No matter what ails you, Koh Samui wellness retreat Kamalaya is the tonic.
I notice the tightness in my left leg as I follow Bernie up the stone steps leading to the private treatment rooms nestled into the hillside. Long flights seem to have that effect on me. Bernie leads me into a modest air-conditioned room, which, like all of Kamalaya, has sprawling ocean views, and we talk through my health history before he begins a physical exam. Slowly he inspects my body, pausing to feel my kidneys, liver, heart and hands. “Your feet are freezing and your head is hot, we have to get you the right way up,” he says.
I tense as he grabs his needles, but Bernie reassures me that I won’t feel a thing and he proceeds to stick them at various acupuncture points on my back, in my feet and behind my left knee. I relax as he attaches clusters of moxa (dried mugwort) to the tips of the needles and sets them alight, the warmth of the small fire soothing on my back. I ask Bernie what he is doing: “Opening your veins,” he replies.
Built into a steep hillside that descends onto a small, remote beach in Koh Samui, Kamalaya is a luxury wellness retreat that draws on a combination of Oriental and Western healing practices to improve the wellbeing of guests. Its founders, Karina and John Stewart, met at a Himalayan ashram, where John was living under the tutelage of a yogi master and Karina was visiting for a meditation retreat. When Karina returned to America to continue her studies in Asian Religion and Traditional Chinese medicine, their romance continued through letters. Years later, when John completed his learning and left the ashram, the two were wed. As well as a marriage, they shared dreams of building a sanctuary where they could combine their knowledge of spiritual and Asian healing traditions, and use them to help others.
It was while recuperating from health problems in Koh Samui that John came across a centuries-old Buddhist monk cave while walking through heavily forested land. Overwhelmed by an incredible sense of healing, he and Karina bought the land and it was here they decided to build their sanctuary.
On the Kamalaya grounds, nature pervades. Boulders intrude in the architecture, emerging on the bottom level of the gym, inside the green-tiled steam cavern and the outdoor showers. Small heated pools sit in the cliff side and vines climb the walls of the entire complex. Designed by Australian-born architect Robert Powell, the resort abides by the concept “simple, tropical, modern”. With the monks cave at its centre and a mysterious sense of peace emanating from the ground, the journey guests take at Kamalaya is a personal one. Be it reprieve from a stressful job or an effort to break unhealthy patterns, lose weight, reach fitness goals or deal with life’s challenges – you don’t leave with the same mindset you had when you are chauffeured through the entry gates. For me, it was about coming to terms with a recent diagnosis. To learn how diet and specific treatments might help to manage the physical effects of lymphedema, a chronic condition that causes excess fluid retention in my left leg.
My customised treatment plan (an option available to all Kamalaya guests) has been structured with this in mind, and is a combination of the standard Introduction to Detox program, specific massage and treatment therapies, and an additional naturopath session. These recommendations are integrated with the objective of re-setting my body and encouraging natural lymph flow.
I am staying in a hilltop Deluxe Superior Suite, set at the end of manicured pathways lit by lanterns covered in hanging moss. At 65 square metres, the room is spacious and combines a neutral colour scheme with wooden finishes, brass details and oriental artworks. I can see the ocean from my shower, and the view is even better from the outdoor balcony shrouded with hanging purple flowers and greenery.
These suites are the newest accommodations at the resort, completed in 2015 along with the showcase 25-metre lap pool and fitness centre. This is as large as Kamalaya will get. All of the resort’s 75 rooms are booked but I never pass more than 10 people when I am wandering the grounds proving that even the surrounding support a personal retreat.
I fall into my Kamalaya routine quickly. Some mornings I go to meditation in the outdoor yoga pavilion trying my best not to fidget as I count my inhale and exhale breaths. I follow this with a vinyasa yoga class in the Yantra Hall. With no more than five people practicing (guests can also have private sessions), the classes lack the energy of my Sydney studio, but with the glass walls looking over the headland I find my complaints silenced.
The range of green detox tags – outlining which foods are free of dairy, gluten, nuts, meat or added sugar – decide my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Detox muesli, goji berries and chia seeds with sunflower seed milk along with sweet potato and coconut bread, fresh tropical fruit and the specialty Kamalaya juices replace my usual selection of an omelet and coffee. I spend my lunches in a Thai bure on the bottom level of the spiraling outdoor restaurant sampling my way through the fresh and raw vegetable appetizers and wholesome mains like Mung Bean risotto and vegetable curry. I break my detox just once to sample the delicious chocolate cashew nut sorbet.
Before each treatment I head to the wellness sanctuary; a tranquil roofed balcony overlooking the lush surrounding mountainside and ocean below. There’s a steady stream of passing guests; none of them in a hurry, some wearing robes, others in various styles of kaftan and linen clothing. They sit momentarily before they are led away by a smiling Thai masseuse or a specialist dressed entirely in white. While I wait to be collected, I instinctively reach for my phone but stop myself as I catch a glimpse of the placard on the table – a kind reminder that not all socially acceptable addictions are healthy. Electronic devices are to be left in guest rooms at Kamalaya.
No matter why you are there, Kamalaya is whatever you need it to be.
Of all my treatments, I look forward to my appointments with Khun Plah, who specialises in lymph drainage therapy, the most. Taught using the method developed by Bruno J. Chikly, Khun Plah listens for the rhythm and direction of my lymph flow. With the lightest touch she traces the flow through my body, applying more pressure when she comes to my lower lymph glands in an attempt to flush the stagnant fluid through alternate pathways. “This is so interesting for me,” she says. “I can actually feel the trapped fluid.” I just lie there dumbfounded.
Chinese medicine holds the philosophy that the stomach and intestines form the body’s second brain. As the main site for the storage and processing of nutrition and emotions, the abdomen is prone to blockages. Be it tensions, anxieties or physical congestion, when the abdomen is blocked it constricts the flow of chi. This, in turn, weakens the digestive system, affecting one’s moods and energy levels. The Chi Nei Tsang is a traditional massage practiced to release such tensions. I have three over the course of my stay and each hour-long session of colon massage and kneading was more uncomfortable than the next. Maybe it was the massages, maybe the delicious Sweet Potato Rosti and Mushroom Ragout I had for dinner the night before, but by the fourth day I feel lighter, more energetic, less anxious, and have stopped constantly reaching for my phone.
At Kamalaya, each treatment is rooted in philosophy and theory, each meal is designed by Karina and her team to provide the upmost nutrition and flavor, and all optional activities are included to supplement the guest experience. From the frozen grapes served poolside in the afternoons to the masseuse who braided my hair while I marinated inside a detoxifying body wrap, every special touch is more exceptional than the next. And, no matter why you are there, Kamalaya is whatever you need it to be.