The Herbal Sauna and Traditional Lao Massage in Vientiane turned out to be one of my best experiences during my almost one month journey through Laos. It was a great way to spend the last afternoon with my friend whom I’d just traveled the last two months through southeast Asia with. We had hiked through jungles in Borneo, re-charged while working remotely in Chiang Mai, and ridden long boats through the north of Laos together. We needed this day for our health and well-being.
The Wat Sok Pa Luang, on the outskirts of Vientiane is famous for housing the herbal sauna and traditional Lao massage.
From downtown Vientiane we walked about 45 minutes, only asking directions a couple times before finding the Wat, set back from the road, down a path among trees. There were a few temples on the property, as well as shrines and housing for the monks. A hand-painted sign nailed to a tree pointed us to the sauna.
At first glance it looked like we were the only foreigners that had used this place. So I asked about the clientele. A woman named Noy managed the premises. She, I would later learn, has taken over care of the sauna from her father and aging aunt, who is a nun and doctor of traditional medicine.
“About 60% foreigners and 40% local.” She told me. I was surprised. It looked so natural, rustic, and authentic. That’s why we liked it so much. “Don’t change anything about this place,” I told her.
When we arrived we were given a sarong and told to change. With nothing on but the sarong around our waist we opened the thick door and slipped behind the screen and were immediately wacked with a blast of steam. After a few breaths we grew accustomed to the herbal-infused steam. We began breathing deeply, inhaling through the nose, out through the mouth.
Below the steam room is where Noy loads a variety of herbs into the giant vat of boiling water. Lemongrass, eucalyptus, citrus, rosemary, oleander, cinnamon, lime leaves, basil, and mint are just a few of the ingredients she uses.
“But the perfect steam bath,” she told me, “has 32 herbs.” A wood fire burns below the vat to heat the water.
In the past herbal steaming was used medicinally to treat those who were ill.
After we finished a series of ten minutes in/ten minutes out steaming stages, we rinsed off in the garden by pouring buckets of water over our heads. Then we dried off and were given another clean sarong before lying down on one of the six firm massage beds.
For an hour the masseur practiced traditional Lao massage, from our head to our toes.
The story starts with Noy’s Aunt. “Don’t even mention me,” Noy insisted when I begin asking her questions. Thirty-five years ago, before Noy was born, she started this sauna. Once a nurse, she spent years studying and collecting herbs with a monk, from whom she learned herbal medicine. Then she became a doctor of traditional medicine.
She ran this sauna until she turned 55. Now she’s 75 and still spends many of her days here, including the day I visited. Noy’s father took over after her aunt, and now Noy is in charge. But I get the feeling she views it more as a privilege than a just a job. And it’s a way of life for her. She grew up learning how everything works here.
The monks still come every morning from 7-8am for their massage, a service which is done for free. After all, the sauna is property of the Wat.
The Wat Sok Pa Luang herbal sauna and traditional massage is open to the public from 1-8pm daily. It costs 15,000 kip ($1.85 US) for the steam room and 35,000 kip ($4.30 US) for an hour massage. Lao nationals pay 30,000 ($3.70 US) kip for the same combo.