Just 348 hours to go.
That’s how much training remains for me to become a bonafide massage therapist, certified by one of the loftiest and meticulously exacting spa academies in the world. Just two hours into training with the stellar therapists at Banyan Tree Phuket, the flagship resort for this global, culturally entrenched brand, I learn just what sets this spa program apart.
Intrigued, by the technical perfection of massages enjoyed at various Banyan Tree resorts around the world, I hanker to discover what lies behind their philosophy. On a lark, I worm my way into BT Phuket’s official Spa Academy, the place where every single Banyan Tree spa therapist for any of their nearly thirty hotels (not to mention sister brand, Angsana) receives their assiduous training. Here, I go “under cover” as a spa therapist trainee—if just for two hours. Any person hired to provide treatments at this award-winning hotel company’s myriad spas, must spend 350 hours of training at the academy—despite their time working or training elsewhere. I want to know why. As my instructor Khun Mim says,” They must be brought up to our standard.”
On a lark, I worm my way into BT Phuket’s official Spa Academy, the place where every single Banyan Tree spa therapist for any of their nearly thirty hotels receives their assiduous training.
Two hours will hardly be enough.
Like a storybook gingerbread village of slope-roofed, carving-adorned Thai houses by the sea, Banyan Tree Phuket occupies a spacious parcel of land near Bang Tao Bay, on the northwest shore of Phuket—the Adaman Sea’s most storied island. Complete with a golf course on its fringes and serpentine pathways within that beg to pedaled along by the sturdy bikes all guests receive upon arrival, Banyan Tree Phuket actually is three resorts in one. Celebrated already for its original, utterly capacious individual villas—each with private lap pool—this hideaway amid gardens of palms, casuarinas, and allamandas, also holds two other mini Banyan Tree experiences, Spa Sanctuary and Double Pool Villas. Both tempt guests looking to further customize their vacation. Each villa enclave, tucked amid the foliage, stands alone.
Spa Sanctuary, utterly private, with just 12 guest rooms-cum-luxurious-private-villas, ideal for honeymooners, has dedicated massage buildings (and the inclusion of unlimited massages each day for all guests, plus fitness classes, wellness guidance, and optional detox menu). The 25-suite section called Double Pool Villas, as the name implies, holds suites that vaunt two swimming pools, one in the master bedroom and one overlooking a tropical vista, from a swanky terrace. Here, you could have a family lollapalooza of a reunion—or just hang out with your best friends—forever. Various restaurants, two huge pools, immediate access to one of Phuket’s most popular beaches, and an offered range of activities from trekking to cooking classes, plus golf, round out the days at every section of this prodigious resort.
And, then there’s the spa—fed by talent from the Spa Academy. Similar to the individual villas that serve as guest suites at Banyan Tree, the spa conducts treatments in stand-alone, personal structures for an intimate, utterly tranquil experience. Led by their therapist from the main spa lobby, guests arrive as to a sanctum, the world’s noise and bedlam left behind. Nearly as large as a standard villa, the spa rooms have plenty of space for massage tables, bathtubs, sitting areas, even gardens for post-treatment rumination. Ensconced in classic elegance and grace, guests are urged to linger after their treatment, forgoing group relaxation rooms (as in many spas), or that maze of halls that so many places require post-treatment-befuddled guests to pass through in order to leave the premises. All services begin with a footbath, the best of its genre, and end with the sweet timbre of a bell. In my case, I meet a “master therapist,” a practitioner so embedded in years of Banyan Tree training, she can see what I need before she speaks to me. After a quick consultation, she customizes the two hours I spend with her in pure, curative bliss.
Receiving an unforgettable massage is one (very good) thing. But, during my brief time at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy, I gain tremendous respect for these practitioners and their talents. Simply getting dressed like the therapists comprises my first challenge at massage school. It takes a coterie of fellow students and teachers to wrap my sarong pants and tuck in my shirt to Banyan Tree perfection. Dressed appropriately, I join therapists in their daily, morning meditation, a beautiful ritual involving mindful visualization and chanting—a heartfelt session meant to cast away bad energy. “The concept is to start with something pure and healing, that we can pass on to our clients throughout the day,” says Khun Mim.
Next, strength exercises ensue. We do push-ups with our fingertips on the wall, press our thumbs into (impossibly) resisting balls, and use various props and gizmos to fortify our hands. The workout alone exhausts me. But then comes massage practice. Until you’ve leapt atop a massage table, and tried to pull someone’s shoulders backwards to the point of catapulting yourself off the bed; or, thrown your entire body’s strength into one push of your thumb to decompress a muscle, you have no idea how difficult the task of massage. These passionate teachers show me their secret methods for classic Thai massage, oil massage and hand massage—first basic lessons at the academy, and a lot of information for a two-hour course. Practicing on Khun Milk, one of the adroit professors, I hear her grunt and giggle at my inept attempts. I laugh, too—it seems impossible. At last—eventually—I manage to get some things a little bit right. And, Khun Milk and the other teachers and students applaud me. I can’t imagine the profound curriculum that must comprise the next 348 hours of lessons.
My experiences at Banyan Tree Phuket humble me. They remind me that a skilled therapist plays our body like a sacred instrument, and that massage takes years of practice to get exactly right. I learn, too, that extreme physical prowess can come in very diminutive (but mighty) packages. Bringing peerless technique, Banyan Tree therapists generously share their vital life force and their souls’ good energy, in an effort to make our slate blank again. banyantree.com/en/thailand/phuket
Becca Hensley is Editor at Large for Insider's Guide to Spas. Based in Austin, she writes regularly about travel and spas. She believes a good story draws you in like laughter in a crowded room, and challenges you to do it justice. Her work appears regularly in Austin Monthly, Travel Channel, Toronto Star and National Geographic Traveler.