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Is Thailand your new wellness destination? Find out


Chiva-Som Thailand Morning Beach Run

Credit: Chiva-Som

Thailand has some of the world’s top wellness retreats where you can take a healthy holiday. The natural warmth, grace, hospitality and patience of the Thais, who are largely Buddhist, make it the perfect place to undergo a detox, yoga, weight-loss or de-stress program. Check in for a general wellness program or explore Eastern modalities such as Ayurvedic medicine.

Here’s our pick of the best Thai retreats. Most are located on the island of Koh Samui, which has in the past few years become a true wellness hub.

Absolute Sanctuary

Absolute Thailand retreat

With its large, modern, air-conditioned yoga and Pilates studios, not unlike city venues, this place feels like a gym. So it was no surprise to learn that the female owner of Absolute Sanctuary is also founder of Absolute Yoga, one of the largest chains of yoga studios around Thailand.

Teacher training and yoga retreats are held at Absolute and it would particularly suit fitness, Pilates or yoga junkies. It is the only centre I came across that offers Pilates reformer classes and programs in addition to detox, wellness, stress and yoga programs.

If you like discipline, routines and working out, this is your place.

Absolute also takes that approach to its detox program, which a lot of guests are also here to do. This strict regimen sees an allocation of juices (with psyllium and bentonite clay added), coconut water and chlorophyll meted out and marked off at The Pool Bar. When you’ve had your allocation you are turned away. There’s no going off the plan here.

If you have a weight or health concern, or badly need to detox but don’t trust yourself, this is one super-disciplined place to do it. Short of leaving the property (and it’s not near anything) you are on the program. The restaurant won’t even serve you because you have to give out your room number and they have you tracked.

If you like discipline, routines and working out, this is your place.

What is possibly lacking at Absolute is a little of the Thai warmth, graciousness and hospitality found at the other retreats. The rooms and ambience are a little hotel-like and rather than a holiday it feels like you are there to Just Do It (with apologies to Nike).

That said, this retreat has a couple of excellent practitioners, namely Dr William Englehart, who can tell you about body ecology, metabolic training and enneagrams, and Dr Alistair Bredee, who practises EFT and QRMA (Quantum Resonance Magnetic Analysis) — both fascinating. Be sure to attend their free talks or take a consultation.

The colonic irrigation here is open-system, daily, rigorous and supervised by a nurse. Coffee and chlorophyll are added to the water at various stages, with a probiotic and vitamin C given at the end.

When you get back onto food (a minimum five-day detox is recommended) the Love Cafe serves delicious vegetarian food and other healthy fare. In the meantime, console yourself with detox vegetable broth, ginger tea and your daily allocation of juices.

Absolute does not have a beach, unfortunately, but an excellent large saltwater pool which (apart from the detox broth corner) is the central gathering place.

How much: Rates start from AU$2175 (61,100THB) for a five-day signature detox all-inclusive program, including transfers.

Where: Koh Samui

How to book: absolutesanctuary.com

Kamalaya

The first thing you notice on arrival at Kamalaya is the warm energy and beautiful feel of the place. It feels the way the world should. Kamalaya was built around a former Buddhist monks’ cave, used by monks for hundreds of years to meditate until former Buddhist monk John Stewart and his wife Katrina, a TCM doctor, bought the land.

Set down a hillside in rural Laem Set on the island of Koh Samui, Kamalaya’s villas are shaped around existing rocks, trees and a mountain stream that cascades down the hill to the beach, adding a lilting water element to the tranquillity and serenity.

The whole place is utterly gorgeous. The only dilemma? “Can I walk up one more hill or will I call the buggy?” Actually, yes, you can — it’s part of the resort’s discreet way of keeping you gently active and in the flow even while you’re not at yoga, being pummelled by delightful massage therapist Pom or laughing with beach attendant Chris, who will try to get you to walk a tightrope strung between two palm trees.

Kamalaya even has its own private beach so you can do all the usual holiday things: lie on sun chairs, swim, laze around the stunning pools.

Unlike some other wellness retreats, Kamalaya doesn’t push the full detox route. Colonics are only offered on programs starting at seven days. Instead, the detox menu is a cornucopia-like feast of tempting and utterly irresistible, innovative gourmet vegan and vegetarian dishes (you will want the cookbook and, yes, do the cooking course). Buffets are marked “wellness” or “detox” (no meat, eggs, dairy, grains, legumes, nuts or sugar).

Kamalaya is great if you want to take a partner because they can eat a relatively normal, albeit healthy, diet that includes meat and even palm sugar — just no wine.

I choose the detox menu. A range of green juices, wheat grass and chlorophyll shots is available all day, and dishes include kitchari, mung bean pasta with green pea sauce, Asian pear, rose apple and snow pea salad with sesame and ginger dressing, and an irresistible raw cacao and fresh coconut dessert.

