase leading past a maze of darkened rooms with a bed in the middle, either on the floor or otherwise covered with colourfully woven bedclothes. There are lit candles everywhere. In the background are the soothing strains of Asian music.

On the top floor, I am asked to lower my feet into a foot bath that is full of a spicy concoction of floating leaves. Auttapong expertly massages them with her surprisingly strong hands, working her way through the toes and the bottom arch. The experience is oddly humbling. Westerners are used to being touched almost everywhere but on our feet.

I vaguely remember that Catholic cardinals sometimes wash each other’s feet. Maybe this is the same idea.

Full of anticipation and a little apprehension, I am led to one of the rooms. Auttapong instructs me to change into loose garb similar to hers and then climb under the covers into the bed.

She enters the room. I hear the clear sound of a little bell that signals the beginning of an intensely physical and spiritual experience. She proceeds to give me the traditional Thai massage which involves a massage of the pressure points among the body’s 10 major energy channels known as “sen” lines. When one of these becomes blocked, we become sick. Open them up and the body is suffused with energy, or so the Thai thinking goes.

And what a massage it is. Proceeding methodically, she bends and pulls and stretches my arms and legs, gently stretching the joints and muscles. I move into a transcendental state, hardly aware of what is going on around me.

Every now and then, I hear her tiny voice asking how I am doing and whether I would like greater or lesser pressure. It seems to be coming from so far.

She instructs me to flip face down, then she works all the back areas, at one point climbing on top of the bed to stretch my body parts backward. She arrives at that location so nimbly, I only become aware she is there when it dawns on me that she couldn’t possibly be stretching me the way she is if she were at my side.

The room is warm and pleasantly pungent. There is the sound of music and bubbling. I feel like a compliant and pliant rubber doll.

Once the traditional Thai massage is complete, Auttapong proceeds to the Thai herbal compress massage. For this, I am told I must remove all the my clothes and crawl back under the sheets, face down.

Oh, really?

I comply.

Meanwhile, there are aromatic herbs including ginger, lemongrass, tumeric, cumin, camphor and something called plai wrapped in muslin simmering away inside a small cooker that looks like a vegetable steamer. She gingerly lifts them out and begins rolling them all over my skin, paying particular attention to the pressure points. She deftly lifts the bedclothes off one side or the other so I never feel totally exposed.

Ah, so good.

While flipped over again, this time face up, I look at this curious elfin woman who carries the knowledge of the ancients in those practised hands of hers.

She tells me that she has been doing her art since she was 12, with she and her sister giving each other massages and giving them to her grandmother and her ailing father in her native rural village in Thailand. In the case of the latter, she and her sister wrapped him in herbs after he was rendered nearly immobile by a stroke. He became mobile again and lived another 10 years until smoking claimed his life.

A pity. Yes, smoking is bad, bad, bad, we agree.

Using the healing properties of the herbs, family members give each other these massages to ease the suffering of hard labour on farms. So good for families, says Auttapong. Families are so close in her home country, she explains, that grown children often climb into bed with parents or each other for warmth and comfort.

When she was growing up, there wasn’t even electricity in her village. Now there is, which is good and bad. Electricity has brought televisions and an eroding of the old, rich culture she cherishes.

Thailand is a country in rapid transition, dangling between the old unhurried rhythms and modern materialism.

So much has happened so fast. It has become the land of the pampering spa with a spa industry worth $85 million U.S., according to websites. The country has seen the industry grow by 64 per cent over the past three years with 80 per cent of the customers being international visitors. Spas have become as ubiquitous there as 7Elevens are here.

There are many reasons for this. One is a ready supply of herbs. Another is the Thai people with their gentle, caring but efficient ways and their homegrown knowledge of holistic healing. Ironically, a western phenomenon, namely the burgeoning of the spa industry, has brought about a renaissance of an eastern one, namely the use traditional Thai herbal recipes and remedies.

Then, too, Thai spas draw on the country’s deeply- rooted Buddhist philosophy and culture which radiate a sense of harmony, peace and calm.

You need to look no further than the plan for the ceremony for the grand opening of the Thai Spa for evidence of this. It included Thai monks performing a blessed chant, a traditional Thai blessing dance followed by a Thai greeting dance.

Auttapong has a dream, she says, of selling these pouches of herbs in Vancouver which she feels would be beneficial both to the farmers back home and to people here. Giving a massage with them is not so hard, she explains. She can teach me and others, easily. While experiencing a new country, she wants to share her knowledge of the Thai lifestyle with Canadians.

She and Goutier see the spa as a product of their happy two-year marriage. “We wanted to create something together,” said Goutier. Auttapong said Goutier is such a good guy, so willing to support her in making her dreams come to life.

I notice she has been working so hard in the steamy atmosphere to give me these massages that some strands of hair have pulled loose from her neatly pulled back do.

Auttapong reaches up and hugs me as I am about to leave. I am deeply grateful for the experience she has given me. I emerge into the cool wintry air both relaxed and invigorated, feeling as though I am coming out of another world.

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