Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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September 10-12, 2004

This Bangkok Spa Has Gone to the Dogs

by Jennifer Gampell

A French Bulldog named "Shogun" lies splayed out on his stomach under the thatched roof of a traditional Thai sala. Seated next to him, a sarong-clad masseuse applies ayurvedhic powder from India to small stone disks, and then places the disks carefully along the chakras (energy centers) of the dog's short spine. Within moments, the dog's ears lie at half mast; his closed eyes almost disappear behind the folds of his muzzle and he drools slightly. Shogun is--literally as well as figuratively--very stoned.

Jare Jansrisuriyawong opened Thailand's first traditional herbal spa for dogs, known as Indo-Thai Dog Resort and Spa, earlier this year in a north Bangkok suburb. After 15 years as a freelance tourist guide and 10 as a dog breeder, he craved a change.

"I wanted to do more for my dogs than feed them and sell their babies," explains the 39-year-old in excellent English. "I wanted to free them from their cages and make them happy."

It appears to be working. When I walk into the resort, I am stunned by the effusive welcome from half a dozen tail-wagging, licking and leaping canines in assorted shapes and sizes. This is a far cry from most other Thai dogs I meet, whose standard greeting is ferocious barking.

The day spa program at Indo-Thai offers canines a brief respite from the stresses of Bangkok life. Prior to receiving his Chinese stone treatment, Shogun had dog-paddled vigorously for 10 minutes in the resort's small rectangular pool under the impassive gaze of a large sandstone Balinese garuda statue perched on one side. His aerobic endeavors completed, Shogun was escorted to a leafy open-air massage sala and placed gently on a towel laid over a Persian-looking rug.

At human spas, anointing clients' heads and bodies with steaming cloth packs of aromatic herbs and spices is the sine qua non of a "traditional Thai" treatment. When three moist dog-sized herbal packs were applied to Shogun's head and back, they produced an immediate soporific response.

Herbal pack and Chinese stone therapy treatments normally last 10 minutes each, but Mr. Jare disdains rigid timetables and never disturbs a blissed-out client. To him, a day spa means exactly that. "You can't tell owners to come back in an hour or two," he says. "You need to spend time giving to the dogs."

In addition to exercise, the two herbal treatments, a soak in a rose petal-strewn wooden tub filled with orange- and milk-scented water, the day spa package includes two dried food meals and a steamed vegetable snack. Priced at $15 for small dogs and $22 for larger animals, the treatments attract the kind of middle and upper class Thais for whom the concept of dog ownership is often more attractive than the messier reality. Thai temples are notorious repositories for hordes of mangy mutts dumped by their bored owners.

Mr. Jare devised the idea for his resort while attending a course for small and medium business enterprises. As he listened to the other participants discussing how to market herbs, aroma therapy and other exotic treatments to humans, he thought about adapting similar treats for a canine clientele.

From his years in the tourist industry, Mr. Jare knew staff at a world-famous human resort in Hua Hin who agreed to train him in spa techniques. In addition, he attended classes on traditional Thai medicine, studied further on the topic at a local temple and turned half of his small property into an herb garden.

Through friends who worked at dog clinics and hospitals in Bangkok, Mr. Jare discovered that many of these places did more harm than good. Clients would board a healthy dog for a weekend and came back to collect a disease-ridden pet. "That's when I decided to use herbal remedies for sick dogs as well as healthy ones." He also vowed that at his resort, owners could remain with their pets and talk to the staff instead of sitting alone in a waiting room.

The soft-spoken and unassuming Mr. Jare speaks more knowledgably about herbal remedies for his patients' ailments than most of his counterparts at human spas. His particular areas of expertise include heart, liver, kidney, bone and skin disorders. Some of the spa's 15 treatments include poultices of motor oil, garlic and sulfur (part of a 3-step mange cure), black coffee and carrot (to eliminate odors) and kaffir lime boiled with egg (coat conditioner). A three-week course of traditional Thai treatment costs $240, room and board included. Including Mr. Jare's own animals, the resort currently has some 30 dogs in residence.

He also works with emotionally disturbed animals. He once transformed a vicious Rottweiler into such a playful pet its owners wanted to leave it permanently at the spa. Mr. Jare politely declined.

In the Thai spa world, success is often measured by how many people try copy your concept or hire away your staff. By these standards Mr. Jare is doing extremely well. Now, he's trying to expand his business through franchising, but only to dedicated dog lovers like himself. His search for potential investors has taken him to spa conventions and demonstrations in 5-star hotels, but the upscale glamour of the "human" spa world holds no allure.

"I tell everyone I'm no business success in a necktie and jacket," he laughs. "I'll come smelling like dog."

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2004 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell