Spirituality, Asian healing traditions and healthy cuisine combine at Kamalaya, where Madeleine Stratton took relaxation to the next level.
Having been to Koh Samui once before, my memories of the island until now consisted of swarms of backpackers, the noise of tuk-tuk and taxi horns and all attempts at relaxation on the beach being interrupted by very persistent hawkers. But the second time around, on the drive from Samui airport to wellness sanctuary and holistic spa Kamalaya (which takes around 45 minutes) I notice that, as we travel south on the island’s east side past tourist hot spots like Chaweng and Lamai Beach, the number of tuk-tuks and tourists we pass along the way dwindles down to none by the time we take a turn off the main road. Kamalaya occupies a corner of the island with views to the south over the Gulf of Thailand and the smaller islands that sit between Koh Samui and the mainland. Prior to its launch in 2005, all that existed on the land it now occupies was a tangle of native island greenery, some palm trees among granite boulders and a hidden centuries-old Buddhist monks’ cave While the monks have long moved on, the cave has become the heart of Kamalaya.
The land was purchased by Kamalaya founder John Stewart, who spent 16 years in northern India living as a monk and studying under a Himalayan yogi. When Stewart’s wife Karina, a doctor of Chinese medicine with 22 years of experience in Asian healing and spiritual traditions, joined in on the creation of Kamalaya, the result was a health retreat that caters to the spiritual and physical needs of guests with great food, holistic therapies and a whole lot of relaxation.
I’m booked in for a seven-night stay (the shortest package available is three nights, but seven is recommended as the minimum program length to achieve maximum results.) I’m shown to my room via golf buggy, the first item on my agenda being a consultation up at the wellness sanctuary, which sits above the monks’ cave overlooking Kamalaya with ocean views. This is a daunting task, as the golf buggies aren’t standard issue (unless, for physical or health reasons, guests require the buggy to get around). I’m left to contemplate the path from my room that meanders around and up the hill through the property to the sanctuary. (In all truth, it only takes about five minutes to walk to the property entrance at the top of the hill from the beach below, but in the heat of the afternoon having just arrived this walk seems more like a hike, and through the course of my week I discover I’m not the only guest who needs to take a minute to collect myself mid-way through this seemingly epic trek.)
The consultation involves a visit with a nurse who does a Body Bioimpedance Analysis (BIA), a short and simple test that estimates body composition. Results show things like my total body water amount, lean/ body fat mass ratio, energy storage and cellular health. My results are then passed on to a naturopath who, aside from recommending some vitamins and supplements that I might like to consider (and water, lots and lots of water), goes through Kamalaya’s wellness program options and menus with me.
Kamalaya offers individual programs designed by Dr Stewart that fall into the categories of Ideal Weight, Detox, Stress and Burnout, Yoga and Optimal Fitness. Each comprises various holistic therapies, spa treatments, fitness options and medicine. Or guests can choose treatments a la carte from the menu.
I opt for one of the three stress and burnout programs, Asian Bliss, in the hope that it will ensure a super-relaxing holiday, but also prepare me for the inevitable stress of looming magazine print deadlines. The program includes therapies from Asian healing traditions like Ayurvedic massage, Thai massage and Chinese medicine, and imagine my excitement upon receiving my timetable for the week and seeing that I would be averaging at least a massage a day! I ease into the swing of things with a 90-minute Thai massage with herbal compress, which is designed to treat muscle tension and create blood flow. The heated herbal compress, which both smells and feels divine, is filled with herbs and spices like lemongrass, ginger and turmeric to stimulate circulation (the herbs also have anti-inflammatory properties).
As each day passes I slip further into a state of total relaxation. In the 60-minute Lotus Scrub and Wrap treatment I’m scoured ‘til I’m pink and shiny with the scrub and then smeared with something else that smells lovely before being wrapped up in plastic and left to bake. Although it’s hot outside I feel snug as a bug and comfortable to the point of dozing off, and it’s all too soon when my therapist returns to break the spell.
