In search of a truly restful getaway, T+L checks in to the Kamalaya wellness retreat on the Thai island of Koh Samui.

By Henry Alford
Updated: February 02, 2017
Christopher Wise

My insomnia—I’m up for an hour or so a couple of nights a week—is mild but destructive. It makes my afternoons mountainous. I become the dead-eyed cyborg whose chilling dispassion is revealed in the final reel; my laser setting is Chocolate Pudding.

My troubles started about 15 years ago and—as is the case for millions of people around the world—they’ve made me on various occasions a less curious, patient, or extroverted person. My inability to sleep well has robbed me of hours of my life. I want these hours back. So when I learned that Kamalaya, Koh Samui, the posh “wellness sanctuary” on the Thai island, offers a sleep-enhancement program, I heard a proverbial bell ring. I loved that Annie Lennox had stayed at Kamalaya; in my mind’s eye, I saw Annie and me standing at a sink, laughing gaily as we rinsed out our Danskin unitards.

I will admit to a certain amount of unease regarding the phrase “wellness sanctuary”—as was corroborated by my first hour or two at Kamalaya. I encountered a plethora of scented candles, pensive-looking guests, spirit houses, marigold garlands, and allusions to non-socket-related “energy.” The resort’s ambient music, heavy on the tinkly murmuring, is what you would use to score a PBS documentary about basket-weaving in Hunan province. After my greeter handed me an appointment card and told me to show up at the Wellness Center the next morning, I toured both my room and Kamalaya’s common areas and devised the following definition: Wellness sanctuary (n.): A place where they hide all the clocks and coffee, then give you an appointment for 9:35 a.m.

Lulled by Kamalaya’s lush, gorgeous surroundings, I gradually became more charitable. Centered around a cave temple formerly used by Buddhist monks, the 59-room resort is located in a jungle ravine that spills precipitously down to a private beach. The setting is at the same time sybaritic and rugged; more than once I daydreamed about showing up for breakfast wearing only a Speedo and crampons.

The five-night Sleep Enhancement program includes four massages, two rounds of acupuncture, two sessions with a naturopath, and two sessions with a life coach, all of which take place in the Wellness Center. Though having 90-minute foot massages two days in a row is probably as close to heaven as I’ll ever get, it was the latter two components of the regimen that were the most helpful to me. In a cozy office overlooking the sun-dappled Gulf of Thailand, I told my tall, thirtysomething Australian naturopath, Emma, about my insomnia. I said, “Sometimes at midnight I’ll stand at my kitchen sink in my underpants eating breakfast cereal in heavy cream. Or sometimes at three a.m. I’ll sauté Krispy Kreme doughnuts in butter.” Emma’s eyes widened and she exclaimed, “How are you not as big as a house?” I explained that I swim three times a week and walk about an hour a day. I also said that my insomnia often occurs on nights when I’ve been drinking.

A good part of Emma’s counsel was suggestions I’ve heard many times before: no TV or computer before bedtime; slow down on caffeine and alcohol and spicy or sugary foods, especially at night; establish a regular bedtime, etc. However, in discussing my diet and sleeping patterns, we made two big discoveries. First, I don’t eat enough protein during the day, which may be why I need afternoon naps, which later interfere with my night sleep. Second, I drink too much grapefruit juice late in the day, which may be taxing my liver in the wee hours (the liver typically regenerates around 3 a.m.; if, because you’re stressed, it can’t get the glycogen it needs to do this, your adrenal glands will release adrenaline.) The vodka can’t be helping matters either.

My two sessions with Emma’s colleague Smitha, a thoughtful, calm life coach from southern India with warm, chocolaty eyes, were equally helpful. Smitha taught me a calming breathing exercise called pranayama (after taking a full breath, you inhale slightly more, first into your rib cage and then into your chest). After this, I became so relaxed that I was able, with Smitha’s guidance, to meditate effectively for the first time in my life. Then Smitha had me close my eyes and narrate to her my thoughts as I imagined walking at night from my bed to my refrigerator. By asking me a lot of questions, she helped me pinpoint my motivation for night eating. I realized that I’m a self-generating vortex of low self-esteem and approval-seeking and that, to my sleep-deprived brain, heavy cream and butter are a kind of gastronomic applause. Thunderclap!

Fairly heavy, no? I was somewhat awed by the heavyosity of it. Admittedly, I don’t go to a shrink, so I’m a somewhat wide target. Fortunately, though, not all of my Kamalaya experience was like looking at myself naked in a mirror. I interlarded the soul-searching with physical activity. I swam in the resort’s infinity pool and the ocean; I walked 20 minutes one day to a nearby zoo. Once I rang a huge gong in the lobby: not a terribly strenuous form of exercise, but it made a big impression. I also took advantage of the many free wellness-related classes that Kamalaya offers. The bodily challenges posed by yoga and tai chi sessions in the hilltop open-air yoga pavilion were greatly aided by the sun’s magisterially lifting up over a scattering of nearby islands off in the gulf: I realized that Nature was doing her damnedest, so I’d better, too. Meanwhile, I tried to keep on top of the 19 pills a day that Emma had given me, including magnesium for daytime and Somnium for night. But by day three I’d tapered off significantly: too much to swallow.