Buffet breakfasts and à la carte dinners are served in the main open-air dining room atop the hill, adjacent to the Wellness Centre. There are couples and communal tables where guests from all over the world and all walks of life meet to chat over a meal. Many come every year. One actress told me it was her annual ritual; others said they stay anything from seven days to a month at a time.

Lunches are served at Amrita, a collection of individual thatched bales set amid water pools overlooking the beach.

During my stay, I learn pranayama breathing with Sujay and take regular yoga and morning meditation classes in the yoga pavilion. Personal mentoring, life coaching and mind-body balance sessions are available along with a range of holistic therapies from visiting practitioners — everything from reiki to energy/spiritual healing and deep-tissue healing and release. You can opt to do any of a number of wellness programs, including Relax and Renew, Fitness, Detox, Balance and Revitalise (for those suffering adrenal burnout).

Kamalaya is as much about salve and solace for the soul as it is about food and therapy for the body.

I have an initial consultation with naturopath Kate, who tells me I have adrenal deficiency and prescribes a supplement to help. Each day, I also try numerous treatments including chi nei tsang abdominal massage, lymphatic drainage and Ayurvedic treatments such as Indian head massage and abhyanga (daily massage), each finishing with the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl.

Two spectacular herbal steam caverns hollowed out of rock, hot pools and hilltop relaxation decks are for post-treatment relaxation.

Kamalaya is as much about salve and solace for the soul as it is about food and therapy for the body. All of it combined — the food, the therapists, the spiritual Buddhist ambience and the sheer smoothness and energy of the place — means I give Kamalaya top marks for living up to every inch of its reputation. As I write in the guest comments book, “It feels like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

How much: Single rates from AU$3000 (85,000 Thai Baht) for a five-night all-inclusive Stress and Burnout program including transfers, accommodation, meals, treatments and consultations. Kamalaya also has a regular calendar of visiting practitioners throughout the year.

Where: Laem Set, Koh Samui

How to book: kamalaya.com

Samahita

Samahita Thailand retreat

If Absolute feels like a gym, then Samahita feels like a yoga retreat — and that’s because it is. Samahita is run by yoga teacher, owner and experienced Ashtanga vinyasa teacher Paul Dallaghan (it was formerly Yoga Thailand).

Samahita runs its own yoga retreats throughout the year but also welcomes yoga teachers and groups who want to use the property to run their own retreats. One was in progress while I was there. They offer regular guests three types of programs: yoga, detox and wellness.

What stands out about Samahita is the simplicity and ease of the place. Its staff and teachers are lovely and there’s a good vibe. The food is generous — a full vegan and vegetarian buffet three times daily with occasional fish. There is a lot more cooked food — all rice, bean and legume based — than at Kamalaya, which seems to excel at raw food, juice and salad creations.

I felt that I improved my yoga flexibility during a mere three days here. The resident group was on a one-month-long yoga teacher training and were like pretzels compared to me, but Spanish yoga teacher Marco succeeded in coaxing me longer, straighter and further than before, simply due to the way they explain the mechanics and fundamentals of every asana.

It’s a distinctly younger crowd at Samahita. And the extra chanting — not just the usual Namaste — at the end of every yoga session probably explains the good buzz of the place. It has a very laidback feel even at dinner, where you can sit at tables or on cushions on the ground.

It’s barefoot-in-the-sand eco-luxury with a sound sustainable ethos that will leave your conscience intact.

Samahita also has a detox and wellness centre and offers treatments ranging from herbal facial and body scrubs to chi nei tsang and infrared saunas. Whatever program you take here, it includes yoga at least twice a day, daily pranayama and meditation and then whatever treatments you choose on top of that.

It’s a small but very capable operation. This is the place I’d recommend if you love your yoga “by the sea” in an outdoor shala (house) or just want to chill out with some affordable pampering. It’s a less expensive, smaller-scale version of Kamalaya.

The main complex sits right on Laem Sor Beach, a quiet beach in a rural part of Koh Samui. The yoga shalas, wellness centre and open-air dining area are located here while the modern two-storey accommodation blocks are across the road. These are spacious and beautifully appointed: no TVs, phones or robes, but your own drying rack — a plus if you’re constantly running from yoga to pranayama to evening meditation.

On the detox program here, you’ll be on just green juices, kefir, papaya and coconut water. Colonic hydrotherapy uses a closed system with a nurse present at all times operating the machine and performing abdominal massage.

You’ll be reluctant to leave. Easygoing is the word for Samahita.

How much: A five-day wellness or detox program in a single private room starts from AU$1400 (36,540THB) or AU$1120 (29,190THB) in a share loft.

