A visit to Thailand is balm for the soul. In the land of Smiles, you let yourself be seduced by a pleasant climate and the waves of the south Chinese sea hitting beautiful sandy beaches – not forgetting the nourishing healing traditions. At the wellness sanctuary, Kamalaya Koh Samui, it is all about finding inner peace while strengthening the body through a unique approach. We met the founders John and Karina Stewart for a talk about their holistic health concept, the increasing demand for health solutions and wellness holidays, and what lies ahead for the travel industry.
He was a monk in Nepal, under the tutelage of an exceptional Himalayan master. She was a soon to be Doctor of Chinese Medicine visiting the Himalayas. They met – and fell in love. Sharing a common view on holistic health and Asian philosophies and wellness traditions, John and Karina wanted to create a refuge built around this concept, where guests could reconnect with their inner selves and rejuvenate their mind, body and spirit surrounded by nature.
Late 2005, Kamalaya Koh Samui Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa opened its doors on the beautiful island Koh Samui in Thailand. With a picturesque backdrop, Kamalaya attracts guests from all over the world seeking health solutions to the anxiety, stress and numerous other challenges posed by the ever-changing world around us.
Kamalaya’s 76 villas, suites and hillside rooms are nestled amidst ancient, granite boulders, streams and tropical vegetation. The pristine nature is not only a sight for sore eyes, it also plays an important part of the Kamalaya experience; a connection to nature is a vital, nurturing element integral to one’s overall health and wellbeing. And if there is something many of us need and long for in these turbulent times, it’s a stress-free environment where we can become better version of ourselves.
– Our vision is to offer guests an immersive experience in the world of holistic health and wellbeing. Through that immersive experience you will feel inspired, motivated, and empowered with tools to return home to make better choices for your health and wellbeing. We are not trying to change you – we are not a rehab clinic – but we can help you amplify your life in the direction that you want and enrich that with better choices. In the end, you go home more connected to yourself, and more deeply rooted in yourself, and with more vitality, clarity, inspiration, and energy to embark on your “new” life, no matter who you are, explains Karina.
You have developed a wide range of health programs. Could you tell us about that?
– At the core of Kamalaya, is our desire to inspire change. Change for the better. Behavioural patterns in our modern lifestyles, natural ageing and trauma need to be addressed differently. Through our 17 wellness programs we can help people choose and step into their own personal life change. We do not follow a rigid daily schedule that is the same for everyone. With an emphasis on personal wellbeing and inner health, guests begin their experience with a personal consultation that addresses their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Together with our wellness experts, you create your journey. Even if you have already chosen a program beforehand, we can tailor it so that it is the best for you. It is a collaborative process, because without personal choice, I don’t believe people will change. Our philosophy is to invite you to make better choices, to change your behaviour – and we help you do that. We will walk right by you, but you will have to make that choice. That is why people come back again and again, because they become proactive and engaged.
John, what would you say distinguishes Kamalaya from other wellness sanctuaries?
– Above all, authenticity. That is really the key. Karina and I both come from backgrounds where we have lived this ourselves. We’re offering something that we know, a depth that is true to us. We’re not following trends; we’re not looking at what others do. It’s all very authentic, also in terms of Asian traditions and Asian healing traditions. Kamalaya is about nourishing people, and it begins when they arrive at the airport and are met by our team. There is so much kindness and energy that is naturally offered. People start to disarm themselves, they let their defences down and allow these new experiences to happen. We literally watch people transform. Still today, after 17 years, 90 percent of our guests leave saying they’ve had a positive transformative experience.
Which is your main target group?
– People who are interested and open to making better life choices. Sometimes we don’t know that we need to make better life choices, but when you come to Kamalaya and have this immersive experience of wellbeing, you have an awakening that is often very moving. Nobody can take that experience away from you, explains Karina.
– Around 45 percent are returning guests, John adds. And half of them have been here more than ten times. Guests come from all over the world, primarily from Europe. With our 76 rooms, suites, and villas we can accommodate 150 people, but most of our guests come alone. So, we normally have around 80 to 90 guests at the same time. People stay for long periods of time, our average length of stay is nine days but many stay between two and four weeks, some even up to 2-3 months.
How did you come up with the architectural structure?
– Kamalaya is built like a village on a hillside going down to the ocean. We have our own private beach, and the view is quite spectacular. It is like living in a big park with lush tropical vegetation and cascading streams, with ancient granite boulders overlooking an idyllic lagoon. It’s very organic and almost everywhere you look you have these gorgeous views. The architect of Kamalaya is a dear friend of ours, Robert Powell. just like us he has spent many years in the Himalayas where he documented disappearing cultures. With his artistry and sketches as inspiration, he created a community of individual structures that naturally embrace the surrounding landscape. Rather than destroying natural elements like rocks and trees to make way for construction, the buildings were designed to incorporate some of these aspects as key architectural features, says John.
– In terms of amenities we have two restaurants and a tea lounge, Karina continues. The wellness centre has almost 50 treatment rooms, three gyms, a world class Reformer Pilates studio and two separate pool areas. Over the next year, we will be building a HIT-studio, there is also paddle boarding, kayaking, yoga and of course Thai kickboxing. We just opened up our longevity lounge where we do functional testing, genetic testing and treatments like IV therapy and cutting-edge scientific therapies that enhance the benefits of the wellness treatments.
