Retreat to nature

Healthy vegetarian meals, an organic farm and yoga classes in a natural setting. City folk can beat stress at this Chiang Rai wellness resort

Dinner is being brought out from the kitchen. The lights in the room dim immediately. Sounds like a romantic dinner setting in a posh restaurant, but it is far from it.

There is no air-conditioning and I am in a canteen-style dining room with four rows of communal tables. Bright lights attract insects to the food, hence the dimming.

The only "candlelight" is the glow of the mosquito coils burning in clay dishes on the floor.

The simple buffet menu is written on a chalkboard: steamed vegetable salad, tofu tomato curry paste, deep- fried beancurd skin, fried rice, stuffed cucumber soup and fruit.

I am at the Museflower Retreat & Spa in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. It is an eco-friendly lacto-ovo vegetarian wellness resort which opened in September last year. No meat is served, but milk (lacto) and eggs (ovo) are on the menu.

An insect lands on my plate. I pick it off and continue eating.

The meal is simple, but it is one of the best vegetarian meals I have had. The salad is fresh and crisp; the fried rice is fragrant and with not a hint of greasiness. Even the deep-fried beancurd skin does not leave any traces of oil on my fingers.

The dishes are cooked without monosodium glutamate or white sugar - palm or coconut sugar is used instead. For seasoning, Himalayan pink salt is used. The salt, which some people take as a health supplement, is said to contain 84 minerals.

Like a school canteen, guests place their used plates and utensils in plastic bins. There is a bin for food waste and one for non-food waste. The food waste is composted and used as fertiliser for the resort's organic farm.

  • GETTING THERE

    There are daily flights from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport to Chiang Rai by Thai Smile Air and Bangkok Airways. AirAsia and Nok Air fly from Bangkok's Don Mueang International Airport.

    Museflower Retreat & Spa provides pick-up service from the airport (300 baht or S$12) one way a car (maximum three passengers). It is a 30-minute drive from the airport to the resort.

    For retreat programmes, room rates and facilities, go to www.musefloweretreat.com.

CLEAN AND GREEN

The 4.5ha resort not only has its own organic farm, but it also rears ducks for eggs.

The eco message is strong. Little "green" notes can be found everywhere. In bathrooms, guests are reminded that hot water in the shower is solar-heated. Towels and bedlinen are changed every three days, not daily. And these are washed with baking soda and vinegar, not chemical detergents.

As part of "clean" living, smoking is not allowed and there is no alcohol or coffee as these are addictive.

Museflower was started by Hong Konger Tania Ho, who lives in a house at the edge of the resort compound with her 31-year-old Thai fiance and business partner.

Ms Ho, 30, graduated from New York's Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in 2007 and went to Thailand that year to work at various luxury hotels and spa resorts, including as a spa manager at Six Senses Spa in Phuket.

"There are many high-end spas and resorts in Thailand which can be out of reach for people who need wellness support and holistic healing," she says. Hence Museflower, which aims to provide an affordable and casual place for stressed-out city folk to "reconnect with nature and themselves, and enjoy fresh air and good vegetarian food".

Room rates (from 1,520 baht to 2,460 baht, or S$60 to S$97, a person a night) include three vegetarian meals and a wellness/fitness class each day.

The classes range from meditation, yoga, qigong and pilates to massage and D-I-Y hair mask/body scrub workshops. There are also more unconventional offerings such as energy healing and tension- trauma-releasing exercises. Guests can pay for additional classes (from 250 baht to 500 baht).

I am here for the four-day, three- night Yoga Retreat (from 15,460 baht a person for triple sharing). Three times a day, yoga instructor Tammy Hayano conducts classes in the resort's showpiece octagonal studio built over a small lake.

Shortly after dinner, the evening restorative yoga class begins. Fortunately, there are no Downward Dogs to challenge a full tummy.

It starts with a "body scan" - bringing one's awareness to individual body parts and noticing how each feels - "it's like asking your own body, 'how are you?'" says Ms Hayano, 43, an American who travels the world teaching at retreats.

She guides the class of two - myself and a young Canadian woman working in Bangkok - through a series of relaxing poses, mostly lying down, that focuses on stretching or "opening up" tense muscles, coupled with deep breathing. Eyes closed, the symphony of insect chirps outside and my own breathing are the only sounds I hear. The one-hour class makes a relaxing end to the day.

I retire to the room, which I have to myself. There is no television set or telephone. Twelve of the 16 rooms in the resort do not have air- conditioning, but fans are provided.

"When we are used to air- conditioning, it is more difficult for us to adjust to the natural temperature outside. The body cannot regulate its temperature as well and cannot sweat properly," explains Ms Ho. Sweating is one of the ways of detoxification.

Though simple, the rooms have thoughtful touches. There are organic tea, international electrical sockets and plug-in mosquito repellent. Wi-Fi is available only in the common areas.

