Fitness fads come and go but all feature the same goal – to keep your body healthy, but what about your mind? Marissa Carruthers asks whether Cambodia could become the next wellness destination?

Light spills into the lofty white room where Vat Kimly teaches yoga to a growing number of Cambodians daily. “Yoga has helped my spirit and mind-set, reduced my stress and given me joy, hope and love,” he says. “When I started yoga, I went from feeling helpless to hopeful; I went from the darkness to the light.”

For Vat, who has been practising yoga since 2011, yoga and meditation have provided him with the tool to attaining the perfect equilibrium between the mind, body and soul that wellness embodies. For others, it may be a rigorous exercise regime, taking a daily stroll, making time to read a book or enjoying a massage.

“Wellness is extremely personal,” says Sarah Moya, general manager of Navutu Dreams Resort and Wellness Retreat in Siem Reap. “It’s an individual’s felt state of being, where one perceives that he or she is of healthy mind, body and even spirit. It’s also when an individual feels a sense of contentment for who they are, and it radiates outwardly as they exude confidence and a joy for living.”

Wellness destination
In recent years there has been a trend towards spas and wellness, especially in Asia

In the last few decades, the importance of keeping fit and eating healthily is a philosophy that has spread across the globe. And in recent years, the world has started to wake up to the role having a healthy state of mind plays in perfecting the package.

The result is a rise in wellness centres and retreats, yoga studios, meditation classes and coaches to guide individuals towards that ultimate goal of sublime well-being. And in Cambodia, the wellness industry is mushrooming as awareness spreads throughout the country.

“It’s more a state of mind,” says Jean-Claude Dhuez, founder of SAMATA Health and Wellness Studio in Phnom Penh. “It’s a lifestyle. Sometimes going for a regular massage is enough, other times it may be combined with acupuncture, walking, a change in diet or working less.”

Sometimes, they will say eat properly, drink more water and work less. That’s all they need. Others may need to do yoga, massage and exercise

In 2012, Dhuez opened SAMATA. Having opened the first international physiotherapy clinic in the capital in 1997 and launched spa and aromatherapy product brand AMATA in 2000, his aim was to deliver the whole healing package and operate a one-stop-shop where a range of therapies are offered under one roof.

“I wanted to offer a holistic approach,” he says, adding the studio’s services range from physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, massage and aromatherapy, to yoga, Pilates and reiki, with a personal trainer set to join the team soon. A wellness coach is also on hand to help steer clients in the right direction.

“Wellness is a very personal thing and varies a lot, which is why we have coaches,” he says. “They aren’t therapists, but if people are feeling a bit depressed they will discuss what is wrong, ask questions and offer advice. Sometimes, they will say eat properly, drink more water and work less. That’s all they need. Others may need to do yoga, massage and exercise.” 

wellness destination
Yoga and meditation at places such as Wat Langka is common in Cambodia

Common practises often associated with wellness are yoga and meditation, with their popularity growing exponentially across the globe, and in Cambodia it is no different.

“Yoga is starting to be popular with Cambodians, especially in the last three years,” says Vat, who has been practising since 2011. The former monk was introduced to yoga after meeting the founder of NGO Krama Yoga, which works with disadvantaged and traumatised children and young people.

He says there is much more to yoga than the asanas – or positions – that are often only taught in classes. “There is a whole philosophy behind yoga that’s very similar to the Buddhist philosophy,” he says. “There are eight steps, that include breathing, the disciplines and the good things we have to do. The asanas are only one step.”

From a marketing point of view, it means being a skinny white woman with amazing abs, eating a salad. This has nothing to do with enlightenment

Expat Nathan Thompson, who has been meditating for seven years and practising yoga for six, agrees that modern-day yoga simply incorporates breathing and stretching techniques, forgetting its traditional roots.

“Yoga and meditation are about enlightenment,” he says. “From a marketing point of view, it means being a skinny white woman with amazing abs, eating a salad. This has nothing to do with enlightenment. It’s fine to be well and there’s nothing wrong with being healthy. If you want to do some breathing and stretching that’s fine, but don’t think it’s yoga or meditation in the traditional sense.”

He argues that meditation in its pure form does not fit into the ‘wellness paradigm’. He describes many of the monks he has met during meditation sessions in the forests of Thailand, who have been practising for more than two decades, as some of the “nuttiest, grouchiest” people he has met.

Why not try out Marissa’s pick of the Six Best Southeast Asia Wellness Resorts.

“Wellness is more narcissism and has nothing to do with yoga and meditation,” he says. “It is a word that was invented when capitalists decided to shoe-package and sell yoga. In the traditional context, the aim of the techniques is to liberate from attachment. This means you are not attached to your sense of self any more. This has got nothing to do with wellness.”

