By Evelyn Theiss / March 5, 2012

The heart of Kamalaya, a healing sanctuary in Koh Samui, Thailand, is a cave hidden in the center of lush greenery that winds 350 feet upward from a sandy white beach. Buddhist monks used the cave as a place of spiritual retreat for nearly two centuries, and it spoke to Kamalaya founder John Stewart the moment he encountered it.

Stewart, a Canadian native who lived as a monk in a Himalayan ashram for 16 years, came to Thailand in 2000 to recover from a serious illness. He’d learned of healing herbs that grew only on Koh Samui, Thailand’s third largest island located in the Gulf of Siam, and he knew that monks had infused the island with spiritual energy. Deeply moved by this special place, Stewart and his wife, Karina, a Mexican-born and Princeton-educated doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, set out to create a place of healing and renewal. Kamalaya, which opened in 2005, is a feast for all senses, offering many paths to vibrant health.

The resort, on the island’s southeastern tip, offers hillside rooms and stand-alone ocean-view villas, all subtly placed among palm trees, steep hills and massive, glacier-rounded boulders. Some trees were moved to a nursery during construction, then carefully replanted.

With the natural hospitality that is the essence of Thai culture, the staff provides superlative treatments, including a variety of traditional Asian and Thai massages. The kitchen offers imaginative Thai dishes created using the freshest fruits and vegetables, all designed to spur the body’s healing and well being. Many incorporate fresh coconut, which is Koh Samui’s main export.

The wellness center sits next to the Monk’s Cave. All guests receive a Body Bioimpedance Analysis—a snapshot of health that indicates hydration levels, ratio of lean muscle to fat, and cellular health. A naturopath explains the individualized program to each guest before they select treatments, meals and exercise regimens from categories such as Ideal Weight, Detox, Stress and Burnout, Yoga and Optimal Fitness.Kamalaya has all the accoutrements of a wellness resort: an open-air ocean-view yoga pavilion, an infinity lap pool braced by Thai sculptures, an herb-infused steam cave ideal for post-massage, and a mile-long reef that encourages walking far into the gulf’s warm waves. But Kamalaya is more than a place to get away from the busy world. It is a holistic resort in the truest, most expansive sense –and in the most individualistic sense too. Kamalaya’s philosophy is “nurturing into health.”

My week at Kamalaya flew by in a haze of appointments interspersed with down-time spent serenely gazing at the azure sea from my room’s balcony or relaxing on a beach chair with a refreshing shot-glass of a chilled coconut gelée. I had Ayurvedic treatments, including soothing oil massages, and Chi Nei Tsang, a stomach massage designed to stimulate the internal organs. A one-on-one breathing meditation session so relaxed me that I entered a state of unconsciousness halfway through.Traditional Chinese medicine is, naturally, on the menu, and I experienced its power. I had injured my back carrying my luggage through several airports, and I arrived with a pronounced limp and stiff leg that seemed to worsen each day. On my third day, I made an appointment with a visiting acupuncturist from Shanghai, Dr. Song Qinggeng. He placed thin needles into my arms, legs, scalp, and I relaxed for 20 minutes to the ocean’s gentle sounds before he gave me an intense pressure-point massage and spinal manipulation. When I got up from the table, all pain was gone—and so was my limp.

Before my taxi arrived to take me to the airport, I took a few moments to enter the Monk’s Cave, site of Kamalaya’s genesis. There, I meditated with gratitude on the experience I’d had–and prayed that I would return to this magnificent island retreat that forever changed the way I view my life. kamalaya.com

When she meditates, Cleveland-based health writer EVELYN THEISS recalls the gentle graciousness of the Thai people, the delicious cuisine and the massages she received at Kamalaya.

Evelyn Theiss

Evelyn Theiss

Evelyn Theiss is a print and online reporter who has covered everything from national politics to fashion in her journalism career. Now, she's a health reporter whose beat is nutrition and wellness. But this Midwesterner has found the greatest inspiration for her own journey to well-being at spas--whether those spas are in the U.S., Europe or Asia.
Evelyn Theiss

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