Feeling groggy and sluggish? A fantastic Thai herbal steam cave in a lush coconut grove offers a healing herb mist that clears the fog in your head.
Tamarind Springs Forest Spa on the laid-back island of Koh Samui in southern Thailand is the first spa I wrote about at the start of my career as a wellness writer. And even after countless spa experiences around Asia, it still remains one of my favourite spas. It’s certainly one of the most unique and most exotic spas you’ll ever experience.
I had first seen the above photo on the inflight magazine on a flight to Koh Samui and was immediately intrigued. “What is that? I want to go to there!” I thought. Luckily, I happened to get invited there two days later.
My road to wellness started on what was then a bumpy dirt track near Lamai Beach the morning after a huge anniversary party hosted by Bangkok Airways at the island’s small open-air airport. It had been a fun, creative event with the airport festooned like a Thai country fair with plenty of music, food and drinks. (For readers who haven’t heard of this regional airline, Bangkok Airways is “Asia’s first boutique airline”. They initiated the first flights to Koh Samui in the 90’s and also built and own Samui airport).
I was with my very new American friend Amanda, who worked in PR for a luxury resort and was perpetually upbeat, Texas cheerleader-style, no matter what ungodly time it was.
“Oooooh! Look! What a fabulous coconut grove!” squealed the unbearably perky Amanda, craning her neck out the jeep’s open window in a serious attempt to decapitate herself. The blade edge of the open window was sawing vigorously back and forth against her bare neck as the jeep jostled crazily up and down the bumpy road.
I shuddered and quickly shut my eyes. This wasn’t the sort of horror scene I wanted to see when I was already feeling crappy and nauseous. But Amanda kept gushing like a bottomless fountain of sugary, fizzy, Coca Cola. (And I never drink Coca Cola). God. My head ached.
Allow me to add a side note here – please don’t get the wrong impression that Amanda was an unwanted presence. She was genuinely nice and I liked her. But anyone who’s ever had a hangover knows that when your brain feels like an egg yolk rolling around in the delicate eggshell that is your skull, every sound and bump seems magnified a thousand fold, and makes you feel like the egg yolk in your head might burst and ooze all over the place. (Thankfully I don’t know what that feels like any more. I stopped drinking when I started going on detox retreats).
Okay Okay. To be polite, I finally gave in. Peering blearily at the sun-speckled trees, I feebly agreed with her. “Yeah. Uh huh. That’s nice”, I croaked.
She was right though.
The full effect of the lovely coconut grove finally hit me when we disembarked from the jeep and started up the path toward an enormous thatched pavilion that was the reception lobby. Surrounded by emerald foliage, lush blossoms, and the island’s ubiquitous coconut trees swaying in the floral scented breeze to the sound of chirping birds, the Tamarind Springs Spa seemed too idyllic to be true.
At the entrance, I could even see attractive young sun-bronzed customers clad in sarongs lounging around the verandah. Everyone looked relaxed, except the receptionist who was manning the giant slab of rock that served as the front desk. She was looking flustered as there were too many customers arriving at the same time. Those who hadn’t booked in advance would have to return later.
One refreshing tamarind and ginger drink later ( tart, sweet and cold), we were padding up the grassy slope past luscious ferns sprouting from towering tree trunks, giant rocks, and delicate orchids dripping from trees as we headed to the herbal steam and plunge pool, nestled among the natural boulders in the hillside.
Following instructions, we plunged into the fern-fringed pool, splashed around in the cool water, and then eagerly proceeded to the next step – the herbal steam!
If your only steam room experiences have been in bland, tiled, windowless cubicles in city gyms, then stepping into the Tamarind Springs steam caves for the first time is a fantastic thing.
Tamarind Spring’s famous steam caves were created between natural boulders whose rocky sides create a stone-age cavern. Filmy sunlight filters through glazed window panes, lending a mysterious haze to the misty, hot room.
The spa provides charming Thai sarongs for guests to wear during plunging and steaming.
Frolicking under the plunge pool’s mini-waterfall in my floral sarong, I felt lusciously exotic, like one of Gauguin’s island nymphs.
But inside the steam cave, the sarong took on a different tone. Leaning against a steamy stone beside a wilting Amanda, clad in our wet sarongs but still wearing jewelry, we hunched, Wilma Flintstone-like, as if waiting for Fred to barge in with a hunk of dinosaur. Even Amanda’s exuberance had calmed down to some muted mumbling.
