Inside the best spa in the world: Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Resort, Koh Samui

Kamalaya is full of repeat offenders. That is one of the first things that I learn during my stay at Koh Samui's world-famous spa. Chatting with my fellow guests – in the al fresco spa reception before meeting with our therapists, in one of the steam caverns hidden amid rocky grottos, or over a glass of wine at dinner – I am amazed to discover how many of them are on their third visit, or their seventh or, in one case, their fourteenth.

By the end of my stay, I understand why everyone keeps coming back. Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary and Holistic Spa Resort – to give it its full title - rakes in the awards. It was named Worldwide Health & Wellness Destination of the Year at the most recent World Spa & Wellness Awards in London, having twice previously been named Destination Spa of the Year – Asia & Australasia. It has also been named Best Destination Spa by Conde Nast Traveller, and Best in Asia in the Spafinder Wellness 365 Crystal Travel Award. But what makes this place special is more than just its massages and meditation sessions. 

Set on a steeply sloping property overlooking the sea, with walking paths that meander through jungle-like foliage, Kamalaya has a sense of tranquility, a nurturing atmosphere that instantly makes you feel better, no matter why you are here. 

Everyone has their own reason for coming here. Some are here to give their body a boost, either through a detox or a fitness program, or both. For others, it is about coping with changes, anything from a death in a family to the demands of a new job. And some people have come simply to relax, knowing that no-one is going to put any demands on them.

Guests can choose between a la carte spa treatments and a tailored program. The latter is the smart choice, both in terms of maximising results and getting value for money. Whichever option you settle on, however, it is a fair bet that you will be spending a lot of time in the spa. This is the heart of Kamalaya. The airy, al fresco reception overlooks the sea; the individual treatment rooms are scattered throughout the surrounding area, hidden amid verdant greenery.

Feeling rundown and overworked, I have chosen the 7-day Basic Balance and Revitalise program, mainly because it is packed with massages – no fewer than nine of them. Some, such as the Indian head massage and the Chinese stomach massage, focus intensively on one area. Others aim for overall relaxation. 

Also on my program is an ayurvedic Shirodhara treatment. I've tried Shirodhara before; it involves oil being poured over the point in your forehead known as the third eye. I found it an underwhelming - and very sticky - experience. This time around, however, I am converted. As I lie on the bed and feel the oil gently flowing over my forehead, a sense of wellbeing steals over me. I actually end up nodding off before the end of the treatment.

The other session that I approach somewhat reluctantly is the stress management consultation. Don't get me wrong; I like the fact that Kamalaya's wellness packages all cater for the mind as well as the body. However, I doubt that this particular session is going to yield any useful results. Stress is an unavoidable part of my deadline-driven job; over the years I have learned how to manage it. (For me, nothing beats going for a long walk).

So when I sit down with Smitha, one of Kamalaya's senior staff, I tell her that I'm not sure what I will get from our session. Smitha takes this in her stride. Smitha, I suspect, takes everything in her stride. She has an extraordinary aura of calm; I am not in the slightest surprised when I later find out that she used to be a Buddhist monk.

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She talks me through a range of approaches we could use, and ever so gently asks a range of questions about the way I live and work. It doesn't take her long to raise an interesting point. My work, she says, involves intense focus, and so do most of my spare time pursuits – a simple truth that had never occurred to me. Suddenly, I understand why taking a walk is my favourite form of stress relief; it is a rare opportunity not to concentrate on something. It is a simple insight, but one that offers me a new perspective on my life as a whole – as well as the perfect excuse to spend more time of my Kamalaya break just lying by the pool. 

Frankly, I had planned to spend a lot of my time lying beside Kamalaya's pools (it has two of them, including one next to the resort's small beach), but somehow my days seem to fill up. There are plenty of complimentary activities available, from Pilates sessions to evening talks by visiting practitioners covering a range of therapies and techniques from acupuncture to spiritual healing to palmistry. 

My favourite off-program activity is the morning yoga classes held in a pavilion at the spa's highest point, where you can gaze out to sea as you strike the warrior pose. After yoga, I head down for a late breakfast, which is a surprisingly indulgent affair. 

In keeping with its easy-does-it approach, Kamalaya doesn't lay down the rules about what you should and shouldn't eat. You can start the day with coffee, if you like, and you can end it with a glass of wine or two. Wheatgrass shots are available, but no-one is going to insist that you have one. Feel like muesli or fruit salad for breakfast? That's fine. If you would rather eat fried rice or buckwheat pancakes, however, that is fine too.

Breakfast is good; lunch and dinner are even better. The resort's expansive menu draws on cuisines from around the globe: I eat my way through everything from chicken tikka to grilled calamari to massaman curry. In an attempt not to appear a total glutton, I don't touch alcohol all week. It is less about detoxing, however, then the fact that I am trying to work my way through the resort's truly spectacular range of juices and smoothies. It is hard to pick a favourite but the CocoLoco, made with banana, coconut flesh and tahini, would be on the shortlist.

Halfway through my stay, I decide to go hardcore and order from the detox menu. I choose the fish in soy and ginger, which turns out to be delicious. Emboldened, the next day I order the least appetising dish I can find on the menu, a mung bean risotto. I am almost disappointed – although not at all surprised – when it also turns out be superb. These people, clearly, can make anything taste good.

TRIP NOTES  

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Traveller.com.au/thailand

FLY

Bangkok Airways offers direct flights to Koh Samui from Bangkok and from Singapore, while Singapore Airlines offers direct flights from Singapore. See bangkokair.com, singaporeair.com

STAY

A three-night Relax & Renew program starts at 47,226 Thai baht per person twin share, including accommodation, full board, a wellness consultation and treatments including six massages, and airport transfers. Accommodation options range from stylish contemporary suites to sprawling Thai-style villas. See kamalaya.com

Ute Junker stayed as a guest of Kamalaya.

FIVE ESSENTIAL KAMALAYA EXPERIENCES

INDULGE

Your appetites. Start the day with a coffee or two, finish with a guilt-free chocolate mousse. No-one is going to judge.

LEARN

About something totally new with a visiting practitioner talk on kinesiology or face reading.

LAZE

By the pool doing nothing (except occasionally munching on a bunch of frozen grapes).

PERFECT

Your yoga poses with a one-on-one lesson.

BLISS OUT

With a massage, available in a range of styles from ayurvedic to Thai.

See also: 20 things that will shock first time visitors to Thailand

See also: 50 ways travel can improve your wellbeing

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