Where: Laem Sor Beach, Koh Samui

How to book: samahitaretreat.com

Six Senses

Six Senses is a group of five-star rustic retreats around the world that, while relatively expensive, offer a great option if you have a partner who just wants a regular relaxing holiday while you abscond to the spa for some “alternative” treatments. It’s barefoot-in-the-sand eco-luxury with a sound sustainable ethos that will leave your conscience intact.

You can treat Six Senses retreats as destination resort spas, but they also offer so much more to those who are interested. At the Six Senses on Samui — one of the brand’s two Thai retreats — you can take a private one-on-one yoga class with the enigmatic Ka, enjoy a massage from beautiful Wen or Serge is on call if you want to try myotherapy.

The charismatic head of yoga worldwide — yoga master Dorelal Singh, a professor of yoga from India — is based at Six Senses Yao Noi. Be sure to take a class with him. Spa director Dr Ranjan Kapoor, an Ayurvedic doctor, offers a complimentary Ayurvedic analysis. On meeting, he takes my hand, reads my pulse, looks into my eyes and tells me my fire element is out of balance. He was correct — my “fire” at the time was a little on the dominant side.

The signature yoga programs at Six Senses are Yogic Sleep (for stress insomnia), Discover Yoga and Yogic Detox.

Stunningly beautiful in a totally natural, beachcomber kind of way, Six Senses Yao Noi is on a secluded island off the coast of Phuket. Driftwood and timber villas cascade down the hillside to the beach. Collect your own eggs for breakfast from their organic chicken farm and mushrooms from the mushroom shed.

The wellness here is an aside to your holiday — you can order a wellness spa menu and they will stock your fridge with coconut water and freshly squeezed mango juice, removing the tinned and bottled fizzy rubbish if you ask.

That’s the thing at Six Senses: ask and ye shall get — nothing’s too much trouble; after all, you’re paying for it. You even get your own personal assistant (a “Guest Experience Maker”) and your wish is her command. It’s a great way to totally spoil yourself and your partner. Six Senses caters very much for couples, not singles, unlike some others on this list.

Chiva-Som is a luxury spa and the food is organic spa cuisine — portion-controlled and calorie-counted (something I would have thought was a slightly outdated concept), but delicious.

Six Senses Samui — set on a gently sloping headland at the northern tip of Koh Samui — comprises 66 private pool villas in natural vegetation, with glorious, sweeping panoramas out to the Gulf of Thailand and the surrounding islands from its two restaurants: Dining on The Rocks and Dining on The Hill.

This is the place to go if you don’t want the full health or detox route (and prefer a glass of wine or two and some flesh at mealtimes) as a special treat, or if you want a healthy, eco-conscious honeymoon or couples’ break. That said, Dr Kapoor offers his own Ayurvedic detox system for those who want to go that way.

How much: Villas — huge, multi-level spaces that can each accommodate two adults and two children — start from AU$630 (1600THB) per night; meals and treatments extra. A four-and-a-half-hour Detoxification & Cleansing Journey including a Detoxifying Steam Bath, Detoxifying Green Clay Scrub Wrap, massage and facial costs AU$500 (13,500THB)

Where: Koh Yao Noi or Koh Samui

How to book: sixsenses.com/resorts/yao-noi/spa

Chiva-Som

The first, and some say the best, Chiva-Som is more like a hotel or sophisticated European spa. It has a definite medical professional feel to it — like, say, the Tria Centre that is attached to Bangkok’s private Piyavate Hospital.

Thai-style pavilions are set among ponds and the spa is huge with more than 70 treatment rooms and 120 modalities on offer for only 58 guest rooms. While Chiva-Som does have Buddhist talks, it isn’t as integrated into the resort’s philosophy as it is at Kamalaya or Samahita.

At an initial in-depth consultation, the spa staff will suggest therapies, exercise and activities to suit. On offer: an absolute slew of treatments and everything from boot camp to yoga, tai chi, aqua aerobics, Pilates, zumba and stretch.

Chiva-Som is a luxury spa and the food is organic spa cuisine — portion-controlled and calorie-counted (something I would have thought was a slightly outdated concept), but delicious.

The food and treatments are indisputably first class at this award-winning resort with its own training academy and range of cookbooks. The only question is can you afford it, as it’s one of the most expensive retreats around. Plus, getting there requires a two-and-a-half-hour transfer from Bangkok.

How much: Single prices for a five-night retreat (not including transfers) start from AU$5000 (130,000THB) or around AU$1000 per night.

Where: 73 Petchkasem Rd, Hua Hin

How to book: chivasom.com

Note: All retreats offer special discounts in low season (our winter).

  • For more wellness holidays, visit here and here.