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  Kamalaya Koh Samui luxury wellness resort in Thailand : Luxury wellness sanctuary and holistic spa  

Kamalaya state of mind

CALENDAR the best of the month > Calendar, September Travel: Healing Holidays

Kamalaya state of mind

Kieren Charteris has a revelation – or was it delirium? – at Kamalaya Koh Samui luxury wellness resort on one Thailand’s most beautiful islands.

Day one - impressions

We fly into at Koh Samui Airport from Sydney via Bangkok late Sunday afternoon. It’s one of the prettiest and most unique airports I’ve ever seen; like a resort in its own right. The lush tropical gardens beside the runway are dotted with open thatched-roof pavilions linked by covered walkways. We’re collected from the tarmac by a chauffeur-driven golf cart and ferried to one pavilion, an arrivals lounge lined with colonial-style wicker furniture and bedecked with spectacular floral arrangements. I half-expect Mr Roarke and Tattoo from cult TV show ‘Fantasy Island’ to greet us in their matching white suits. Instead we make our way to the Kamalaya service desk, where we’re met by a smiling resort representative and ushered to a waiting SUV stocked with cool bottled water and the first of many lemongrass-scented cold towels.

Kamalaya Koh Samui is a luxury wellness sanctuary and holistic spa opened in 2005 by former yogi John Stewart and his healer wife Karina with their business partner Marc-Antoine Cornaz on the site of a disused Buddhist monk’s cave. Kamalaya translates as ‘Lotus Realm’ in ancient Sanskrit, symbolising the human spirit unfolding like a lotus flower. The 25km drive south along the coast to the resort only takes 45 minutes but when we arrive, it feels much further away than that from the hustle and bustle of Koh Samui’s main tourist areas. Everything about Kamalaya exudes peace and serenity: the beautiful hillside setting; the simple architecture and tasteful Thai modern décor; and the saffron-shirted members of staff who welcome us with a refreshing (but sadly non-alcoholic) fruit cocktail.

The resort has hotel room-style accommodation as well as suites, but we’re lucky enough to secure a stand-alone villa. It’s huge, with rich teak fittings and plush fabrics in neutral tones. There’s an indoor/outdoor bathroom and a private porch with two comfy day beds and a view over the pool to the beach. And did I mention it’s huge? I’ve lived in Sydney apartments that were smaller.

I don’t know if it’s the resort’s calming influence or the onset of jetlag but I suddenly feel very tired. Dusk falls and not long afterwards wefall too, into bed.

Day two – consultation

Air-conditioning, in a place like Kamalaya, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because temperatures often reach the mid-thirties and humidity tops 75 per cent. A curse because in the middle of an otherwise quiet night the damned things sound like a small helicopter hovering in the room. I wake less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than I should. But there’s little time to wallow in self-pity as it’s straight down to the business of boosting our wellness.

Kamalaya has won several prestigious spa awards in recent years and guests come from all over the world to partake in its various programs, which range from Healthy Lifestyle and Emotional Balance to its signature Detox & Rejuvenation package.

Like all packages, our Yoga Synergy program starts with a physical check-up called a body bioimpedance analysis and a wellness consultation with one of the staff holistic medicine practitioners. I’m not a fan of physicals but this one is very non-threatening. Height and weight are measured. Then I’m hooked up to a machine which electronically determines things like body fat, body mass index and total body water, as well as less familiar terms like phase angle (an indicator of cellular health and integrity) and body capacitance (which measures how effectively your body stores energy). There are no nasty surprises, although I could probably be better hydrated. The wellness consultation goes smoothly too, with the nice naturopath from Byron Bay recommending St Johns Wort, the amino acid tryptophan or magnesium supplements for my occasional disturbed sleep. I should have asked her how to prevent a partner snoring! Still, I leave the clinic feeling reassured and cared-for.

The afternoon brings our first daily private yoga session with Chack, one of the teachers here. He quickly assesses us as absolute beginners and suggests we start with some gentle stretches before we move onto the Vinyasa sequences. Out come the yoga blocks and straps and Chack leads us through 90 minutes of the most intense stretches I’ve ever encountered. Not even the panoramic view from the yoga pavilion over the ocean and outlying islands can distract me. Our panting and sweating is in stark contrast to his even voice and beatific countenance. In my mind, I nickname him the Smiling Assassin. We leave the yoga pavilion in a trance-like state; it may be shock.

Day three - relaxation

The resort prints a weekly schedule of activities open for guests to attend as they wish. I’d planned to attend the 8.30am Kundalini yoga session but we oversleep. The noisy air-conditioning problem had been solved by turning it off just as we went to bed and turning on the colonial ceiling fans to circulate cool air throughout the night. Hardly rocket science but there you go…

Our personalised schedules are empty for the morning too so we take the opportunity to explore the resort fully. As well as the reception and restaurant, the main complex contains a tea lounge and a shop selling trinkets and souvenirs plus the little essentials guests sometimes forget.

