The here and now
Wellness programs at a Thai resort aim to make guests feel relaxed and enriched
THE aircraft engines roar into life and within seconds I am pressed against my seat watching the ground blur and rush away. I open my book.
‘‘There is psychological pleasure in this takeoff, too, for the swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation. The display of power can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives, to imagine that we, too, might one day surge above much that now looms over us.’’
The book is The Art of Travel by Swiss pop philosopher Alain de Botton and I’m taking this serendipitous passage as a sign that the week ahead is going to be good. We push through the clouds and all that looms over me seems already to be falling away — traffic j ams, alarm clocks, deadlines, city stress.
I am on my way to Kamalaya, a wellness sanctuary and holistic spa resort on the southern coast of Thailand’s island of Koh Samui. On a steep hillside of jungle, rising up from a secluded lagoon, nestles a cluster of beautifully designed rooms, villas, therapy spaces and yoga halls. This is apparently the place to be if you fancy ‘‘a lifeenriching, healthy holiday’’. I am not entirely sure what that means, but hopefully it involves lots of relaxation and pampering and not too much self-denial.
From Koh Samui airport, my taxi turns off the main road. There is no-one around, just butterflies, birds and the odd dozing gecko. We pass a pineapple plantation, a television repair shack, a laundry with sheets out to dry in the damp tropical air, a few lazy dogs and lots of lanky coconut palms. The driver pulls in behind a high wall and Kamalaya is revealed in all its serene, welcoming loveliness.
Nature is ever- present; the retreat’s design follows the principle that a connection to nature is a vital, nurturing element integral to one’s overall health and wellbeing. The entire complex is so integrated into its surrounding landscape you can hardly tell it’s there.
Australian architect Robert Powell worked with the existing trees and granite boulders, sometimes even incorporating nature into the rooms. There are beautiful gardens thick with pandanus trees and fragrant with exotic flowers, lotus ponds, waterfalls, and the silvery- blue waters of the ocean beyond.
Despite the undeniable feeling that this is seriously luxe, there is no monumental opulence, no gold taps or vaulted ceilings, j ust intimate spaces that flow into the treetops and draw the ocean sunsets almost indoors.
I am in a Seaview Suite, a lovely, quiet room of cool, stone tiles and dark, polished wood. The bed looks out to a balcony, and lush jungle greens clamber up its sides, making a home for lizards and colourful little birds.
While it is definitely serene, I can’t help but wonder just how much relaxation there’s going to be in this so- called healthy holiday. I am about to find out. I must make my way to my wellness consultation.
Emma, an Australian naturopath with hypnotic green eyes, organises my Body Bioimpedance Analysis. Using a mild electrical current she measures my body composition, levels of fat and muscle, and the integrity of overall cell structure. Meanwhile, she explains the comprehensive Kamalaya wellness menu.
Guests can choose from a range of programs focused on detox, yoga, fitness, weight control and stress and burnout. Each program, Emma says, is designed to promote good health on multiple levels, not just of body, but of mind and spirit. There are no rules and what you do, or how much, is entirely up to you. Some guests are at Kamalaya for a full-scale detox. Others, like me, just want to really relax and enjoy some tropical heat and fresh food.
Luckily, my BIA results are not too bad so Emma suggests I might want to forget the detox and take the Asian Bliss program. Phew. Over the next 61/ days, I will
2 have eight kinds of massage, one traditional Chinese medicine treatment, lotus scrub and wrap, and one session each of reiki, Pranayama meditation and oneon- one yoga tuition. I can also select as many classes as I like from the weekly activity schedule, including yoga, meditation, qi gong and stretch classes, or more vigorous circuit training, cardio combat and aqua aerobics.
I sit on the balcony of my guestroom with a pair of geckos for company, the three of us admiring the view.
Everything is perfect, except for the few things I can’t seem to find. There is no television set, no alcohol in the mini bar, there isn’t even any coffee, just 10 types of herbal tea. But, most alarming of all, there’s no wi-fi. A luxury resort with no wi-fi?
Yet even more disturbing than the absence of these things is the anxiety that such denial provokes. It is true I am deeply in love with my iPhone and the internet and I also love a nice cold beer and a strong coffee.
At first, it’s all a little unnerving, but later it becomes clear that the little luxuries missing at Kamalaya are part of the plan to help guests let go and really surrender to the here and now. Right now, though, on day one, I have an overwhelming urge for coffee. So I sneak past reception and head for the Family Mart, a 30-minute walk away.
I pass the plot of pineapples, the dogs and drying sheets, pick up some Nescafe, a carton of milk and a bar of chocolate and head back up the hill.
Somehow, back in my room, it doesn’t taste as great as I had anticipated. Maybe I should try to embrace this experience after all.
First on my program is meditation. This is the only thing I have scheduled that feels like it might involve some work, so I am quite happy to get it out of the way and move on to the massages.
But strangely, this session turns out to be the one that stays in my memory long after I return home. I am in one of about 30 therapy rooms dotted up the hillside. Each room is furnished simply, with beautifully painted Nepali chests, piles of towels, fresh flowers and soothing music.
Smitha, from Chennai, is my meditation guide and she shows me how much time I spend in the future or the past, either with anxiety, hope, desire or regret. This way of being, and we all do it, she explains, is the root of much of our stress and unhappiness. I have to admit she makes a lot of sense.
I resolve, for the rest of my time at Kamalaya, I’m going to really be here. But as my first massage begins, I realise it’s more easily said than done. Lovely Asha is from the family of Ayurveda specialists lured here from Kerala for their magical hands and traditional healing powers. She uses a hot compress of herbs on my lower back and rubs a scented paste of turmeric and fragrant oils into my skin. The sensation is mesmeric and my muscles begin to melt, so why am I thinking back to a conversation I had in the office before I left for my holiday?
Every few minutes I find I’m in the future or the past and admonish myself for wasting what precious little time I have here. What a shame to experience this moment only after I’ve departed, looking back with misty nostalgia.
As the days pass, I get better at being present in each moment, until one day something strange happens. I am alone in the Alchemy Lounge. Beyond the railing, the valley drops down towards the sea. An enormous emeraldgreen butterfly floats by. Another soon follows, of velvety magenta and black. A kingfisher flashes a blue wing. The stream washes the stones on its way to the sea. The ocean and the sky above it change slowly from turquoise to blue, to lavender and to grey.
It occurs to me suddenly that I have been sitting in the same spot for 55 minutes. That is almost an hour without a book, a newspaper, my iPhone, my emails, Facebook, Google, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Nothing but me, the geckos and the dying day in a spectacular show of colour and sound.
I feel as if I’ve passed through something to find myself in another place, where I’m able to completely surrender to experiences as they happen. As the chatter in my head grows quiet, my senses open to all the tiny and exquisitely beautiful things occurring around me all the time. Nellie Blundell was a guest of Kamalaya.
Clockwise from above: meditation is at the centre of Kamalaya’s life-enriching, healthy holidays; tai chi on the beach; awakening meditation room; the terraced resort