Heaven Sent

By Michael McHugh

Heaven Sent
Transported into another realm, MiNDFOOD’s editor-in-chief Michael McHugh travels to Thailand’s Koh Samui and loses himself at Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary.

On day one at Kamalaya, a wellness sanctuary in the south of Koh Samui, Thailand, I’m being measured – my waist, legs, and arms. It looks as though things are on the up – albeit not in a good way! The only measurement that hasn’t blown out and off the charts since I last checked is my height.

During the evaluation, I discover my upper left leg is shorter than my right, by a centimetre! It’s also apparently more rotund; I’m destined for a platform shoe. I’m assured it’s quite common for people to have one leg longer than the other. Phew.

The emphasis at Kamalaya is on healthy living and on providing guests like me with simple and effective lifestyle habits that they can implement at home. While I’m here, I’ve chosen the Ideal Weight Program, a week-long commitment and one of the many programs on offer at the award-winning spa. Currently, my weight is neither ideal nor programmed.

After my body measurement, I’m greeted by Amy, Kamalaya’s resident naturopath. She oozes wellness and is extremely knowledgeable (and kind) when asking about my eating habits and weight gain. The first part of my treatment plan involves regular sessions in the far infrared sauna (FIR). To prevent dehydration, Amy hands me an electrolyte drink to consume before and after the sauna to replenish any minerals I lose through perspiration.


I soon discover that the drinks are very necessary. FIRs use the same technology that warms newborn babies in incubators and that NASA uses to condition astronauts’ cardiovascular systems. The heat from the FIR increases metabolism and can burn as many as 600 calories in 30 minutes – great for weight loss. For me, though – having never had a sauna before – sitting in the dry heat for 30 minutes takes some getting used to, and I am continually wiping off the toxins and perspiration.

My happy place

One thing I notice afterwards is that I felt really happy. Hot and red-faced, but happy. Apparently, the FIR increases secretion of endorphins and other “happy” hormones. By week’s end, I’ve had five sauna treatments and feel so comfortable  there that I even take in my book to pass the time. Day one ends with an oriental detoxifying scrub and wrap, that, combined with jetlag, tiredness, and my post-sauna glow, put me straight to sleep.

Kamalaya cofounder Karina Stewart believes strongly that healing is a journey of self-discovery and involves a much broader perspective than just healthy eating. “While food is an entry point to begin this journey,” says Stewart, “our mental and emotional wellbeing is equally important, contributing to our health and vitality.”

It’s no surprise, though, that the food at Kamalaya is delicious. Every meal is a freshly prepared combination of flavours and textures. It takes me a day to get my head around changing from a highly processed sugar- and carbohydrate-rich diet to the Kamalaya Ideal Weight menu – but delicious it is. Each meal includes some form of protein, such as eggs for breakfast, and fish, prawns, or chicken for lunch and dinner – all matched with a beautiful salad, curry, soup, or vegetables.

By day three, I feel happily full after each meal and notice that I’m not eating as much. I drink a lot of water and really enjoy the mix of flavours in the salads and vegetables, which I have with breakfast also. I feel so much lighter and healthier, and even my thinking seems a 
lot clearer.

With the sun shining and my thoughts becoming clearer, I head off to my Chi Nei Tsang (abdominal-massage) session, which stimulates circulation to the internal organs, releasing stored tension and stress. My practitioner has much to work with, and by the end of the session, I feel lighter. The next morning, the sensation is as though someone has taken a vacuum cleaner to my stomach. Hooked, I have another session the following day and a final treatment on my last day.

The daily activity schedule is packed with everything from a gym workout to nutritional guidance, yoga, and even a spiritual-alignment workshop. One treatment I am nervous about is Chinese medicine, which involves acupuncture and cupping. For the first 20 minutes, Kanitta, a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), asked about my eating habits – both historical, current, and future plans.

Making her diagnosis, she places an eye mask over my eyes and begins inserting the needles. She inserts at least six needles into my face and arm before I realise the procedure has begun. Of the 20 needles, I feel only one. As she places glass cups onto my belly, I steal a quick glimpse. I see what looks like a scene from Gulliver’s Travels: My stomach is covered with small upturned goldfish bowls with needles in and around them.

