Hot springs


The Yunnan province is China’s primary geothermal region. Lisa Starr pays a visit and tries out two very different hot spring experiences

As a consultant, journalist and educator in the spa world, I’ve been to a number of wonderful spas in far-flung locations, and I’m always interested in the different roles that spas play in specific regions of the world. I recently travelled to Yunnan province in China where I visited two hot spring spas which, while they had some similarities, were very different experiences from the customer perspective.

Yunnan province in southwest China, borders Myanmar and Laos and is the country’s primary geothermal region due to its location over fault lines. It’s known for jade, tea, tobacco, medicinal plants and sugar cane, as well as its beautiful landscapes and a plentiful 97 volcanoes. The capital of the province, with 45 million inhabitants, is the city of Kunming, which is a three-hour flight from Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Brilliant Resort & Spa

Forty-five minutes outside Kunming, on Yang Zong Lake, is the Brilliant Resort & Spa – a member of Small Leading Hotels of the World. It features a 50-bedroom hotel, 17 pool villas and a spa. The central attraction, however, is the 25 hot spring pools which are free for hotel guests to use.

I spent four nights at the resort during the Spa China Summit, and was fortunate enough to stay in one of the enormous pool villas – without the lure of the extensive hot springs and spa, I might not have left!
The spa, set among the hot springs, included two couple’s suites in a small building, five cabana-style treatment rooms overlooking the lake and another larger building with 22 treatment rooms.

It’s possible that guests might never discover the hot springs or ‘The Wetlands’ as the entrance is hidden behind tall bamboo. Similarly, once inside, a visitor could enjoy the pools but have no idea there are spa treatments available just a few steps away. Information on the spa and treatments was available in my villa – and booking was easy – but the resort could do a better job of encouraging guests to take advantage of them and provide better maps.

My two-hour Chinese Five Element Therapy treatment, costing cny1,880 (us$299, €229, £191), took place in an impressive, spacious suite. Built in a cabana-style for two people, it featured a WC, large shower,
comfortable changing area, two tables and an outdoor hot spring pool.

My Chinese therapist helpfully guided me through the treatment steps, beginning with a soak in the pool, under the light of the full moon at 9pm – I was impressed the resort was offering later times to fit us all in.

Back inside, the treatment continued with a mild scrub incorporating buffalo horn, widely used in traditional Chinese medicine, followed by a massage with a choice of relaxing or muscle-soothing oil. Throughout the experience the therapist inquired about my comfort and communicated in English – although no attempt was made to sell the Aromatherapy Associates products displayed in reception. The treatment was both thorough and relaxing and, still wearing my bathrobe in the buggy back to my villa, I felt happily content.

The pools have different features and themes such as whirlpool, cave, fish and rose. The largest pool is set along a stage where you can view performances such as yoga dancing.

There was also a fairly clean and well-equipped public seating space – so while hot spring devotees can go from pool to pool, others can relax on lounge chairs with some tea, juice or wine served by staff with fair English who are always nearby.

In general, the Brilliant resort is a wonderful retreat for a long, romantic weekend. The company has yet to focus on cultivating an international reputation and up to 80 per cent of guests are Chinese, but it is beginning to see tourists from Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Europe.

A member of Small Leading Hotels of the World, Brilliant Resort & Spa is located on Yang Zong Lake
A member of Small Leading Hotels of the World, Brilliant Resort & Spa is located on Yang Zong Lake
The hot springs area was not easy to find at the resort and the spa within it was also well-hidden
The hot springs area was not easy to find at the resort and the spa within it was also well-hidden
Hot spring devotees can enjoy the 25 pools, which offer different features and themes such as whirlpool, cave, fish and rose
Hot spring devotees can enjoy the 25 pools, which offer different features and themes such as whirlpool, cave, fish and rose

Jade Hot Springs

An hour’s flight west from Kunming is the city of Tengchong. This active geothermal corner of China, only 30km from Myanmar, is a vacation destination for Chinese nationals, but very few westerners. As part of a three-day tour I stopped off at the Jade Hot Springs – an alluring tree-lined valley with rising plumes of steam– in Tengchong Geological Park.

