Truth in Transformation: Kamalaya Koh Samui Wellness Sanctuary

Simply put, John Stewart wanted to save himself. Ultimately, this is the unifying reason we are all gathered at Kamalaya Koh Samui Wellness Sanctuary in Thailand. Welcome to founder John Stewart’s 70th birthday fire ceremony. Guests have flown in from across the globe, flowers flowing and glowing on this auspicious occasion. Nestled on the serene shores of Koh Samui, Kamalaya stands as a haven for those seeking truth in transformation. John’s own mother, in her 90s, is seated pride of place, looking resplendent in a regal plum color. At the heart of John’s transformation lies a narrative that goes beyond the creation of Kamalaya—a tale of resilience, radical change and the profound power of mental discipline.

I embarked on this Koh Samui sojourn with an open heart and a curious spirit. Little did I know a fire prophecy would illuminate and stir my soul in ways I am only now able to weave into words. The air was filled with anticipation, prayer flags flying high, marigold petals beneath our feet. The festivities began with a fortifying Tibetan fire ceremony. As flames danced in an ancient stoic ritual, I found myself drawn further into the primal space between those gathered. A powerful reminder of the impermanence of life, and the importance of leaning into the present moment. We sat in a circle around a common fire, all connected to the manifest destiny of one man, celebrating his soul and grace. We watched in awe as bright flowers became hypnotic flames, casting a warm glow on our cheeks, solemn chanting creating an otherworldly atmosphere. As the ceremony peaked, I felt an awakening of purpose and clarity. At the traditional banquet reception overlooking the sea, he thanked many lifelong friends with a sublime cast metal Buddha wrapped in beautiful golden silk. “That’s our John for you, always doing all the whimsical things. . .” I heard his friend of forty years remark, smiling down at the gift.

Later in the week as I sit with co-founders John and Karina, they open up about the pivotal moment that not only saved his life, but became the catalyst for a wellness sanctuary that would touch thousands of devotees over decades. Faced with serious health challenges, he embarked on a radical change in the way he nourished his body. “It was a moment of awakening, embracing food as potent medicine,” John reflects as we linger in the garden, his eyes conveying the gravity of this turning point. As he delves into details, it’s clear that a shift towards plant-based, nutrient-dense foods became the cornerstone of his healing. John’s newfound vitality became the driving force behind Kamalaya. Back in 2005, they set out to create a sanctuary embodying the principles of holistic living that had saved John. “We wanted to share innovations in transformative power of mind-body balance with others,” Karina beams between sips of lemongrass tea, “to create and hold space where people could embark on their own path to radiant health,” her musing Mona Lisa smile drawing me further in.

In the presence of these global wellness legends, I witness a living embodiment of the power of alignment. Karina has been an oracle of influence for so many leaders in the spa space, communing with her in person feels a bit like kismet—that her groundbreaking concepts have already reached me in meaningful ways. As we discuss Kamalaya’s evolution, John expresses gratitude for the team that shared their early uncompromising vision. “Sure, Kamalaya functions as a healthy business, but more than that, it’s a collective effort to make a positive impact on people’s lives,” he emphasizes. The resort, a leader in holistic wellbeing, stands as a testament to the radical change in diet that saved John’s life and laid the foundation for a sanctuary that has touched the lives of so many repeat guests.

In the week that followed, I immersed myself in Radiant Bliss, a brand new offering, customized to suit each guest. Designed by Karina, this series of wide-ranging treatments and therapies is not your average gamut of feel-good superficial fixes. It starts off with Body Bioimpedance Analysis for vital stats on cellular health, metabolism and toxicity to help create optimized naturopathic, nutrition and exercise programs. The “Three Treasures” treatment restores vital flow energy, while hyperbaric oxygen therapy literally fills you with new life. The Lanna Abdominal Samunprai Ron massage is an ancient herbal treatment that comes from northern Thailand, using fresh spicy herbs that are rich in essential oils and fire flare; the herbal remedies are heated and applied to the abdominal area. The treatment rebalances energy and the body’s elements, resulting in improved digestion and chronic lower back pain. It was not just the physical practices that touched me deeply; it was the connections I forged with fellow wellness seeking travelers and the wisdom shared by Kamalaya staff. Each interaction was a precious gift, an opportunity to learn and grow.