Because I was traveling alone, I liked to sit at the Community Table at dinner. I met no other guests who were doing the sleep program; everyone I spoke to was there for either detox or weight loss. The fact that I could eat and drink whatever I wanted to—except for hard liquor, which the resort doesn’t serve—seemed to hang in the air between me and each of my new friends; I became very familiar with the sight of middle-aged Swiss women, young couples from Singapore and Hong Kong, and yoga-loving Australians staring at me ominously over their wheatgrass shots and mung-bean stew as I tucked into delicious New Zealand lamb chops or a crab-and-guacamole salad or a big bowl of shrimp gaeng keow wahn. Although the food at Kamalaya is fresh and well prepared, I will make one assertion about the prevalence of spa cuisine thereat: to witness a groaning breakfast buffet whose only representative from the world of cheese is feta is to accept on some deep level that there is no Santa Claus.

The Kamalaya staff are mostly Thai; they wear what look like pastel-colored judo outfits, and they steeple their fingers in a wei whenever you come across them. One night at dinner, one of them handed out small paper tags to the eight of us at the Community Table. We were told to write down a wish. I asked Teresa, an elegant Swiss guest in her fifties, about hers: “Are you going big picture, or are you going specific? World peace or new vacuum cleaner?” Teresa smiled and said, “Somewhere in between.” My brain flashed on the phrase Roomba Without Borders.

Half an hour later, down at the beach, Teresa and I and about 15 other guests took part in the Thai custom known as floating lanterns. We tied each of our wish-bearing tags to a four-inch-tall rectangular paper balloon with a ball of flammable wax at its base. When the wax was ignited, the balloons—some 20 in all—lifted up, up, up into the sky until, about 30 minutes later, all these twinkly, ectoplasmic airships had slipped away into the void. While watching this majestic sight, I fell into conversation with Mohammed, a young guest from Bahrain, who asked how I’d slept so far at Kamalaya. “Beautifully,” I reported. “But the test is when I get back to New York.” Mohammed said, “So maybe the answer is, ‘Never leave Kamalaya.’ ” Earlier that day I’d had warm oil poured onto my forehead for an hour—an ayurvedic treatment called shirodhara—and it had cast a spell over me. Now the wonder of seeing 20 ghost ships sent into space had reduced me to semi-sentient blubber. I answered Mohammed, “I’d be willing.”

Kamalaya’s most vocal celeb fan is probably Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, whose memoir Finding Sarah portrays the resort as a kind of tinder-womb. At my trip’s end, it was another royal’s writing—that of Princess Anna von Auersperg—that I encountered while waiting in the reception area for my ride to the airport. The princess had emblazoned the resort’s guest log with a rapturous rant that included the promise, “I will become a lotus flower.” When I pointed this out to the resort’s cheery young Hungarian assistant manager, Tibor, he reported, “She was here one month.” I marveled, “From human to plant!” Tibor said, “Kamalaya is not a holiday. It’s a transformation.”

When I returned home to New York, I did not feel as if I had transformed into an aquatic perennial in the nelumbonaceae family. However, I did feel wonderfully rested. I was tan. I had lost six pounds—a fact I chalked up to alcohol deprivation, Thailand’s heat, still mighty in October, and all the times I’d walked up and down Kamalaya’s steep hill. (Guests are allowed to call for a ride from one of the resort’s buggies, but I recently turned 50, and thus my ego is tender.) Since my return two months ago, I’m eating more protein during the day, I’ve whacked all the nighttime grapefruit juice, and I’m still laboring to get my glug-glug-glug down to glug-glug or perhaps just glug. I’m still waking up as often as I was before, but now, thanks to deep breathing, I’m able to shorten how long I stay awake about 50 percent of the time. Because I’d already tried variants of them over the years, I’m not using any of the sleep aids Emma gave me on departure (a fragrant oil called Sweet Dreams, a sleep mask, a journal to write down my troubles in before going to bed, a CD of rain sounds, and more herbal pills). Breaking a pattern of sleeplessness will, I’m sure, take years and years, so the fact that I’ve already experienced a reduction is deeply heartening. I will soldier on.

Interestingly, one of the times I woke up recently was during a dream about floating lanterns. Some 15 Kamalaya guests and I were standing on the resort’s beach, each about to launch our papery spaceships. Just as I went to push mine up into the sky, I decided to reread the wish I’d written down. Instead of, “I sleep effortlessly,” the wish I’d launched at the resort, I’d scribbled, for reasons entirely unclear to me, “I instantly wake up.” On reading this in the dream, I woke up in real life.

Henry Alford is a T+L contributing editor and the author of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners.

Kamalaya Hotel

Samui's top wellness retreat sits on nine gorgeously lush acres on the tranquil southern coast.