Do you need a Thai wellness sanctuary?
Sunday Times Style editor Tiffanie Darke is tired of spas that would rather buff nails than soothe souls. Will Kamalaya, on Ko Samui, buck the trend?
If your life is falling apart, if you''re 25-plus, if you've got a couple of thou to blow and you're pretty aspirational, hip and modern, and especially if you're famous, there's only one place you can go. Chiva-Som Thailand, the celebrity spa to top all spas, where they prescribe a bit of Buddhism to help you with your coke comedown, some yoga poses to sort out your romantic crisis and some detox tea to shift those canapà©-circuit pounds.
This is unkind, of course "” Chiva-Som is more than this to more types of people "” but it illustrates the point. In the vast and growing world of spas, it has established itself as the luxury benchmark "” it's got glamour and it's top of the list for the most famous, rich and needy. Just ask Kate, Sadie and the rest. These girls practically have timeshares there.
But maybe not any more. Across the South China Sea, on the isle of Ko Samui, is a new place that is so new and, well, hip that it refuses to call itself a spa. Kamalaya is, instead, a "wellness sanctuary".
The moniker is important. The word "spa" suggests a bit of light pampering "” you think of white towels, cucumber slices and the smell of aromatherapy massage oil. But this is exactly where modern spas go wrong. People use spas because they have a problem "” they are stressed, overweight, lost, their divorce came through, they're lonely. What they need is time, space and guidance "” and this, over and above the cucumber slices and celebrity clientele, is what Kamalaya conspires to give them, in a non-intrusive way.
My trip there was not necessitated by a crisis, but if you'd pressed me (and, gently, they did), there were some issues. I was three months pregnant and had been flat out at work while feeling sick, exhausted and confused about my state. My boyfriend and I had had to press the accelerator on our relationship, and I was scared about the prospect of bringing another person into the world "” I'd barely figured out what life meant for me, let alone what it could mean for someone else and how I could be responsible for that. I needed to look inside myself to find some answers. I needed time and guidance. So did Will.
We arrived spent forces, after a gruelling flight and tedious connection, and as the whole place was pitch-black, we had no idea where we were. Our beach villa was a symphony of cream-linen luxury that we barely registered "” Will went straight to the minibar and gratefully pulled out a beer. It was nonalcoholic.
"It's a spa, Will." He looked stricken, and I watched him mentally rewrite his expectations for the week. But the following morning, we opened the curtains and everything changed.
Nestled in a luscious green ravine, which gave out onto a powdered (and private) white-sand beach and turquoise sea, sat a series of stilted wooden huts, lotus flower-studded ponds, honeysuckle bushes, coconut-laden palms and a cave that once housed a Buddhist monk for 20 years (giving the site its sacred status). We were staying in one of the more luxurious villas, but Kamalaya is not first and foremost about luxury, so there are plenty of smaller, cheaper alternatives, ranging from pool cottages to single rooms.
The settlement is built on a steep slope (which prevents you from slipping into a pampered and heat-induced torpor "” walking anywhere necessitates a serious hill climb, v good for thighs), and every corner/tree/stone you round affords a pretty breathtaking view of the Thai coastline and islands beyond. There's also a lap pool where you can have a decent, sweat-building swim, a series of varied-temperature plunge pools and a spectacular steam room hollowed out of a cave. And there is the Wellness Sanctuary itself, with its open air/indoor treatment rooms and yoga pavilion built on top of the cliff.
Your visit begins with a full medical by a nurse and a consultation with a Wellness Sanctuary manager "” this is where you can offload your woes. Together, you construct a plan about what you want to achieve during your time there and how you might best go about it. The emphasis is on how you feel; lots of options are offered and you can pick what you want. Importantly, there is no dogma, just choices. There's usually some kind of spiritual guru in residence giving talks, the DVD library is stocked with "inspirational" films and documentaries, there are Tibetan bell-chiming and meditation classes, and every kind of doctor and therapist is on hand, from acupuncturists to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
There are also some more rigorous Life-Enhancement Programmes, involving detox, weight loss, fitness and energy-boosting. Warning "” you can tailor these to your needs, but the more extreme versions are only for the hard-core. One girl had undertaken the nine-day detox while I was there, and I barely saw her when she wasn't brandishing some bag of pills, an increasingly grey pallor and, by day five, seriously reduced energy levels. She reassured me later, by e-mail, that by the end of it she had never felt better, but I reckoned this was more of a self-flagellatory path to spiritual enlightenment than I might wish to negotiate.
There are, of course, more "traditional" spa treatments (massage, manicure and so on), but the emphasis lies not on these but on naturopathy, ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine and various other holistic therapies. None of this would be any good if it weren't delivered by the hands of experts, and experts they are. I was desperate to get back to some yoga, but it was felt this was still too soon in my pregnancy "” I should do some stretching classes and take up t'ai chi instead.
This, they thought, would help with the meditation I always find so difficult. (It's a concentration thing.) I sulked for about a day until I realised they were completely right, and I've now become a born-again t'ai chi bore. They also recommended some reiki healing, and I can still, eight weeks later, recall exactly what it felt like to lie on that bed, the evening breeze floating through the treetops by my head, the Thai girl's hands floating above me, the channels of energy in my body slowly lighting up. For the first time, I really felt connected to my baby.
Will, meanwhile, was having an adventure of his own. With a stoic "when in Rome" attitude, he decided to embrace "this spa stuff" and volunteered himself for everything from acupuncture to flower-remedy healing.
I didn't ask him what answers he was looking for, but two sessions with the resident acupuncturist were enough to tell him that the expensive Notting Hill practitioner he had been seeing back home was little more than a charlatan.
Each session I had was delivered by the kind of caring, passionate Asian woman whose whole raison d'àªtre seems to hang on how much pleasure she can give you. Prayers are said before and after and you leave in a blissed-out, awe-inspired state that tends to turn the next few hours into a living dream. This incites such a feeling of nurture that, by the end of the week, my head, my body and my soul were in a very different place "” one that has stayed with me.
Countless times before, I have left expensive spa resorts with the complimentary towelling gown tucked into my suitcase, and by the time I landed back at Heathrow, that and a light tan were all that remained. The idea behind Kamalaya is that by the time you leave, you'll be happy, healthy and relaxed, but internally you'll have something to take away with you. All the other spas out there had better sit up and take notice, because this is where the industry needs to be. Tiffanie Darke travelled as a guest of Essential Escapes
Travel brief: Essential Escapes (020 7284 3344, www.essentialescapes.com) has seven nights at Kamalaya (www.kamalaya.com) from Â£1,105pp, full-board, including British Airways flights from Heathrow to Bangkok, local connecting flights to Ko Samui, private transfers, use of facilities and introductory classes.
Other operators include Cleveland Collection (0845 450 5732, www.clevelandcollection.co.uk) and Wellbeing Escapes (0845 602 6202, www.wellbeingescapes.co.uk).