The park, known as the ‘rehai’ or ‘hot sea’, is rife with boiling pools, fumaroles, steaming ground and sinters. People have been taking the waters here since the early 1600s, but the current facility featuring a spa and a bathhouse dates from 2004.

There are various entry plans to the attraction and our cny255 (us$41, €31, £26) ticket entitled us to a tour of the geological features, a simple dinner and a visit to the spa to soak in the hot springs. Among the geological features were the Frog’s Mouth Fumaroles which spurt hot steamed water into the air, and side-by-side ‘pregnancy hot springs’; legend has it that drinking from one will begat boys, and the other girls.

The spa entrance, clearly marked in English, leads into a two-storey tall atrium where guests are directed to a check-in desk followed by a very functional, basic locker room – summed up by the curtainless shower stalls. Bathing suits and slippers on, we made our way down various hallways and stairs with occasional signage and although it was only a two-minute walk it felt like a bit of a journey.

The 22 natural hot springs contain calcium, magnesium, sodium bicarbonate, among other minerals, and the effects of hydrostatic pressure, warm water and mineral chemistry are said to aid various ailments from digestive and respiratory complaints to insomnia and rheumatoid arthritis. I didn’t sense any changes in my body after the baths – either here or at Brilliant Resort – but it was an enjoyable experience. I tried the Aloe Pool to soften the sebum and increase skin nutrition; the Cedar Pool to clear the brain; and the Coffee Pool, containing small grains of coffee over the bottom to promote skin metabolism and relieve fatigue.

The pools don’t seem to be arranged in any particular order, but are conveniently very close to each other. Each pool has a name or theme, and the temperatures ranging from 33-45?C are posted in LED lights – just as well, as the attendants only spoke Chinese! Yet there were thoughtful touches such as trays of water and tall wooden racks for robes and towels throughout.

While there, Chinese couples, groups of both young men and women, and families shared the pools. We visited during the mid-autumn festival, a national public holiday, so it might have been busier than usual.

Other features include a reflexology room and spa treatment rooms and cabanas spread throughout the complex. There were around 12 treatments on offer ranging from a Volcanic Stone Foot Spa soak & pumice for cny58 (us$9, €7, £6) to an Essential Oil Massage and Soak priced at cny588 (us$93, €72, £60). No facials were offered and there was a distinct lack of retail. As is often the case in more remote markets, there was very little marketing of the
spa services – no printed menus in any language, no mention by staff or promotional materials in lockers or lounge areas, and details such as products used or length of service were not available.

After dressing, we returned to the atrium, where a television showed local news amid a random collection of chairs and tables. There was rubbish on the floor, itself none too clean, and clients smoking, so not quite up to international spa standards, but we felt very relaxed and, in contrast, very clean!

The 22 natural hot springs contain calcium, magnesium and sodium bicarbonate
The 22 natural hot springs contain calcium, magnesium and sodium bicarbonate
Chinese couples, groups of young men and women and families enjoyed the pools together
Chinese couples, groups of young men and women and families enjoyed the pools together

Opposites attract

I really enjoyed both experiences, although they were quite different. Both resorts represented significant capital investments, even in China, and I imagine that between legal and financial hurdles it would be very difficult for an international operator to open something on a similar scale.

Brilliant Resort is better equipped to handle international visitors and is more luxurious than much of the accommodation in the Yunnan province. Jade Hot Springs, while scenic and adventurous, would have been a difficult experience to navigate without Chinese-speaking guides.

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Company profile: Willmott Dixon
Willmott Dixon delivers the social infrastructure that people depend on in their daily lives. We partner with our customers to focus on the services they want to provide, not just the building we construct, and we are committed to achieving a higher social purpose through our work.
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