Vat incorporates yoga’s philosophy into his classes, with students who have been victims of violence and abuse claiming the practise has calmed them and helped improve their personal lives. “Yoga isn’t only about stretching,” he says. “It’s about how to live your life, how to treat others, it teaches us not to be violent within ourselves and towards others. These are very important philosophies.”

wellness destination
Having the right products is essential for a proper spa treatment

Another common element associated with wellness is massage and spa treatments, and there is no shortage of options in Cambodia. The country is dotted with massage parlours and spas, ranging vastly in quality and price. However, this presents its own set of challenges.

“If you go for a $5 massage, you will get a $5 massage and you can’t expect anything more,” warns Dhuez. “They will also use very bad products that are full of chemicals that will be absorbed into your body. If you want that inside you, then that’s up to you.” He adds that often masseuses are not properly trained and cautions against allowing them to twist or crack the neck. “That’s where you can get problems,” he says.

However, he says the main problem with the industry is the lack of training schools and spa academies in Cambodia. “In many spas here, the owner or manager doesn’t really know so much about spas. They open a spa like they would open a gas station. They will learn step by step but when they buy products, they go for price rather than quality. It’s often because they don’t have the knowledge and training.”

It’s a long process but we hope this will change the quality of massage in Cambodia and, most importantly, the perception of massage in Cambodia

But this looks set to change with Dhuez and other industry leaders working on setting up a spa association, and Cambodia taking the lead on developing a set of competency standards for spa professionals that will be adopted across ASEAN.

Minister of Tourism Dr Thong Khon has appointed Dhuez to be a technical advisor on the project, with the second draft presented at an ASEAN meeting in June. The standards set the expected minimum level of service carried out in all roles, from therapists and managers, to receptionists.

Once these have been finalised, the next step will see a curriculum written for the industry and rolled out across ASEAN, with the third step being to open a spa academy in Cambodia. In the meantime, the working group is looking at how to upgrade the country’s spa industry.

“Many massage therapists in Cambodia have been working for a long time and have never been trained properly,” says Dhuez. “We’re now trying to work on upgrading and refreshing training to reach the standard that we want to implement. It’s a long process but we hope this will change the quality of massage in Cambodia and, most importantly, the perception of massage in Cambodia.”

wellness destination
With its rich history and Buddhist religion, is Cambodia set to be the next wellness destination? photo (Photo by Alexander on Unsplash)

While Cambodia may have missed the boat on becoming a spa destination, with Thailand and Indonesia claiming the crown as well-established leaders in the market, it has potential to become a wellness destination.

Having opened its doors as an upscale resort in 2012, a year later Navutu Dreams expanded its services to offer yoga mini-breaks, Traditional Chinese Medicine and detox programmes. As a pioneer in the country’s burgeoning wellness tourism movement, today it embodies the wellness ethos, offering an a la carte menu of activities catered to each guest’s needs.

Cambodia has potential to be a wellness destination

Nature-based fitness coaches are on hand for those seeking an adrenaline rush, alternative healing comes in the form of reiki, chakra balancing, sound healing and yoga bliss therapy, and the team of professionals are on hand to deliver a range of carefully curated destination-inspired activities that take in sunrise on sacred temple grounds and the practice of shinrin-yoku – or forest bathing, a Japanese therapy that was developed in the 1980s – along jungle tracks within the archaeological park.The philosophy filters through to the food, with wellness cuisine integrated into the farm-to-table menu, plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available and cooking classes offered.

“Clients come for a real holiday, combining a moment to visit Angkor Wat while at the same time having time for themselves to de-stress, de-compress, or to be at a venue that adheres to their chosen lifestyle of living more mindfully,” says Moya.

She adds that Cambodia has huge untapped potential when it comes to wellness tourism, with interest in the country starting to grow.

Wellness Destination
Wellness destination retreats like Navutu Dreams might be a heaven amongst the mess

“Three years ago, when we started contacting the acclaimed global authorities on wellness, we were always told, “Sorry, it’s not about you but it’s just that Cambodia is not in our radar”. About a year later they were coming to us saying we are ready to feature you. So, Cambodia has potential to be a wellness destination.”

Vat agrees, saying the country’s swathe of coastline and untouched islands, as well as the bounty of rural landscapes provide the perfect location to hold retreats, relax and meditate. “There is real opportunity here,” he says, adding Angkor Yoga is currently looking for partners in the provinces to hold retreats.

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For Dhuez, however, the pollution and waste that scars the country’s landscapes represents a major challenge.

“Cambodia is really dirty, everywhere you go is full of garbage,” he says. “If it wants to become a wellness destination, then people really need to do something about that. This is a good opportunity for Cambodia, but a few things have to be done first to be sure, for example, that the yoga studio is up to standard, the Pilates instructors are proper, spa staff are well trained and the environment is clean.”

Despite this, he believes Cambodia’s raw beauty and natural charm make the perfect formula for a wellness destination. “It’s not completely developed and not completely spoiled by modernisation. Then there is Angkor Wat and the temples. A lot of people associate wellness with spirituality so with Siem Reap that could really work. There is a huge amount of potential for Cambodia to become the wellness destination of the region.”

Unless specified photos by Enric Catala.