Taking purifying baths in sacred springs, healing rituals and massages have long been a part of Nepali culture, long before luxurious five star spa getaways became fashionable. Using medicinal herbs and ayurvedic treatments has been a traditional way of life in the Himalaya for centuries.
Such treatments now constitute a multi-billion dollar global industry which is growing. In Asia-Pacific alone there are nearly 22,000 spas employing 363,684 workers with a turnover of $11.4 billion, according to the Global Spa Summit 2008.
With the increasing stresses of daily life and changing lifestyles, more and more people are leaning towards spas
as a way to rejuvenate the body, mind and spirit.
The global spa industry today is worth $60 billion and even in Nepal, hotels offering ayurvedic treatments average $10,000 a year each in profit. Currently, 10-15 per cent of tourists use the 32 spa facilities in the country and the number of locals is also increasing.
Yet, Nepal could still capitalise more on this ancient tradition and knowledge. "Purifying bathing in sacred lakes as a form of revitialisation is an ancient part of Himalayan pilgrimage culture. Spa is not something new that needs to be imported. We have to build on our own indigenous healing knowledge. Our rich natural resources make Nepal an obvious destination for rejuvenating body, mind and spirit," says Carroll Dunham of Wild Earth. Nepal has a wealth of indigenous healing practices suitable for application in modern spas," she says.
While Thamel's shady massage parlours have made people wary, the Spa and Wellness Association of Nepal (SWAN) along with other organisations want to change that image. Early this month, SWAN and Nepal Tourism Board held a conference with 20 delegates from China, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines to help continue to build and promote the spa sector in Nepal.
"Right now, what we want to promote is simply head and foot massages, so that we can slowly change the meaning of what massage means in Nepal," says Dunham.
The benefits of massage therapy in easing anxiety, tension and depression as well as physiological disorders and injuries are well known. But people are also increasingly willing to look beyond modern medicine, and particularly the use of antibiotics, to ancient, holistic healing rituals and herbs to cure various illnesses.
Rajendra Kumar Giri, who specialises in traditional ayurvedic medicine, says: "Many are opting for ayurvedic treatments as it is natural and has no side effects."
ALL PICS: THOMOS KELLY