Tao Garden: Still searching for a healing haven

There are lots of therapeutic options at the Tao Garden in Chiang Mai, but are they quite what Christina Patterson is looking for?

Like pretty much every other woman in the Western world, I usually start the year wanting to lose half a stone. I want to get fitter. I want to be healthier. I want to be calmer. And I want to see the sun. So when I heard about a place that seemed to be offering me all of this, and peace, and beauty, and massages, and no deadlines whatsoever, it seemed a good idea to leap on a plane.

Well, when I say "plane", I mean three, actually, because promised lands aren't always places you can get to with a hop, skip and a jump. And this one, half an hour from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, involved a journey that made me feel like Odysseus trying to get home from Troy. But when, after a flight to Abu Dhabi, and another to Bangkok, and another to Chiang Mai, I arrived at the Tao Garden Health Spa, I felt more like Persephone emerging from the underworld into spring.

The Tao Garden, which has won lots of awards, is indeed a garden. Set among banana groves, papaya trees and rice fields in some of Thailand's lushest, greenest countryside, it's 32 acres of what feels like enchanted forest. Dotted among the trees are little huts for massage, giant vases, statues and shrines. There is, I discovered after a little wander round, not just a gym, and spa, and tennis courts, and an organic fruit garden, and a very gorgeous swimming pool, but also an "immortal meditation hall" and a centre for something called "universal Tao".

Universal Tao is a healing system developed by the man who started Tao Garden, Mantak Chia. I'd never heard of it, but I did, having once done a course in chi gung, know a little bit about "chi", and I also knew a little bit about traditional Chinese medicine. "Chi", which means "life energy", sounds as New Age nutty as you get, and the "meridians" of Chinese medicine bear no relation to anything found in Western science. But I'd found chi gung both soothing and invigorating, and I'd also found that acupuncture made me well at a time when nothing else did. So I was looking forward to the moment when someone would feel my pulse, look at my tongue and prescribe me a miracle.

The treatments, I was told, would start the next day. I spent the rest of this one trying to sleep, and sampling the "healing" foods in the buffet. The food, which is, according to the welcome leaflet, "structured around blood type", is served in an outdoor dining hall which you reach via a little bridge.

The fresh fruits and salads were, as you might expect of food grown in the organic garden and picked that morning, delicious. Some of the hot dishes were, and some of them weren't. Signs next to them listed their healing qualities, but some seemed quite heavy on the oil, and also the sugar and the noodles. Hitting the buffet three times a day was, I thought, unlikely to melt the pounds away.

Sleep proved more of a challenge. The first room I was shown, in one of the "condominiums", was surprisingly basic. The next, in one of the "town houses" which are, apparently, four star to the condominiums' one and two star, was much nicer. It was big, airy and tastefully furnished, but this, it turned out, was lucky. All accommodation is rented from different private owners who furnish according to their own taste. And the air conditioning units seem to have been supplied by a company which specialises in agricultural machinery.

But in spite of it, I forced myself out of bed the next morning, and to the 7am chi gung. Under a giant pagoda in the garden, a German called Walter showed us how to bend and stretch. He also showed us how to rub our coccyx, stick out our tongues and bend our hands like claws. We should, he said, greet every organ with the "inner smile". We should, he said, beat ourselves with bamboo. I did start beating myself with bamboo, but then I realised it was nearly eight o'clock, and I had to rush off for my blood analysis.

In the Pakua Clinic, next door to the dining hall, a smiley young man measured my blood pressure, and another one pricked my finger and made me spit into a cup. My blood, he told me, once he'd stuck a slide under a microscope, and gazed at a computer, was full of toxins. I would need, he said, to get rid of them. The treatment, he said, would start straight away.

And it did, with a "Chi Nei Tsang abdominal detox therapy" massage. This "internal organ massage", which is the Tao Garden "signature therapy", and given in one of the treatment rooms set around a courtyard in the very pretty spa, involved a young woman pummelling my torso, and what I assume to be my gut. What wasn't quite so soothing was the "Infrared Sauna". For this, you have to sit in a tiny wooden cubicle next to an electrical bar, and get extremely hot. I was prescribed four, which seemed quite a lot.

After lunch, it was time to go back to the clinic for an "aura bio-electrographic evaluation" and an "Oberon body scan". I wasn't absolutely sure what either of these were for, but was pleased when the young man who did them (who I thought was a doctor, but who, it turned out, wasn't) told me that my aura was "good". It was, he said, 97 per cent. And so, it turned out, when I talked to other guests, was everyone else's.

The man who wasn't a doctor told me that I should massage my ears and feet every day, touch the big tree in the t'ai chi field, and give myself love and joy. Later, in the meditation hall, a German woman called Jutta talked about love and joy again. We were doing a gentle kind of yoga, and a meditation called "Six Healing Sounds". We had, for example, to tap our liver and go "Shhh", and then tap our stomach and go "Whooo".

It was nice to lie on a mat and not do very much, because the next few days were very busy. There was, for a start, the fast. You might think that going on a three-day juice and soup fast would mean you'd save the time you'd normally spend on meals, but it doesn't. What it means is having a "detox drink", and then, an hour and a half later, a juice, and then, an hour and a half later, a "cell cleansing drink", and then soup, and then another "cell cleaning drink" and so on throughout the day, ending with a 9pm "probiotic". And between these drinks you're meant to use the "vibrations" room, which means sitting on various machines that make you vibrate, and you're meant to have your infrared saunas, and your slimming massages, and your cellulite wraps, and your ozone steam treatments, which mean you have to sit naked in a kind of cupboard.

On my last day, I saw a real doctor. He told me 70 per cent of Western medicine was wrong. He said I should come off the drugs I take to prevent cancer. Which I've had twice.

I like a nice massage. I like walking in a shady garden and sitting, when there's time to, by a pool. But what I learnt, in these packed days spent largely having treatments or waiting for the next one, was that a little bit of pampering goes quite a long way. I learnt that if you don't eat for a few days you'll lose a few pounds, but when you do, you'll get them back. And I learnt that while some of the New Age nuttiness you find in "integrative holistic health spas" won't do you any harm, some of it will.

Travel essentials: Chiang Mai

Getting there

* Bangkok is served by Etihad (020-3450 7300; etihadairways.com) via Abu Dhabi; and direct from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Thai (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk), Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) and Eva Air (020-7380 8300; evaair.com).

Staying there

* Tao Garden, Chiang Mai (00 66 5392 1200; tao-garden.com). Doubles from 2,700 baht (£56) full board. Three-night retreats from 10,500 baht (£215).

More information

* tourismthailand.org

Comments