I’m a middle-aged, probably lower-middle class man, who, like a lot of this type, has spent most of his adult life with his ass sat in an uncomfortable chair, eyes blinking at a screen set at the wrong angle and fingers tippy-tapping away at a gunky keyboard. Like they are right now. As a result I have chronic lower back pain, shoulder tendons tighter than the strings on a tennis racquet, and a neck that makes unsettling cracking noises every few minutes. I have deep tissue massage two or three times a month and see a chiropractor intermittently. I’ve probably spent £20,000 on my back over the years. In addition to the above I’ve tried osteopaths, pilates, yoga, acupuncture, electro-magnetic waves and once, in the course of writing a feature, I even let a horse whisperer have a go at fixing it.
My default setting is ‘sceptical’, with an automatic, ingrained disinclination to investigate topics like mindfulness, but there’s a certain self-seeking element (probably centred around pain relief) that means I’m also occasionally suggestible. I mean, I tried a horse whisperer, right? So while the thought of any kind of health-based retreat usually has me running to the hills [that’s what a retreat is – Ed], the idea of spending a week at Kamalaya on Koh Samui, staying in an idyllic, secluded hillside resort overlooking the ocean and enjoying a programme called Asian Bliss, with daily massages and treatments, breaks down my stubborn, unenlightened resolve, and off I go.
Kamalaya is on the south east coast of Koh Samui, about a 40-minute drive from the airport (they’ll pick you up). It seems ‘health tourism’ is a coming thing here (if it hasn’t already arrived – I’m a late adopter to this) if the plethora of retreat/resorts on the island is anything to go by. And while I’m sure most of them will make bold claims about how special they are, from what I experienced here, and from the feedback I heard from guests who were on their fourth, fifth and even sixth visits, I’d say Kamalaya have set the bar pretty high.
On the first morning, I noticed something weird but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was familiar yet also something I hadn’t seen for a long time. Coming out of my first treatment, I realised what it was: people were looking up, making eye contact, engaging with each other … because they didn’t have their phones with them. When we were greeted the previous day, there was some talk about not using our phones when in communal spaces, but I just zoned out. “Sure,” I thought, “blah blah blah digital detox … I’ll hide it in my kimono or whatever I’m going to be wandering around in.” But for some reason, perhaps it was the night of blissful sleep in our gorgeous double suite with sea view, or the peaceful atmosphere of Kamalaya, which was built from the jungle itself but seems a natural piece of the landscape, I walk out without the blasted thing and before you know it I’m in the moment! Perhaps this is mindfulness? You know, walking and breathing and smiling at people and passing the time of day? Could it catch on?
My Asian Bliss programme initially comprises the following treatments: traditional Thai massage with herbal compress (90 minutes), traditional Indian head massage (60 mins), traditional Asian hand massage (45 mins), Royal Ayurvedic massage (60 mins), traditional Asian foot massage with herbal foot soak (90 mins), Chi Nei Tsang (stomach massage, two 30-min sessions), a reiki treatment (60 mins) and a one-on-one Pranayama (breathing instruction, 60 mins). Without exception, each was administered with care, skill and – dare I say it – mindfulness. Too often in London, when I go to see a chiropractor or an acupuncturist, I end up listening to how the practitioner used to make and sell clothes down the Portobello market and how they really like their new job because it gives them job flexibility; too often I feel like saying “this shouldn’t really be about you, especially as I’m paying you £60” but of course I don’t. At Kamalaya, the focus is on you. The Thai massage with herbal compress was especially memorable – particularly the part where your legs are placed in a tub of hot water filled with ginger, lemongrass and other herbs, making a kind of My Leg Soup – easing aches you didn’t know you had. The head massage was reliably blissful, and although the Royal Ayurvedic massage felt, at the time, brutal, notably on my highly-strung hamstrings, a couple of days later they felt looser than I can remember. The Pranayama (breathing) session was incredibly helpful (what could I possibly learn about breathing, at my age?? Quite a lot, it turns out) and I’ve already been able to put that learning to good use when it comes to getting off to sleep.
The same care and attention to detail is applied to the food at Kamalaya – everything is beautifully prepared and presented, from lunches of lotus blossom salads to evening meal starters of scallops, poached egg, lime foam and mushrooms and generous mains of zingy Pad Thai – clean and nourishing.
Even our one minor gripe was handled beautifully: when a temperamental air conditioning unit started malfunctioning noisily in the middle of the night, a member of staff materialised on the spot to fix it and in the morning we found a hand-written note from Marc Denton, the General Manager, apologising and offering us both a free massage. A lovely touch.
There are many different packages available, so if you want to get away from it all and decompress, I’d unreservedly recommend Kamalaya; prices start at 8,500 Thai Baht for a double room per night (at double occupancy). This includes complimentary attendance to daily holistic activities such as yoga, pilates and meditation. The minimum stay is three nights. Kamalaya offers several wellness programs starting at a three-day duration, for example the three night Relax & Renew program, which starts at 54,049 Thai Baht per person sharing a double room for three nights, including healthy full board, all treatments as mentioned in the program description, airport transfers and attendance of holistic activities.
Prices for the five night Asian Bliss program start from 92,933 THB staying in an entry level (hillside garden view) room for five nights (single occupancy). Included are healthy full board, all treatments as mentioned in the program description, airport transfers and attendance of holistic activities.
For full details, go to www.kamalaya.com.