Soaking the healing properties of a hot stone bath in Bhutan

Sometimes, a good travel experience is as simple as a bath, as our writer finds out after her first Bhutanese hot stone bath. Photos: MELODY L. GOH/The Star

A tiny woman wearing a kira, the traditional garb of women in Bhutan, led me to a room filled with steam and smelling of... eucalyptus. Or maybe it was something else. I asked her what it was and she replied but I couldn’t quite understand her so I asked again.

This time I couldn’t hear her and didn’t have the heart to ask again so I just nodded. It smelled pleasant so it didn’t really matter.

I was staying at Six Senses Thimphu and was about to experience my first Bhutanese hot stone bath, one of the wellness services provided at the resort’s spa. The beautiful lodge in Thimphu is one of Six Senses’ five properties in Bhutan, which has temporarily suspended all visa applications until further notice.

My spa attendant told me that I had to take off my robe and get into the wooden tub. If I wasn’t comfortable soaking in the nude I could keep my innerwear on. I said that I would and she looked a little surprised. I’m still not sure what to make of that.

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   Soaking in a tub filled with camphor leaves at the Six Senses Thimphu spa.Soaking in a tub filled with camphor leaves at the Six Senses Thimphu spa.The tub was filled with warm water and leaves that didn’t look like eucalyptus; somebody mentioned later that they were camphor leaves instead. There’s a trap door located right in front of the tub, with a ramp connected to it. The hot stones are to be pushed through the door and then fall into the far end of my tub, instantly warming up the water. There’s a short wall separating that section and where my feet are so I don’t have to worry about getting burnt.

“He cannot see you, ” my attendant said reassuringly, pointing to the man who was, at that moment, pushing a large and red hot stone through the door.

To start, I got myself two hot stones. If the water wasn’t hot enough, I just had to call for the man to add more stones. And if it was too hot, I had to either drink some cold water to cool off, or just get out of the tub for a few minutes.

To be honest, the water was too hot for me. Perhaps I should have started with just one stone since I generally don’t like taking hot baths. But these baths are supposed to have some health benefits, mainly derived from the leaves and herbs added to the water, and the minerals released from the river rocks.

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Traditionally, Bhutanese folk would soak in these baths once or twice a week (“Sometimes, every day, ” said my guide) to soothe their aching muscles, as well as to keep warm during cold winter nights.

While the bath at the resort was nice enough, I have to say that I truly only enjoyed the water’s healing effects at the rustic Aum Choden Homestay in Paro. This was because I had my bath there right after hiking up the world-famous Paro Taktsang, also known as Tiger’s Nest temple.

It was a long and slow hike for me, and every part of my body ached by the time I got back to the car after hours of trekking up and down.

Experience a traditional healing bath at the Aum Choden Homestay in Bhutan.Experience a traditional healing bath at the Aum Choden Homestay in Bhutan.At the homestay, the owner gave some information on traditional Bhutanese baths, including the variety of herbs and leaves that they use, one of which is cannabis. Smoking is prohibited in Bhutan and the use of recreational drugs is an offence. However, cannabis is sometimes added to baths, strictly for its medicinal values.

“Sorry, it’s not the season for it yet, ” the owner said before I could even say anything.

There were about six stalls in the outdoor bath area and each one had two tubs. I shared my stall with a reporter from Singapore I had met for the first time only five days earlier. Awkward.

The tubs were filled with water but there were no leaves floating about. There was a whiff of... something herby, though, and the water was a different colour. It turns out that the herbs had already been steeping in our bath water for hours before we arrived, as that was how things were done way back when.

Part of the tub was sticking out of the stall; this portion was where the hot stones were placed. The stones used at the homestay were smaller – and since it was outdoors, the weather was quite cold – so I asked for three stones all at once. If you needed more, you had to knock on the window or just open it and call for the attendant.

I spent a longer time soaking this time around and felt relaxed. My legs did not hurt as much as I had expected after the hike, and I was grateful for that. Perhaps I should consider taking a medicinal bath every time I go hiking now...

We may not be able to travel anywhere soon, but we can still think about going on a holiday and #TravelLater to places like Bhutan, sometime in the future.

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