The architecture of the Kamalaya Wellness Spa and Retreat is deceptive.
[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he resort has a rustic look with wooden furnishings under sloped thatch roofs, lotus ponds and trickling water features. Rooms while comfortable and spacious, are lacking in ostentation. Yet it does not take long for the place to cast a magic spell.
For all its simplicity, the design is disarmingly well crafted. Buildings and pathways wind around the natural curves of the land, skirting trees and massive boulders along the way, creating a winding labyrinth that melts into the landscape. Everywhere there is life, blooming Eden-like in lush, vibrant verdure. Interiors cleverly blend with exterior charms. Our Sea View Villa cocoons the bed with a burbling fern-fringed waterfall that tumbles past one window into a carp filled pond in front of another. The building’s other aspect houses a bathroom, if that’s the right word for a semi-alfresco affair built of red brick and assorted slate and glass roof slats that has its own miniature garden. Geckos are constant companions while tiny toadstool often peep through the wall.
A seemingly incongruous note is the swimming pool around which the discreet salas of the Amrita Café are dotted. Though bordered with rock pools, grottos and murky fish ponds, the pool area is the most obviously architectural. One-part lap pool and one part leisure pool, swimmers descend out of the sultry island heat via steep steps through sinuous stone nagas, smiling serenely over the water’s edge. The deliberate artifice pays homage to the temple pools that form the heart of many villages around the Himalayas, where the community gathers to collect water, bathe, launder and gossip.
But where the pool provides a physical heart to the property, it is the Monk’s Cave that is the spiritual centre. Used for centuries as a retreat for Samui’s Buddhist monks, it was stumbling across this place of contemplative spirituality in 2000 that convinced founders John and Karina Stewart to set up shop.
But the story begins much further back, in an unusual childhood of yoga, vegetarianism and alternative medicine in Mexico, long before these lifestyle practises were taken up by the trendy and wellness obsessed. Karina was raised in what was then considered a singularly eccentric way of life, eventually training as a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
During a sabbatical, Karina travelled to the Indian Himalayas, where she met John, a Canadian in the midst of a 16 year stint in a Buddhist ashram. It was hardly a whirlwind romance: their long distance friendship developed over many years, before John left the ashram and a deeper relationship blossomed.
The couple began talking about creating a place, a holistic retreat combining both their spiritual and physical healing experiences. This seed grew, weaving, in Karina’s words, “a tapestry of a dream.” As their vision coalesced, the Stewarts travelled to spa resorts around the world, and while enjoying their visits, found something missing: the properties were too formal, too perfect. For them there needed to be an authentic connection. And so during a health crisis, John spent a sojourn in Samui and found what they had been looking for.
The realisation of the Kamalaya (the “Lotus Realm”) is an expression of Karina’s naturopathic background, John’s spiritual sensibility and the architect Robert Powell who translated the couple’s vision into a three-dimensional space, reverberating with an intangible energy. Where other health destinations invoke the more clinical European spa approach, the Kamalaya is distinctly Asian: the design draws upon the five elements and Buddhist imagery abounds throughout, with Tibetan prayer flags billowing softly in the sea breeze; treatments at the Wellness Sanctuary incorporate traditional Asian modalities, including Ayurveda, reflexology, the Toaist Chi Nei Tsang massage and an exceptional Thai massage in an outdoor sala.
Karina has created a number of comprehensive programmes to target the diverse needs of guests, with the Stress and Burnout series aimed at overworked executives, the Ideal Weight for those who wish to shed excess pounds, a retreat for Yoga enthusiasts and the newly launched Sleep Enhancement programme to address insomnia caused by imbalances of modern life.
But by far the most popular is her original Detox programme, which she describes as the ultimate “restart button on health,” much like a spring clean. For a five- day programme the journey begins with a bio-impedance analysis (BIA) and wellness consultation with a naturopath. Although this can be daunting, as it includes the measurement of fat ratios, the glowing Laurel encourages an easy confidence as she talks clients through lifestyle and BIA results. Once complete the wellness staff print a timetable with a long list of neatly scheduled treatments.
As part and parcel of the Detox regimen, guests are kept busy at the Sanctuary, both with treatments aiding the expulsion of toxins, and these may just be there to make clients feel marvellous. The latter is evident in the sublime manipulations of the Asian hand and foot massages, but even more obviously pragmatic treatments prove a delight, with an invigorating (and aromatic) scrub and wrap, and a lymphatic drainage massage that is likely to induce a light doze in even the most caffeine charged visitor.
However, the regime is not without its trials. The Chi Nei Tsang applies firm pressure on the abdomen, inspiring burbles of discontent; the far infrared sauna claims to draw out impurities via deep heating of sub-surface tissues, while simultaneously burning 600 calories over the 30 minute session, which can lead to the final third of the designated period being uncomfortable for some.
There is little time for boredom between these and the regular group classes open to all guests (daily yoga, tai chi, meditation and fitness), and what free hours visitors have can be blissfully spent in a conventional Samui resort manner, lolling on the private beach watching the sky mirrored in the lagoon.
As important to expelling toxins is taking in salubrious nutrition and here the Kamalaya excels. For Karina, there are no starvation fasts; instead she has worked with a gourmet chef to create delectable, nutritious cuisine. Menus are divided into two sections, one trimmed down for Detox and Ideal Weight regimens and another – still wholesome but far more indulgent – for everyone else.
Dishes are flavoured with an abundance of herbs and judicious use of spices and most will have difficulty in selecting what to eat because everything looks so genuinely appealing, although guests travelling with a partner who is not on the programme may whimper with envy if they select the resort’s decadent chocolate mousse. But really there is no sense of privation, even for those who are most committed to the detoxification programme. Although the modest portions might initially leave some dismayed, most find they are sufficient to sate all but the most demanding appetites.
Modern habits it seems, really have left us with eyes bigger than our stomachs. Added to which, a smorgasbord of detoxifying teas and juices are included in the rate and guests are free to sip these to their heart’s content. Over the course of my stay I kick my caffeine dependency (through an unpleasant day of withdrawal headaches), but gain myself a new addiction: a concoction of coconut water, pineapple and Thai basil that surely tastes too naughty to be good for me.
Departing the Kamalaya, it is hard to say whether I feel “detoxified”, or merely relaxed and happy after a glorious beach holiday. But there are some objective facts – first, I have lost weight without perceptible effort; second, I am planning my return programme for next year.
Koh Samui is one of the iconic sun and sea destinations that make Thailand such a beloved travel destination. Though still retaining many of its sleepy backpacker charms, Samui is definitely showing a hipper, more upmarket edge beyond the Chaweng bars, with the arrival of St. Tropez style beach clubs and five-star brands. Less accessible than rival Phuket, Samui is perhaps a touch more exclusive, though there is plenty to please travellers of every budget.
How to Get There
Bangkok Airways have somewhat of a monopoly on the airport, so remain the easiest way to arrive, though flights are more expensive than other Thai destinations. The ferry is another option for visitors who are less fastidious and have more time on their hands.
When to Go
Like most tropical regions, Samui doesn’t have four distinct seasons, but rather dry and raining months. December through to February remain the best time to go, with little rain and sunshine; the island gets hotter from March through August with the summer months also a high season for families; rainy season falls between September and November, though this can be a great time to visit as showers usually don’t last long, and temperatures and prices are lower than at other times of year.