An integral component of a holistic health approach is of course nutrition. How is that reflected in your cuisine?
– At Kamalaya you are nourished into health, it is not about juices and fasting. Our vision is that food should be artful, healing in function and tantalising in form. By using fresh, local and as much as possible organic produce and cooking methods, we merge culinary traditions of East and West in new innovative ways. The menues reflect our philosophy and include extensive vegetarian options, as well as seafood, poultry and lamb dishes. The food changes with the seasons, as it should, and different months bring different delights, says Karina.
Do you have your own kitchen gardens and how do you work with sustainability?
– Yes, we have a small vegetable garden. However, we just acquired some land so we will increase that. We work with sustainability in many ways. For instance, besides growing our own vegetables we work with zero waste management and education of the locals. Since the very beginning we have been plastic free and use biodegradable material. We’re very conscious about that. We built Kamalaya with renewable resources like coconut wood. We recycle all of our water, which most hotels and resorts don’t. We have some solar energy but not enough. The challenge for us is to continue moving more in that direction. When we opened the cost of solar energy was extremely expensive so we could implement that, but now that is more available and with the new piece of land, we will be able to address that in the future. Water catchers to be able to collect rain water off the roofs is a very important aspect of what we will be developing, says John.
In terms of new therapies, Karina, and with the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, what is in demand right now?
– Our detox category has been super popular. It resets your habits, and that’s why it is so popular. Another very popular category focuses on stress and burnout. And the third one is the emotional and psychological program called Embracing change. Now after Covid, people definitely want to embrace change and reset their habits. Almost everyone wants to have inner counselling, to help combat depression, insomnia and anxiety after Covid. People have been impacted mentally and disrupted in their normal human way of being socially. So many of our guests choose to be guided on an inward journey. I definitely think that support on the mental/psychological side will be even more in demand in the future.
Looking ahead, what will be the key to your continued success?
– We recently launched an academy and that is going to be part of our growth. Previously, we only had the academy in-house for training our own staff but now we will be opening the doors to the public at large. As part of our academy, we will also have a cooking school. Kamalaya will be growing but we’ve launched so many new initiatives the past three months, so we need to have them well established first before continuing our development.
What could you tell us about travel trends, and challenges for the industry?
– Authenticity is key. Right now, around the world, you see a lot of properties using the term “wellness”. What used to be called a spa is now re-labelled as “wellness” and that is not good. Because if the term is eroded in the industry, the trust is betrayed. So “wellness washing” will be a big challenge, and how the guest is going to distinguish authentic in-depth experiences versus “manicure spa-life”. If you are a spa, be a spa, be the best spa, but don’t “wellness wash”. The second thing is finding talent. That has always been a challenge, the lack of competence. That is going to remain, and for exactly that reason we are growing our academy. The customer is more discerning, more demanding of what they want, so that is also a challenge. The guest wants results, they want the authentic experience, they want real professionalism. For the industry that could be a challenge, says Karina.
For you personally, what are your unfulfilled dreams yet to accomplish?
– I hope to grow Kamalaya, a dream would be to develop a second sanctuary, says John. This is one of the strong missions in my life. I love that we can help people, and that people are so grateful for it. That is really fulfilling. Aside from that, we love to hike and spend time with people. We’ve put so much time and energy into Kamalaya, and now that it is growing and we have a bigger team, we hope that we can get a little bit more time off to spend with each other.
– I want to remind you, John, of one of your dreams, says Karina. I remember that you once said you wanted to take a year to walk around the world. To go on a real walkathon for a whole year. Personally, I have a lot of things on my bucket list. I’m a foodie and I would love to take cooking classes on plant-based cooking but at a very high level where you learn how to make art with food. I love going to restaurants that offer that kind of cuisine, and I would love to learn how to do that myself. I am also passionate about doing silent meditation retreats, so perhaps I will be doing that while Johns is walking the world! I would also love to learn calligraphy and ikebana – artistic and creative learning is really my thing.
Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary & Holistic Spa
Kamalaya offers a holistic wellness concept, a synergistic wellness experience that helps people reconnect to life’s potential, and achieve optimal wellbeing.
Situated on the south-eastern coast of Koh Samui, Thailand, Kamalaya integrates healing therapies from East and West, in a breathtakingly beautiful natural environment, Through inspired healthy cuisine, holistic fitness and customised wellness programs and retreats, they offer a unique concept in holistic holidays, with an emphasis on life enrichment.
Kamalaya was founded by Karina Stewart,Doctor in Traditional Chinese Medicine and a renowned authority on holistic health and wellbeing, and John Stewart, a devoted spiritual acolyte, public speaker, and inspirational visionary and leader in the global wellness industry. Together, they have close to 50 years of experience in the study and practice of diverse Asian healing and spiritual traditions. Their vision for Kamalaya, is to bring together diverse traditions of healing, culture and spirituality in a nurturing environment from which people can explore and embrace life’s potential.
For more information please visit: www.kamalaya.com