Just down the hill are an art gallery and library with a television (the rooms don’t have them unless requested) and free internet access. Near the yoga pavilion is a smaller yoga sala, a basic gym and a hall for special retreats, concerts and other events. And the extensive wellness sanctuary has prime position on the ridge, with breathtaking sea vistas. With all the buildings nestled amid luxuriant tropical plantings, established trees and giant granite boulders, Kamalaya resembles an enchanted village hidden in the jungle.

My favourite part of the resort though is the pool area at the foot of the hill overlooking the beach. The lap pool and adjoining freeform pool are inspired by the traditional bathing areas of Nepal and India, with stone steps leading down into the water and a meditating Buddha watching over the scene like a lifesaver. The pools are fed by a waterfall and surrounded by ponds stocked with colourful carp and flowering lotus plants.

In the middle of hot season it’s a cool oasis and we spend many hours basking on the sun loungers and lolling in the silken water. The afternoon brings more extreme stretching and beginner’s yoga at the hands of the Smiling Assassin but our first massage is to follow and focussing on this seems to make the poses easier. The walk to the wellness sanctuary afterwards is thankfully downhill. We sip lemongrass tea at in the reception area before slipping into sarongs and flip-flops and shuffling after the therapists to one of the many treatment rooms. The spa menu offers over 70 services but today we are having a Traditional Asian Foot Massage.

According to ancient Chinese tradition, the feet are miniature maps of the human body and specific points on them correspond to major body parts and organs. By massaging specific pressure points on the foot, therapists stimulate organs and tissues to improve overall function and wellbeing. Whether you accept this theory or not, there’s no denying it feels sublime. I return to our villa completely restored, my feet barely touching the ground.

Day four - digestion

I’m one of those people that just can’t function properly without their morning cup of coffee. Plunger or drip filter will do at a pinch but I prefer my skim latte to be made on a good-quality espresso machine by a skilled barista. So I was a little nervous about coming to a wellness resort (which often ban stimulants like coffee, tea and alcohol on health grounds) in Thailand (which doesn’t have a developed coffee culture).

Luckily for me (and everyone whom I come into contact with each morning) Kamalaya does not ban coffee as part of its dietary regime. After I request a latte at our first breakfast, the thoughtful waitress brings one to our table every subsequent morning without me having to ask. As for the quality, it’s not going to win the resort any prizes to go with the spa awards but it’s drinkable.

In fact, while the founders do adhere to the holistic tradition that food is medicine, throughout my stay I can’t tell I’m eating “health” food at all. The Soma restaurant and Amrita café serve a wide range of delicious dishes that draw from both Eastern and Western culinary styles.

There’s no pork or beef out of respect for the major religious traditions in Asia, and no deep-fried food (so no crunchy golden French fries with anything - sob). But there’s plenty of seafood, poultry and lamb among the tasty vegetarian options for us hungry carnivores, and the dessert menu boasts everything from light sorbets and fresh fruit salads to rich chocolate soufflé for the sweet-tooths. There’s even (hallelujah) alcohol, although the range is limited and some of it not inexpensive. But downed with dinner on a sultry evening the local Singha beer tastes like nectar of the gods.

Dinner conversation at a resort that specialises in wellness of the body, mind and spirit can, of course, get quite otherworldly. It wouldn’t be unusual to overhear one guest remark to another that “Today’s releasing ritual really freed me of negative influences and my chi energy feels much more balanced and in tune with the universe.” But what surprises me is how visceral the dinner conversation can be as well. Colonic irrigation, or colon hydrotherapy as therapists prefer to call it, is a hot subject with one group. It turns out they’re on the Detox & Rejuvenation program, which combines various therapies (including a colonic) with special low-inflammatory, low-glycaemic vegetarian cuisine and nutritional supplements to eliminate toxins and accumulated waste from the body. Going by their choice of topic for the table, the program may also eliminate some accumulated social niceties from the mind!

A colonic is not included in our Yoga Synergy package. Guests can buy additional therapies and treatments a la carte but I chicken out and stick with our daily yoga and massage. However, my friend volunteers to undergo it for the purposes of researching this article. What’s that famous quote? “There is no true friendship without self-sacrifice.” (Sensitive readers may want to skip ahead to the next day.) The procedure involves a nurse or medical therapist inserting a tube into the rectum and slowly filling the bowel with warm water. My friend says there is no discomfort, rather a gradual feeling of fullness “like a hot-water bottle filling up”. The therapist sometimes massages the patient’s abdomen to help dislodge any blockages. Then the water is released while she watches the tube for signs of any waste matter that may have sat in the bowel for years. It’s generally much darker in colour than normal. Her only comment to my friend though is that he needs to chew his food more. Still with me? Colon hydrotherapy is meant to increase metabolism, relieve digestive disorders such as constipation, and improve ailments ranging from headaches, fatigue and irritability to skin conditions and allergies. My friend reports feeling lighter and more energised than before. And yes, he would do it again. I remain unconvinced. Call me anal-retentive if you will – or just easily embarrassed.

