New Thai spas massage the muscles and zap the wrinkles

by AFP/Nanci Bompey, Dec 6, 2006 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Bangkok, Nov 6, 2006 - After constantly struggling with her weight, Bangkok resident Penni Podhipleux came to the S Medical Spa five months ago looking for a solution.

With the help of a nutritionist and a personal trainer, Penni lost over 20 kilograms (45 pounds).

But she didn't stop there -- Penni also had laser treatments to remove acne scars, "carboxy" carbon dioxide injections to reduce cellulite, a colon cleansing procedure and a series of massages.

"I feel great," the 42-year-old Thai said, smiling.

S Medical Spa is part of a new breed of clinics that combine the latest cosmetic procedures with the pampering of a spa -- one-stop shops where clients can have both their wrinkles removed and their muscles relaxed.

"The medical spas play a bridging role between the harsh clinical world of hospitals and the calm nurturing world of spas," said Andrew Jacka, vice president of the Thai Spa Association.

"It is somewhere you can experience varying degrees of medical services fully supported by the more pampering services of a spa," he said.

As they leave the crowded streets of Bangkok and enter the S Medical Spa, clients are enveloped in quiet music, the tinkle of waterfalls and the scent of aromatherapy candles. They are then gently ushered into any number of private rooms for customized cosmetic, holistic, Eastern or spa treatments.

"We treat the whole human being," said Pakpilai Thavisin, a Bangkok dermatologist who opened the S Medical Spa last year.

Penni's personalized weight-loss regimen was developed for her by a personal trainer and a nutritionist who even included alcohol in her strict diet.

It is this personalized focus using both medical treatments and spa services that the experts say sets medical spas apart from hospitals and private clinics.

Looking for a natural alternative

Pakpilai's own interest in alternative medicine began after she lost her mother and two brothers to cancer.

"From that I started to realize that modern medicine just treats the disease and doesn't treat the person," she said.

Her idea was to combine medical procedures with alternative treatments for not only dealing with existing health issues but prevention, too.

"A medical spa was the answer," she said.

Medical spas are gaining popularity worldwide as aging populations in many nations, including Thailand, search for ways to stave off the inevitable, hold onto their youthful looks, and remain as healthy as possible into old age.

Thailand, with its strong Buddhist culture, is a natural for this combination of traditional, alternative and Western medicine to take hold, Pakpilai said.

"The market is just starting to pick up," said Sheila Dor, head of international relations at St Carlos Medical Spa.

While Thailand currently has only four licensed medical spas, which accounted for about two percent of all spa visits here last year, the country has a strong foundation in both medical and spa services.

In 2005, spa services raked in 6.8 billion baht (169 million US dollars) and the Thai Spa Association expects this to increase to 9.2 billion baht in 2006.

Medical services in Thailand brought in 23.1 billion baht (578 million US dollars) last year and revenue is expected to increase to 27.4 billion baht in 2006, the association said.

Part of the growth is due to the rising number of upper- and middle-class Thais with money to spend and weight to shed. Incomes nationally jumped 11 percent from 2002 through 2004, and consumption rose by slightly more than that, according to the World Bank.

But Thailand has also become a medical and spa destination for foreigners.

Last year, 4.6 million visitors came to Thailand for spa services and 1.28 million hospital patients were international. The numbers were up on 2004. 

A shot in the arm for Thailand's tourism industry

Thailand expects to see a 10 percent increase in international medical patients this year, said Chamnan Muanttim, director of services promotion at the tourism department.

But some analysts say the coup on September 19, which overthrew prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, could cause tourists to delay their plans.

Despite this uncertainty, medical spas say they are also attracting expatriates and native Thais because some of their programs can take months to complete.

Pakpilai said about 60 percent of her clients are residents of Thailand, and of those, 80 percent are Thai.

Dor said St Carlos Medical Spa is also seeing an increase in the number of Thai clients.

Both spas said many of their Thai clients come for the anti-aging procedures and an increasing number are men.

"Asian men, like men in general, are quite reluctant to see the doctor. They wait until they really need help," Pakpilai said. "Now, men are changing their attitudes and they want to take better care of themselves."

But medical spas are still out of reach for most Thais. Massages at S Medical Spa range from 1,000 to about 3,000 baht (27 to 81 dollars) while the typical household in Thailand earns only about 14,000 baht per month.

As the number of wealthier Thais and foreigners search for ways to the elusive fountain of youth, the number of medical spa applications has increased, prompting the ministry to write a new set of guidelines for medical spas.

Nevertheless, most cosmetic procedures are still performed in hospitals and private clinics around Thailand, the health ministry said.

Pakpilai acknowledges that there are critics of the type of holistic service that is making spas like hers popular worldwide -- and increasingly important in attracting the medical-tourism dollar to Thailand.

"The majority of medical doctors may not accept it, they say it is not evidence based," Pakpilai said of medical spas. "But just because there aren't papers written on it doesn't mean its not true."

Pakpilai said there has, however, been growing interest from doctors who want to integrate spa-style treatment into their medical practices.

"Modern medical doctors are starting to realize there is another kind of medicine," she said.

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