Why Thailand could be your happy place

Woman doing yoga on a paddleboard

“You like meditation, yes?” asks Puki, a middle-aged woman from Chiang Mai, who is smiling sweetly at me.

I don’t know how to answer her.

Even though I’ve used phone apps to dabble with the mind-calming practice, the truth is I’ve never quite got the hang of it.

A monk walking in the grounds of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai. (Georgia Humphreys/PA)

But now I find myself in the mountains, wandering around Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of Northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, just under an hour’s drive from the city of Chiang Mai.

Sitting outside the towering, glimmering, gold stupa, Puki is meditating in front of relics belonging to Lord Buddha. It looks so peaceful, I decide to join her, and after a few minutes, the humdrum of visitors has faded away. Maybe this is what the fuss is all about?

Joining in with a group meditating at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. (Georgia Humphreys/PA)

My glimpse into Puki’s world of mindfulness is part of a bigger G Adventures Wellness Thailand tour, designed to recharge the body and nourish the mind.

Read: Thailand’s most underrated town

It all starts with an intention-setting ceremony in Bangkok, where participants are invited to reflect on a personal focus for the trip. Over the course of nine days, travelling to Chiang Mai, Pai and Koh Samui, I quickly discover temples aren’t the only reason Thailand is still a place to spiritually connect.

Mindful massage

Learning the basics of Thai Massage at The Watpo Thai Traditional Medical School. (G Adventures/Ben Glassco/PA)

The history of Thai massage can be dated back to Buddha’s period, more than 2500 years ago, when it was brought over from India. (A monk named Komparaj – a personal physician to Buddha – is widely accepted as the first person to develop the healing art.)

Traditional techniques involve moving and manipulating the body in order to relieve physical and emotional tension, boost energy and stimulate circulation.

On our first full day of the tour, in Bangkok, we head to The Watpo Thai Traditional Medical School to learn the basics.

Thai massage incorporates yoga-like stretches, such as your arms being pulled behind you, so your back arches and your chest flies up high into the air. But, don’t be too alarmed; flexibility isn’t necessary, as the masseuse helps to gently mould your body parts into the poses.

We receive an hour massage from a professional too, to get a sense of the health benefits for ourselves. I am taken aback by how intense the pressure feels, especially on my legs and arms, but I feel incredible – if a little achey – afterwards.

Read: Country by country guide to a massage

Mastering yoga

Pai is a small town nestled in a lush green valley on the banks of a river, a windy three-hour drive up into the countryside from Chiang Mai. The backpacker favourite has a laid-back, hippy vibe; think chilled-out bars, art gallery cafes and handicraft shops.

At Pai Yoga Shala, an open-air studio surrounded by palm trees, instructor Kookai lays out yoga wheels. The circular-shaped prop supports yoga practice by rolling out your spine and opening up the chest and front side of the body. It’s fun to try something different, and I find it’s particularly helpful for backbends, which I usually find quite intimidating.

Learning to use yoga wheels at the Pai Yoga Shala studio. (Georgia Humphreys/PA)

We wander outdoors, to a platform in the middle of a field, to do more deep stretches and breath work. The tips of the mountains in the distance are tinged golden red by the stunning sunset, and the chilly air feels refreshing after a sweaty class.

Afterwards, back at the Pai Hot Springs Spa Resort, I soak in hot spring pools. The warm, mineral-rich water is soothing and rejuvenating and that night, I have the best sleep I’ve had in weeks.

Perfecting my warrior pose on the outdoor platform at Pai Yoga Shala. (Georgia Humphreys/PA)

When we reach Koh Samui, we try out sunrise acro-yoga, a mix of acrobatics and yoga, at beachside Peace Resort. At first, I am terrified about being lifted high into the air by teacher Kom. I’ve never been much of a gymnast (I can’t even do a cartwheel) and don’t see myself being able to balance successfully.

But he is incredibly encouraging and puts me at ease by massaging my lower back to relax me and warm my muscles. He tells me to lean back, sitting onto his feet, before directing me into a variety of poses.

I end up upside down with my legs spread wide, my hands gripping onto my ankles, then surprise myself further by being able to bend my legs back over my head, curled up into a ball.

I put myself forward for another go, lying on my front this time. Arms outstretched, it’s like I’m flying. I feel wonderfully free and uninhibited, my mind clear.

Soul-feeding food

Moh, our wonderful tour leader, tells us this trip is all about balance. While we have lots of nourishing Thai curries and stir-fries during our trip, we also have some treats. At the night market in Chiang Mai, we sample sickly sweet mango sticky rice – made with glutinous rice, fresh mango and coconut milk, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds – plus gooey roti oozing with chocolate and banana.

Sampling Khao Soi, a curried noodle dish from Northern Thailand, at Chiang Mai night market. (Georgia Humphreys/PA)

But Thai food is generally very healthy – especially as chefs have access to so many fresh ingredients. In Pai, we meet Lek, who runs Charlie & Lek restaurant. She takes us to the biggest fresh market in the town, open from 5am every day, where she points out the most important herbs in Thai cooking. There are piles upon piles of pink galangal (good for any stomach pain), yellow turmeric and wild ginger.

Taking part in a cooking class led by Lek at her restaurant VV Cafe, on the outskirts of Pai. (G Adventures/Ben Glassco/PA)

Back at restaurant VV Café, where she runs cooking classes, we learn how to prepare a zingy pad thai – made with rice noodles, veg, chicken and/or tofu, tamarind sauce – and a sumptuous massaman curry.

Friendly, smiley Lek gives us helpful feedback: she notes my curry has a bitter taste, umming and ahhing over the cause, before deciding I must have burnt my curry paste at the start. But I am determined to go home and try to cook for myself more. There’s something so liberating about the escapism of cooking, we all agree, as we sit eating our meals together.

Read: Refresh your table manners before you jet off overseas

Embracing nature

Warming up for sunrise acro-yoga by the beach at Peace Resort on Koh Samui. (G Adventures/Ben Glassco/PA)

Yoga, massage and good food are at the core of a healthy body – but nothing beats being surrounded by nature. In serene Koh Samui, we hire paddle boards from iSUP Samui, based in the north-east of the Island.

After learning the ropes on dry land, we wade into the water, kneeling before making it up to standing. We stay near to the shore at first, with our guide, Ian, pointing out the sights – the Big Buddha Temple, neighbouring island Ko Tao in the distance, a rainbow peeking out over the Bophut Hills. We marvel at the green of the trees, contrasted with the red sandstone, and the blue sky. All the colours seem in high definition as the sun starts to set, a golden glow leaking out onto the water.

It feels like the perfect time to try to really be in the moment. I sit cross legged on the board, floating on the water. I focus on my senses – the taste of the sea salt on my skin, the sound of tourists laughing as they throw a ball to each other in the shallows, the feeling of the sea moving ever so gently beneath me. I remain still for a good few minutes.

Yes, my surroundings won’t always be this dreamy. But afterwards, walking back onto the sand, I feel euphoric. My intention to start meditating more might not be so hard to fulfil after all.

Have you visited Thailand? Did you get a Thai massage? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

– With PA

Written by Georgia Humphreys

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