However, the results were truly therapeutic. Early into the steaming and plunging process, my hangover had miraculously vanished.
Later I was told that among the herbs used in the steam mixture, beach morning glory was said to clear hangovers and clear breathing. Other ingredients included Thai herbs such as lemongrass, camphor, prai, tamarind leaf, and kaffir lime, all which have natural medicinal properties that aid breathing, stimulate the circulation, soothe aching muscles, soothe inflammation and detoxify the skin.
My first experience at Tamarind Springs Forest Spa was in the original steam cave with one plunge pool, soon after they had first opened, Later the spa was expanded to include a second larger Steam and Dream cave and two additional plunge pools that comprise Tamarind Springs Forest Spa today.
The original steam cave is now the Steam and Scrub area where you choose from a series of gorgeous fresh-made scrubs including tamarind, coffee, coconut, or turmeric to apply before you go into the wonderful womb-like space with its ‘hissing dragon’ noises. For rinsing off there are huge traditional Thai urns, a shower, and then a cool rock plunge pool.
Outside the Steam and Dream cave, a stone path leads uphill to more plunge pools nestled among the natural boulders.
At the final plunge pool, you’ll find a relaxation area with lounge chairs and a small thatched café serving cold drinks and health snacks.
We grew accustomed to the pattern of herbal steam, rinse, and cold plunge pool, and enjoyed it so much that it seemed all too soon we were being called to our massages.
The open-air massage pavilions are perched high on the hillside, accessed by a climb up more stone steps.
Guests can choose from three choices of Tamarind Springs’ own in-house massage oils: balance, serenity, and strength. We were kneaded in the open-air pavilion to the background sounds of soft music, chirping birds, and the cooling breeze.
After our massages, we relaxed in the lobby, where a sense of well-being pervaded as customers padded around barefoot, sipping on concoctions from the juice bar. We were hangover-free, rejuvenated, and relaxed. A pond near the spa lobby is also a pretty place to sit and relax.
While a free snack, juices and coffee are included in your treatment, you can also get a bite at the wholesome café / restaurant located upstairs from the lobby, serving healthy fresh organic dishes and juices. The small but delicious menu is overseen by co-owner and managing director Kanyapha Kitjapirak (Khun Ben), who is a great cook and brilliant baker. The restaurant is open during spa hours from 10 a.m to 5 p.m.
“I’d call it Samui’s best kept secret for a nice lunch in the coconut groves,” one Samui insider told me.
Co-founders Shelley Poplak and Detlef Dirksen opened this “Oasis for Body and Soul’ in 1998 and with the support of current managing partner Khun Ben, what started initially as a small dream with one steam cave and one small rock plunge pool has been elevated to the exotic tropical eco “forest” spa fantasy that you see today.
Shelley’s very first experience upon landing in Thailand years ago was a Thai herbal steam in a tiny cement room with herbs cooking in a pot outside on the island of Phuket. She was impressed with the therapeutic effects of the treatment.
“Why not have this in a lush tropical garden?” she thought to herself, and working with Detlef on the visualization of this dream, the Tamarind Springs concept was born. The herbal steam is a centuries-old traditional Thai herbal therapy still found in country temples in the north, though the plunge pools at Tamarind Springs are a western adaption.
The massage offerings here have been developed by Tamarind Springs’ former Master Massage Therapist and Instructor, late Heimo Rieger, as a wonderful blend of the best of east and west – Thai hospitality and the famous Thai warmth blended with excellent European training and bodywork protocols.
Today Tamarind Springs is a multi award-winning professional operation with relaxed smiling receptionists, access on smooth paved roads, and even includes pickup service from your hotel.
Colourful Tibetan prayer flags flutter overhead and floral offerings adorn the Buddhist shrine, the Hindu Ganesha, an image of the patron of Thai massage, and not just one, but many spirit houses that guard the grounds outside.
“One for the spirit of the land, one for the spirit of the trees, and the smallest one for the spirit of the house,” I was told.
I’ve been to Tamarind Springs Spa several times since my first fabulous visit, and featured it in my books the Thai Spa Book and Thailand’s Luxury Spas. Some of my favourite photos of Tamarind Springs are from our photo shoot there, photographed by my colleague, renowned Italian photographer Luca Invernizzi Tettoni.
Have you been to Tamarind Springs Forest Spa? What was your favourite part about this place?