Phnom Penh’s spas have not been immune to the effects of the economic crunch, but owners are confident the thriving sector will survive the downturn
A patron enjoys one of Aziadee’s ever-popular back and shoulder massages.
#16AB, Rue 282, 023 996 921
This French-owned facility, operating from a tranquil and cinnamon-fragrant renovated villa, offers massage therapies including Thai, Indian and Egyptian techniques, as well as a range of Jacuzzi and scrub treatments. The Back and Shoulder massage and Aziadee facial, which uses a freshly made, all-natural mask of eggs and chickpea flour, are favourites.
#29, Street 240. 023 215 754
This tranquil, two-storey, Moroccon-inspired villa, houses a jacuzzi, steam-room and courtyard plunge pool, and offers a range of massage, facial and scrub treatments. The therapists speak fluent English and use 100 percent natural products, including the Australian Jurlique range. Special services include luxurious private spa and dinner evenings for small groups.
Amrita Spa. Raffles Hotel Le Royal,
92 Rukhak Vithei Daun Penh, 063 963 888
Located in the luxury hotel’s quiet grounds, the 5-room facility is the capital’s oldest and most expensive. It includes a steam-room, sauna, and Jacuzzi for up to four people. The English-speaking staff offer a range of massage, facial and body-scrub treatments, the most popular are the Signature and Invigoration Packages, which include access to the pool.
#63, Street 242, 023 214 621
Phnom Penh’s oldest stand-alone spa is situated in a lush, tropical garden with an outdoor massage and Jacuzzi area. It offers numerous body treatments and international massage therapies, but the house special, a combination of Indonesian and Hong Kong massage techniques, remains a popular favourite of expats.
After even the briefest ride on a moto in peak-hour Phnom Penh traffic, or dash through your local fresh produce market, it's not hard to crave a few moments' reprieve from the filth and foul temper of urban conundrum.
For residents of the capital, that reprieve lies mere moments away - in one of the city's day spas.
According to the "Cambodia Spa Benchmark Report 2007-2010", produced almost a year ago by global industry surveyor Intelligent Spas, the country boasted 35 spas, 34 percent of them independent day spas and 66 percent destination spas offering accommodation.
The study highlighted a booming national industry which in 2007 generated about $6 million in revenues, through around 200,000 customers, serviced by 400 staff.
Although no demographic research has been published, it is estimated that around 90 percent of patrons are expats and foreign tourists, the majority from European backgrounds. With around half of all spa providers located in Phnom Penh, where a number of outlets have opened since the report's publication, the capital is well-equipped to cater to their needs.
Cassandra McMillan, owner of the well-known Bliss Spa and Boutique, was among the first to identify this latent demand when she arrived in Phnom Penh 15 years ago.
"I really felt there was an element missing," she said. "There was a real need for a place where people could go to escape from the hustle and bustle and all the dust and noise; somewhere that was not complicated, to cleanse the mind and body."
At that time, the main personal treatment therapies were massage parlours, many of which operated under the dubious premise of offering "that bit extra", she said.
I’ve tried to keep our standards
consistent and our
The Australian fashion designer therefore decided to open an adjunct spa business in 2003, bringing in professional trainers from Brazil, Thailand and Australia to help create her longed-for "little oasis".
East meets West
While elements of the modern spa have been practised in Asia for centuries in traditional therapies and natural springs, the term originated in Roman Europe in reference to the Belgian town, Spa, and came to mean "healing through water".
Intelligent Spas' managing director Julie Garrow said "each country, city and business applies their own unique spin on what they consider a spa", but explained that it should include elements of water, relaxation and healing, whether through modern or traditional practices.
Many spa entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia combine treatments from both East and West in a regional take on the concept - like the renowned Amrita Spa, a subsidiary of regional conglomerate Raffles Hotels and Resorts. "All of our therapists are Khmer," explains spa supervisor Prom Puth.
"But they are trained in traditional Thai, Swedish and Khmer massage, as well as reflexology, aromatherapy and facial treatments."
Established in 1997, Amrita is the city's oldest spa. "At first we weren't so busy because people didn't really know what a spa did," Prom Puth said. "But now that there's been more promotion of spas, we have more customers and a lot more business."
Garrow identified this increase as part of a global trend of spa development as massage parlours and beauty salons expanded their services. However, while the quantity of spas in Cambodia has grown exponentially over the past decade, the quality remains unclear.
"I think many spas opened because people think that it will be easy money," said Celine Jacobelli, owner of the popular Aziadee and recently opened Amrette establishments.
"Often people aren't really interested in spas, so the quality of the training is not very good and the products are all synthetic.
"I've tried to keep our standards consistent and our products as natural as possible. I think that's kept people coming back."
Although the increased competition has posed little threat to institutions with a faithful following, the rising cost of materials and recent economic downturn means that opening a spa in Phnom Penh in 2009 may not be a path to quick riches.
"In February we really noticed a drop in business," Jacobelli said. "We've lost about 20 percent of our clientele this year, mostly tourists. But we're still doing OK."
Consistent with these estimates, Intelligent Spas recently found that, globally, spa operators received 13 percent less business in 2008 than predicted, and the company has lowered its initial forecasts for worldwide 2009 revenue by almost 10 percent. However, they have given a more positive global and regional forecast for 2010, predicting a rise in average revenue and patronage.
McMillan is similarly optimistic about the future of Bliss spa. "We have seen a small drop", she said.
"People who maybe came for a weekly treatment are now coming once a fortnight instead, but I'm not panicking about it. We have a solid base of regular clientele, so we just have to ride it out."
With the days now growing hotter and wetter, and residents still bustling to their regular providers to cool down or scrub up, it seem that, come rain or shine, spa treatments are a luxury that Phnom Penh residents will strive to afford.