Chiang Rai's weather is cooler in December and January. During my stay at the end of last month, I do not have to use the fan as the room is cool in the day, even when the temperature outside rises to 30 deg C. At night, the temperature falls to 18 deg C.

Bundled up in a blanket, long sleeves and a jacket, I fall asleep to the cacophony of myriad insects.

If you are a light sleeper, you may, like me, be awakened in the middle of the night by the occasional honking of geese and squawking of ducks on the farm. I am told that a duck laying an egg makes quite a bit of noise, wings flapping and all. I imagine the late-night squawking is breakfast in the making.

It is easy to "connect with nature" at the resort, a 30-minute drive from Chiang Rai town centre. It is nestled in a forested area with rice fields and lakes. Birds chatter noisily in the morning and insects chirp even louder as night falls.

I start each morning with a two-hour meditation and yoga class before breakfast in the dining hall, called the Soul Food Corner. Oatmeal, purple rice congee, fruit, rice milk, milk kefir and a delicious pumpkin soup are on the menu.

Meal times are fixed - breakfast at 9am, lunch at 12.30pm and dinner at 6.30pm.

Resort chef Santot tells me he collected 25 duck eggs in the morning. I have my first sunny- side-up duck egg. The yolk is huge, compared with a chicken egg and it tastes less "eggy" than a chicken's.

EGG HUNT AND TINY CUCUMBERS

The next morning, I join chef Santot to collect eggs and harvest vegetables. Guests can request a free farm tour during their stay.

The organic farm has parsley, basil, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, corn, kangkong and brinjal, among other things. It also grows mushrooms in a thatched hut.

Ms Ho chooses to raise ducks for eggs instead of chickens as ducks are more hardy and do not fall ill easily.

Collecting duck eggs is like an Easter egg hunt. We look under bushes and peer into nooks and crannies. Before long, we have collected a good 20 over eggs.

There are 39 ducks and three geese on the farm and I am told the record number of eggs collected in a day is 60.

Chef Santot, 43, is an organic farm enthusiast. He has his own farm where he grows vegetables, rice and fruit as well as rears ducks, chickens and fish.

The ducks in the resort were bought from his farm 20km from Museflower. He also brings in rice, cucumber and other produce from his farm for the resort.

The Museflower farm is small, at about 1.2ha, and its produce makes up only about 30 per cent of the resort's kitchen supplies. The rest are bought locally.

Chef Santot pulls out some radishes and picks lettuce, cucumber and corn for lunch.

Look at the corn silk, he explains to this city bumpkin - if it is dark brown and dried, the corn is ready for harvesting.

I pluck a ear of corn out clumsily. The corn is slim, compared with the ones I find in the supermarket.

The chef points out the size of an organic cucumber, which is only one-third that of a store-bought one. The "regular" cucumbers are huge because farmers spray the plants with growth hormones three to four times a day, he says disapprovingly.

SHAKE IT OUT

Although I join a yoga retreat, I also get to experience other wellness classes such as qigong and tension- trauma-releasing exercises.

The idea behind tension release is that people tend to suppress their natural response (which is shaking) to stress and trauma by tensing their muscles. Over the years, the stress builds up in the body.

Tension release comprises seven exercises that are repeated to fatigue the muscles. Then you lie on your back so the muscles are relaxed. At this point, the body will start shaking and tremoring involuntarily to release stress - both physical and emotional.

I had watched a video of the tremoring before the retreat and was sceptical. But when I am guided through the exercises and lie down, I am taken aback by the involuntary tremors in my legs which go on for about 10 minutes. I do not know if there is any emotional release, but my usually tense thigh and calf muscles feel more relaxed.

TOM YUM STEAM BATH

Museflower has a Himalayan crystal salt pool. It is solar-heated, but on the day I decide to take a dip, the water is freezing. The sky has been cloudy, I am told, so the water is not heated thoroughly.

When fully heated, the water temperature should reach 30 deg C, but the process is slow as the lap pool, at 2.4m deep, has a large volume of water. There is no harsh chlorine and algae grows along the edges. The pool is not dirty, says Ms Ho, it is just natural and chemical-free.

The soak in the pool is said to detoxify the body and is good for the skin. I do not feel any noticeable difference, but the jolt of cold water clears my mind.

I enjoy a spa treatment as part of the retreat.

This starts with a herbal steam bath. Lemongrass, kaffir leaves and galangal are among the herbs used to infuse the steam. Spa therapist A. Khun tells me that, in fact, I can take the bag of herbs out from the steam room and dunk it in boiling water to make tom yum soup.

The steam bath is followed by a massage. Then warm Himalayan salt is rubbed all over my body and I am wrapped up in cloth to let the salt work its way into the skin.

The spa surroundings may not be luxurious, but the standard of massage and treatment does not disappoint.

As I pack up to leave, I am already thinking of making another trip back - for the Spa Retreat.

 

•The writer was hosted by Museflower Retreat & Spa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'Retreat to nature'. Print Edition | Subscribe