Travellers to Thailand have long appreciated the restorative powers of a holiday in the Land of Smiles. Arrive frazzled, burnt out and wearing your shoulders as earrings, depart glowing and re-energised by a week or two of massages, warm weather and pad Thai.
For people who are struggling with bigger challenges than the humdrum stress of daily life that most of us face – those who are dealing with addictions, PTSD or chronic burn-out – more than sunshine and smiles is required to start the journey back to healthy and happy.
That's where The Cabin Chiang Mai and its brand of rehab tourism is gaining a following. Thailand's answer to Promises Treatment Center in Malibu and the Betty Ford Clinic, The Cabin offers counselling, treatment and support for addictions, anxiety disorders and lifestyle management challenges in a luxurious resort setting on the River Ping.
At about a third of the cost of US treatment centres, geographically closer and with better massages, The Cabin Chiang Mai is already popular with Australians, who make up 35 to40 per cent of the clientele.
Two riverside sites, about 10 minutes' drive from the city centre of Chiang Mai, house accommodations for 50 patients. It's far from a hardship posting: with manicured gardens, resort-style swimming pools, yoga pavilions and massage huts, this could be a luxury resort.
Private, spacious rooms are decked out in traditional Thai style and come equipped with Wi-Fi, cable TV, DVD players and deep bathtubs.
Sunday outings to popular tourist attractions in Chiang Mai – elephant rides, whitewater rafting, markets – provide clients with the opportunity to enjoy the destination and post happy snaps on Facebook.
That's not to say the centre is light on serious recovery work; far from it. With an international team of Western-trained medical detox specialists, psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors, The Cabin shepherds clients through treatment for substance addictions (alcohol, methamphetamines), process addictions (sex, gambling, work) and stress disorders.
The core treatment methods are a tailored mix of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), 12-step principles, education, therapeutic meditation and exercise therapy. Nutritious food and early nights, plus peace and quiet on the riverfront, have their own therapeutic benefits.
One person Traveller spoke to credited The Cabin Chiang Mai with helping him kick a methadone addiction that had controlled and almost destroyed his life from the age of 12. His parents paid for him to travel to Thailand from Australia and complete two back-to-back 28-day residential programs.
He has now been clean for two years and, following successful treatment, decided to move permanently to Thailand. He continues to attend support meetings with counsellors at The Cabin.
"It completely exceeded my expectations," he says. "I thought I was coming to a jail, but it's been great. The comfort of the place and the staff are the best things, as well as really learning how your brain works and why you are an addict."
He says there is a growing network of support groups and services in Chiang Mai, influenced by the presence of The Cabin and its team members.
Already known as a "wellness" destination of superior Thai massage, yogis and juice cleanses, the growth of an internationally recognised medical rehab industry could attract thousands more visitors each year.
With a new outpatient treatment centre – "dayhab" – opened in Sydney earlier this year, it will be possible for Australians to experience The Cabin recovery methods before committing to a month-long program in Thailand.
The first Cabin dayhab centre opened earlier this year in Hong Kong and was almost instantly booked solid by stressed executives and expats who wanted to address lifestyle issues but were too busy to find the time to leave town for 28 days. Clients attend therapy and educational sessions daily and then retreat to their own homes at night.
Thai Airways flies non-stop from Australia to Bangkok 45 times weekly, with several daily onward connections to Chiang Mai. See www.thaiairways.com.au or phone 1300 651 960.
The Cabin Chiang Mai offers residential addiction treatment and recovery programs including luxurious accommodations, meals, group therapy and individual counselling. Its 28-day primary treatment programs are priced from $14,000. See thecabinchiangmai.com.
The Cabin Sydney offers a six-week foundation course from $5000 and a 12-week advanced course from $8000. Both courses are based on the Chiang Mai model, adapted to suit outpatient treatment. See www.thecabinsydney.com.au.
Kristie Kallahan travelled with the assistance of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.