Day five - illumination

You know you’re relaxed when you start to lose track of time and forget appointments. After a leisurely breakfast and a few hours reading my book on the sun lounger, I’m lounging about in the freeform pool about midday when one of the pool attendants approaches and hands me a phone. It’s the wellness sanctuary. I’m 15 minutes late for my Traditional Asian Hand Massage. Will I be arriving soon? I get there as fast as I can but it’s not fast enough. The therapist has another booking afterwards and seeing me now will cause her to run late. Out of breath, sweating profusely and cursing my own stupidity, I’m about to self-combust when one of the receptionists hands me a cold herbal tea with a smile and says, “Don’t worry Mr Charteris. We can rebook you later this afternoon.” Problem solved.

The staff at Kamalaya are uniformly wonderful. Everyone from the groundsmen and waitresses to the therapists and resort management are gracious, friendly and attentive to a level seldom seen in Australia. Although they are just doing their jobs, you can tell they take pride in their work and really care about their guests. Every interaction with a member of staff makes me feel like I’m the only person they’re looking after that day – and I bet all the other guests feel exactly the same way. Even the Smiling Assassin has our best interests at heart. I can tell by creases around his eyes and the genuine happiness in his voice when he commends us for achieving a reverse triangle or Parivritta Trikonasana pose that doesn’t resemble a short-sighted hunchback with vertigo bending to tie his shoelaces. It’s in this exact pose (reverse triangle, not short-sighted hunchback) that I have my Yoga Moment during our last private session. Chack has a personal training client in the gym so our teacher today is Sanya. He tells us he is Chack’s teacher so I’m trying extra hard. My bottom hand grasps a yoga block beside my front foot, my hamstrings are stretched to the limit, my hips are so open I don’t think I’ll every be able to walk properly again and my breathing is deep and ragged. Then I raise my other arm to the ceiling and look towards my top hand and, I kid you not, there are three gorgeous blue butterflies fluttering around the still blades of a silent ceiling fan. As I focus on them I feel my body shift subtly into a better alignment, hear my breath quieten and sense my mind become peaceful. I feel at one with my breath and my body, at one with the beautiful butterflies and at one with the universe that created them. Then my legs spasm and I’m forced to return clumsily to an upright position. But my Yoga Moment (I’m sure I wasn’t just delirious) has created a spark of greater awareness within me. It may not shine very often or very brightly in my day-to-day life but I know it’s there.

Day six - conclusion

I miss the open yoga session for the fifth morning in a row. It’s so I can try acupuncture for the first time – but I still feel a little guilty.

Walking back to the villa with my lower back tingling (nine 34-gauge needles, two more than a inch deep, no blood) I realise that’s the beauty of Kamalaya – it’s all about choice. Not just the activities you partake in, but the wellness program you require (if any – you might just want to enjoy the resort’s luxurious, peaceful setting), the food you eat, and the type of holiday you want – to mingle with the other guests and make new friends or to get some valuable me-time (or we-time as a couple). With the absence of the strict controls and rigid rules some wellness retreats put in place, guests are able to let go and open themselves up to new experiences and possibilities. 

At a late breakfast before checking out, I realise the attractive older woman I’ve been saying hello to each day since our arrival – the one with blonde cropped hair and a Scottish accent who looks like singer Annie Lennox – is in fact Annie Lennox. I’ve worked for a gossip magazine in the past and this resort is known to attract a famous clientele so I should have clicked earlier. But Kamalaya has worked its magic on me. This is a more than just a very special place; it is a state of mind that is free from the expectations and responsibilities of the outside world. The old me would have spotted a celebrity in our midst straight away; the new me was less interested in what was going on around me and more interested in what was happening inside. I might not be unfurling yet like the lotus flower the resort is named for but the seed has been planted. Whether it flourishes is now up to me.

PS: I have a confession to make. There was still enough of the “old me” remaining to snap a quick shot of the back of Annie Lennox’s head across the restaurant on my iPhone. I obviously needed a longer stay at Kamalaya for the changes to set in properly. But don’t worry Annie; there’s enough of the “new me” established that I’m only going to show the picture to my closest friends and family. And yes, you look lovely.