When John visited Koh Samui in 2000, he was particularly drawn to a cave that once served as a place of meditation by Buddhist monks, and with this discovery, he knew that he had found the ideal home for Kamalaya. To this day, Arjan Cave remains at the heart of the experience, where guests are welcome for quiet contemplation. One of the leading couples in the wellness space, both much in demand for speaking engagements, the Stewarts offer unique perspectives. John and Karina first met in 1982, on the outskirts of the Himalayas where John spent 16 years devoted to spiritual studies. Karina received her Master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Yo San University in California. Her specialization at Princeton University was on Asian religions for her B.A. in Cultural Anthropology. Karina’s 22 years of experience in the study and practice of diverse Asian healing and her background as a doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine were crucial in the development of Kamalaya’s diverse range of wellness programs and the compelling cuisine concept that supports it.

There are over 50 certified wellness professionals at Kamalaya, including naturopaths, doctors of Chinese medicine, western medical doctors, registered nurses, nutritionists, life transformation experts, Ayurvedic and Thai therapists, fitness specialists and yoga, meditation and pranayama teachers. Kamalaya offers 16 wellness programs that fall into five different categories, including Healthy Lifestyle, Detox & Reset, Stress & Burnout, Cultivating Heart, Body & Spirit; and a Taste of Kamalaya programs, making Kamalaya one of the first detox and cleansing resorts in Thailand. The retreat has been recognized around the world as one of the leading wellness destinations, and has won multiple awards while attracting visitors from Europe, Australia, the US, the Middle East and Asia. Kamalaya was clearly envisioned by two passionate people uniting diverse traditions and cultures in a nurturing, healing environment from which people can explore and embrace life’s highest potential.

What a gift, to delve into the sanctuary’s longevity secrets and gain insights from its visionary founders. Kamalaya, a Sanskrit word meaning “lotus realm,” perfectly encapsulates the essence of this place. From the moment you step onto the lush grounds, surrounded by verdant foliage and the soothing sounds of nature, it’s clear Kamalaya is more than a posh destination for the digestively distressed; it’s a place that will hold you and love you back if you let it. As I toast to John Stewart’s milestone birthday, I can’t help reflecting on the legacy he’s created. Kamalaya is a beacon for seekers like me, a sacred place where self-discovery, discipline and detox are not merely buzzwords, but a way of life. In quiet moments of introspection, I realize the fire ceremony ignited a spark. I’d always been a wanderer—ever seeking new adrenaline and shiny external adventures—but now I understand the most meaningful explorations begin within. Leaving Kamalaya may feel bittersweet, but carrying its sovereign wisdom with me feels like a long game superpower.

About The Author

Si Si Penaloza's first brush with unbridled luxury came when she was 18 months old, when she toddled from the lobby of Hôtel Ritz Paris into the adjacent Bar Hemingway – only to be busted 15 minutes later. After cutting her teeth as a curator, arts editor and cultural critic, she fell down the rabbit hole of luxury travel. A natural born flâneur, she thrives as a professional lounger – jetting to the world’s top destinations to review hotels and spas for top international outlets. Amid bouts of horizontal hedonism, she’s not immune to the lure of stunt journalism – interviewing Brad Pitt, George Clooney and the cast of Ocean's Thirteen in Cannes, reporting from Prince Harry’s Diamond Jubilee Tour of the Caribbean or racing the Top Gear team through the vineyards of Stellenbosch. She’s also been known to trek the Himalayas in seersucker pajamas, track baby kiwi birds at Cape Kidnappers, observe octopus at 80 feet below in Curaçao and frolic with frisky penguins on Cape Town's Boulder Beach. For editorial consideration please contact editor@jetsetmag(dot)com.

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