Fitness fads come and go but all feature the same goal – to keep your body healthy, but what about your mind? With the term wellness increasingly being bandied about, editor Marissa Carruthers looks at what it means and how to achieve a holistic lifestyle in Cambodia. Photography by Enric Català.

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.”

What is Wellness?

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.

Defined by the World Health Organisation as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”, wellness can encompass a swathe of elements.

“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.”

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 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’s 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.”

Lorenzo Lanzafame, founder of LL Fitness, says having a healthy mind-set is integral to achieving a healthy body. “The two go together,” he says. “Wellness is a lifestyle consisting of eating well, exercise, sleeping well, taking care of yourself and enjoying life.”

Having moved here four years ago after seeing the potential to tap into the country’s health and fitness market while visiting Cambodia, Lanzafame launched LL Fitness, offering personal training, nutrition advice and physiotherapy services.

“It was pretty tough,” he says. “A lot of people didn’t know anything about personal training, health and fitness. There was very little education on what is wellness or personal training and a lot of Cambodians weren’t taking care of themselves.” However, he has noted a major shift in attitude in recent years as the wellness industry grows and education becomes more readily available. He is also playing his part in pushing the importance of maintaining a healthy mind and body.

Lanzafame is working with the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia to develop health and fitness workshops and his next step is to tap into the senior market as a tribute to his grandfather, Sebastiano Lanzafame.

“Especially in Cambodia, once you pass a certain age people give up. They say, ‘I’m old, I can’t do that now’. That’s not true,” he says. “You don’t have to go to the gym and lift heavy weights; it can be fun activities, walking in water, any physical motion. This is a genre that is often forgotten, and you can still see the energy in the eyes.”

Finding Zen

Common practises often associated with the wellness landscape 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.

Starting out working in human resources, Vat also taught Buddhist philosophy to the NGO’s yoga teachers and learned the practise himself. He went on to scoop a 200-hour yoga scholarship on the Thai island of Koh Samui, and returned to co-found Angkor Yoga in Toul Kork, aimed at providing affordable classes for locals.

But 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.”

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. And 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.

“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 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.”

The Spa Scene

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.”

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 to 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

While Cambodia may have missed the boat on becoming a spa destination, with Thailand and Indonesia claiming the crown as well-established market leaders, 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.

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 at 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.

“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.

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.”

If you fancy injecting a bit of zen into your life, finding your way to fitness or simply want to wander down the path towards wellness, then here are some places that can help you on your journey.

Angkor Yoga

5C2 and 6C2, Street 289-516, Toul Kork, Phnom Penh
Tel. 012 584 930
Offers a range of yoga and meditation classes aimed at Cambodians but foreigners are welcome.

Angkor Zen Gardens and Retreat Centre

Bruno’s Lane, Siem Reap
Tel. 012 699 210
Holds daily yoga and meditation classes surrounded by paddies. The range of retreats take in meditation, yoga, massage, reiki and vegetarian food.

Azahar Foundation Center for Peace Yoga and Arts Cambodia

39 Street 21, Phnom Penh
Tel. 012 739 419

Huap Guan Street, Siem Reap
Tel. 081 732 001

Both centre’s offer a variety of yoga and meditation classes, as well as creative arts, such as circus and bokator.

Bodia Spa

178 Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh
New Street A, Siem Reap
Tel. 092 671 937
Top class spa that delivers a range of massages, body wraps, facials and other treatments.

Hariharalaya Yoga & Meditation Retreat

Prasat Bakong, National Road 6, Siem Reap
Tel. 031 222 6570
Offers a range of meditation and yoga retreats, healing sessions and vegan cuisine.

Krama Yoga

52 Street 302, Phnom Penh.
Tel. 012 250 817
This is an NGO that uses works with disadvantaged and traumatised children and young people using yoga and meditation. It also runs yoga and meditation events and retreats that are open to the public

Kundalini Yoga Cambodia

42 Street 123, Phnom Penh
Tel. 092 429 835

Offers yoga and healing meditation sessions, as well as special events, including meditation weekends, full moon meditation and workshops.

LL Fitness

Tel. 070 780 902
Personal training services, nutrition advice and physiotherapy services.

Nataraj Yoga Studio

52 Street 302, Phnom Penh
Tel. 012 250 817
As a social business for Krama Yoga, this studio runs a range of yoga and meditation classes.

Navutu Dreams Resort & Wellness Retreat

Navutu Road, Siem Reap
Tel. 063 964 864
An eco-chic resort that offers a range of wellness retreats and programmes to relax, rebalance and rejuvenate.

SAMATA Health & Wellness Centre

54 Street 306, Phnom Penh.
Tel. 010 274 208
Brings together holistic therapies and treatments under one roof, including physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, podiatry, child birth preparation, massage, aromatherapy, yoga, Pilates and reiki.

Vagabond Temple

Road 33, Pepper Street 3, Kep
Tel. 088 349 8196
This yoga and meditation retreat offers yoga and meditation retreats, from five days to two months. Other services include detox programmes and reiki.

The Vine Retreat

Chamcar Bei Village, Pongteuk Commune, Kep
Tel. 011 706 231
Located in the heart of rural Kep, this tranquil getaway boasts a yoga studio and meditation circle