I remember when I ran over my own foot as a teen with my Norkis motor trike (don’t ask). There was no blood, but my foot swelled up and I could feel the veins painfully out of place, making it hard to walk. This was in the early 1990s, and my mom knew just where to take me—nope, not to the emergency room of the nearby hospital, but to the popular manghihilot (hilot practitioner) in the neighbouring city. I am deathly afraid of needles, but a trip to a dimly-lit alley to allow a virtual stranger to manhandle my foot in an esoteric ritual in the middle of the night did not faze me. And true enough, after coaxing my veins into place (tears were involved), my foot was back to normal, and all for a token fee.
Hilot has come a long way. These days, you can now spot hilot treatments alongside Thai, Swedish, and Shiatsu massages in local spa menus. And though it’s a modern, commercialised version for the mainstream market, it still features the hallmarks of the traditional Filipino healing art.
So what exactly is hilot?
“Hilot is our Philippine traditional massage, which has been practised for generations. Banana leaves are used in detecting the areas with imbalance or negative energy, called 'lamig,' and that’s where the hilot (therapeutic massage) will be focused,” explains Dr. Nol Montalbo, proprietor of Mont Albo Massage Hut, a chain of spas that specializes in hilot. Elders explain lamig as “napasukan ng hangin” (air trapped in your body/joints), which causes bodily discomfort ranging from a mild ache, to the pain of a muscle spasm or pulled muscle.
More on this mysterious lamig (direct translation: cold). Says Dr. Montalbo, “In the Filipino wellness system, there should be a balance between the cold and the hot energies. It’s similar to ‘chi’ in Chinese medicine, where free-flowing energy and balance is also sought.”
Dr. Montalbo grew up in the province of Batangas, where, like many areas in the Philippines, a visit to a manghihilot or an albularyo (herbalist) is commonplace. Though now a medical doctor, Dr. Montalbo remains convinced of hilot’s efficacy in soothing aches and pains (“not as replacement for Western medicine, but a complement to relieve pain”), and thus decided to pioneer a spa that specialised in Filipino hilot.
Also read: Get stoked at these top surf spots
Slow, deliberate strokes and banana leaves
At Mont Albo, hilot is administered by specially trained therapists, and involves heat, banana leaves, bentosa (suctioning cups), and a healing massage with slow, deliberate strokes. “Banana leaves are warmed, placed on skin, and amazingly, start to stick to the area where negative energy is concentrated. That’s where the therapist will focus the massage on.” The no-frills massage treatment at the nipa hut-inspired Mont Albo Massage Hut is priced at P380 (around 9 USD) for 60 minutes, while at its upscale counterpart, Mont Albo Spa, the treatment is priced at P1550 (around 37 USD) 60 minutes for the total spa experience (inclusive of private room, sauna, use of high-end products, and a post-massage meal).
Whenever I travel around the Philippines, I always try to squeeze in a spa treatment at a local resort to complete my holiday. One of the most blissful hilot treatments I’ve come across was at the Handuraw spa in Eskaya in Bohol, with an amazing view of the sea.
Marichelle Ligon, a fellow spaholic and a magazine beauty editor, recommends the spa at Maribago Bluewater Beach Resort in Cebu. “Hilot is all about pressure, and they expertly applied just the right pressure. It was also nice how they covered your body with banana leaves that kept your body in the right temperature.”
Photo Gallery: Dream escapes in the Philippines
Experience traditional Filipino massage
Practically, all the premiere Philippine hotels now offer hilot in their spa menus; or head to The Spa Wellness, a luxurious pampering establishment with several branches around Metro Manila. Grace Castro, The Spa Training Head, shares that while hilot by the traditional manghihilot concentrates on one part of the body to relieve pain, hilot at the spa is administered over the entire body, “mainly for relaxation, to improve blood circulation, and relieve stress and lamig.”
At The Spa, highly trained warm hands (heated by tea light candles) massage the back using coconut oil, followed by the application of pre-heated banana leaves to relieve bodily stress, and this is repeated throughout the body. It is capped off with a soothing scalp massage, and a post-treatment cup of ginger tea. The 75-minute session at The Spa starts at P1300 at the executive room (around 31USD) and P1,900 for the suite/villa (46 USD).
Castro shares, “Hilot is recommended to those who are stressed, looking for relaxation and foreigners looking to experience a traditional Filipino massage.”
Dr. Montalbo’s word ring in my head: “What sets our hilot service apart from other massage therapies is that it is done with slow, deliberate strokes, it addresses the Filipino concept of lamig, and there is also a level of spirituality. The therapist has the intention of healing.”
Just like I went to a manghihilot when I injured my foot, these days, I find myself heading to a reputable spa for a soothing hilot session when I feel out of whack. There’s just something about the warm coconut oil, the comforting banana leaves, and the gentle healing touch of the Filipina that makes all the difference.
Related gallery: Spa-ntastic retreats