I have a tingling tiger balm foot massage (that also extends to my hands, arms, neck and head) in an open-air treatment room with fresh air and great views. But hands down my favourite session of the week is the 60-minute Kati Vasti treatment. The warming sensation I feel as my therapist slowly pours heated medicated oil into a cup moulded out of paste onto my lower back is unbelievably soothing – it’s such a gentle treatment, and although it’s isolated to one area it feels so wonderful and relaxing. I’d take one of these once a day with lunch if I could, it was simply amazing (I’m not kidding – since returning I’ve been trying to locate a spa where I can go and have this treatment done.)
There are some sessions that are definitely more about treatment than relaxation. I have a pretty intense Royal Ayurvedic full-body massage during which a lot of muscle goes into working out the knots in my back, and, if you like strong and firm massage I’m sure it’s wonderful, I find it a little hard to let my mind wander. I also try out Acupuncture for the first time. I hardly notice the needles. It’s an intriguing experience, and while I don’t notice any difference to any ailments (which would be hard to achieve with only one session), I’d be keen to try it again one day.
“By the end of my stay I feel fresh and relaxed, well-rested, my skin looks and feels fantastic, and I can make it up that hill without breaking a sweat.” – Madeleine Stratton
The program also includes two half-hour Chi Nei Tsang stomach massages (no eating or drinking for an hour before-hand) which are designed to stimulate the function of internal organs with benefits including better digestive function and soothing of stomach pains. I’m also warned that I might get emotional as the massage is meant to help release negative feelings caught up in the abdominal area. While the tears don’t come, I definitely feel a fresh sensation after my organs are gently but firmly kneaded by the therapist
It’s not just massages that I’m signed up for. The Asian Bliss program includes the option of three sessions of either reiki, meditation, pranayama or yoga. I opt to try something new and get educated in the first three. Reiki is a Japanese practice focusing on the transfer of healing energy from therapist to patient. Like Kati Vasti, this is a very gentle treatment where warm hands are placed at various points of my body while I unwind with my eyes closed. For my one-on-one pranayama and meditation sessions I work with Rajesh, also a former monk, who coaches me first in the Indian controlled-breathing technique, encouraging me to breathe deeply into my diaphragm while counting slowly in order to reach a deeper state of calmness and relaxation. Our meditation session focuses on the technique of Awareness Meditation, and is all about learning to let my mind wander as I sit with my eyes closed, but being consciously aware of where it is going – sort of like reining in daydreams. But my week at Kamalaya isn’t just about swanning around in a sarong. Between sipping ginger tea on the Wellness Sanctuary balcony and working up a healthy sweat in the steam cavern, there are other paths to explore through the property. There’s the path up to the yoga pavilion where there are daily yoga sessions held for anyone who’d like to attend, and into the monks cave, the original inspiration for the property. Stepping into this tiny quiet space, with incense and candles burning, it feels so peaceful, and I try to imagine what it must’ve been like for the monks who lived there for so many years.
If you’re on a program, your three meals a day are included. Nothing is fried, nothing is microwaved, and there’s no beef or pork served in respect of major Asian religious traditions. But none of that matters when you’re faced with a steaming hot bowl of panang curry, thick, creamy and flavoured with fresh herbs and spices, particularly when you know that while it looks and tastes decadent, it’s probably the healthiest version of this dish you’re ever likely to eat. The serving sizes are small, but definitely not too small, and the menus aren’t limited to Thai cuisine, offering takes on Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Italian and other Western cuisines.
The breakfast offering is a buffet spread of fruit, grains, juices, savoury salad and Asian options, and a selection of fresh bread, baked on the property, to be served with home made jams or honeycomb. The naughtiest thing I encounter here is a croissant. I put off having one for a few days because I’m trying to be very good, but it turns out that even the Kamalaya croissants are a healthier version of the original made with wholegrains. The lunch menu features my favourite Som Tam (spicy green papaya salad) as well as Thai cuisine regulars Pad Thai and curries.
Every night at Soma there’s a separate set menu for guests on the detox program, and I’m not afraid to select options from the vegetarian a la carte detox menu. There’s a whole swathe of options to choose from: soups, curries, pastas and risotto, and chocolate soufflé or mousse for dessert. And even though I alternate between mousse and soufflé every night, the culinary offerings at Kamalaya have the reverse effect to most of my holidays, and I leave a few kilos lighter than when I arrive. Not only that, but by the end of my stay I feel fresh and relaxed, well-rested, my skin looks and feels fantastic, and I can make it up that hill without breaking a sweat.