Despite the bizarre sight, I have a repeat session two days later – this time with more needles, more cups, and no blindfold. I talk all the way through about my ideas of living a good life, and although I feel the cups come on and off, I don’t feel the needles at all. The next morning, I am up at 5am feeling full of energy.

Exercising body and mind

Pampering and bodywork treatments aside, the Ideal Weight Program also involves some hard yakka. Klack, my personal trainer, has me rolling around on a fitness ball, lifting a weighted medicine ball above my head, burning calories on a fitness cycle, and doing a number of stretching exercises. I’m sure he has had many guests who were more committed than I am.

However, I can proudly say I skip only one class in favour of attending a stress-resolution workshop. During the four gym sessions I attend, my 40-minute workout certainly raises my heart rate and gets my blood pumping, and I get a few more clues as to what to do when I return home. In all honesty, though, I’m never going to be a gym bunny.

Meditation is something I have been keen to try, and I definitely tap into my inner Zen during walking meditation, which Smitha leads at Kamalaya’s beach first thing in the morning. A group of fellow guests and I are instructed to walk very, very slowly along the beach, becoming hyper-aware of the sand beneath our feet and toes and focusing on our breath and the environment around us. Moving like a group of newly hatched turtles, it takes us a while to slow down, unwind, and focus, but once my breathing settles, I become very present and in the moment.

The next morning is my first ever tai chi class, which is much more fluid than I thought it would be. I am surprised at how much I sweat, as I’ve always thought tai chi looks so peaceful; it really provides a great workout. Unlike the gym sessions, it’s during these early-morning tai chi and stretching classes that I feel most comfortable with my personal level of exercise and tolerance, and I enjoy learning to breathe properly and stretch.

With all this exercise, it’s then back to the treatment rooms for some lymphatic drainage, which sounds much worse than it is. This form of massage uses very light pressure and gentle rhythmic strokes to increase lymphatic flow, refreshing the immune system and flushing out toxins. I think it must work, because the next morning, my nose is running and again, 
I feel lighter.

At Kamalaya, you can be as involved and connected or as still as you want to be, so I take advantage of some downtime to relax in my spacious villa, enjoying the views out to sea and the neighbouring islands. My verandah features a ceiling fan and a very comfortable day bed; it’s the perfect spot to read my book and watch the day change. Guests wander past, stopping to swap stories about how each of us is going with our chosen programs.

From my glorious vantage point, I can see large rocks sitting alongside the resort like statues of Buddha keeping watch within buildings and treatment rooms. A waterfall runs the length of the property, so at any given time, you can see or hear a gentle trickle that is peaceful and relaxing.

Serenity aplenty

The sense of peace I find at Kamalaya is hardly surprising, considering the history of the location. Slap-bang in the middle of the property is a cave once used by local monks, which is still available for staff and guests to meditate and pay their respects. This sacred hollow is the centrepiece of Kamalaya in spirit and position, and is where the name – which means “lotus realm” – originates.

I attend a Thai cooking class; a workshop on meditation; and a lifelines session with Omesh, a German practitioner who talks with me about life plans and goals for the future. What’s more important, though, is  that I have lost 4 kilos and reduced my waist by six centimetres. I feel happy and surprised at having achieved this in just five days.

On the last night of the program, guests head to the beach to release paper lanterns – the size of a fridge – into the sky, each tied with a message of hope for the future. As we line the beach watching our wishes float off into the night sky, I realise we all have untouched potential.  

Relaxing reading

The profound experience I have while staying at Kamalaya may also be attributable to a book I’ve read while here: Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. Alexander is a neurosurgeon who experienced the afterlife while in a coma for seven days. It is a fascinating read, and whether or not you believe in an afterlife, his words offer a heartwarming message to all: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” Reading those words in beautiful Kamalaya, it is difficult not to be seduced into a heavenly state.

Along with the exceptional location, the incredible range of wellness offerings, and the healthy food, I may actually have found heaven on earth at Kamalaya.

For additional information, go to kamalaya.com.


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