I must confess to having undergone a minor operation prior to my departure for Koh Samui. At the prospect of being a guest for the ‘Wellness Sanctuary’ programme by the Banyan Tree, I felt that I needed to have the pathway between my brain and my cynicism glands cauterised, just in case the ‘new age speak’, mysticism and psychobabble rendered me inoperative.
I don’t enjoy yoga – forget the Lotus position, I can’t even manage the Renault – and massages make me tense – who wants their inner thighs touched by a stranger without the proper introductions? Meditation is another ball game, as I can’t imagine ways in which to make my mind any emptier than it already is. I breathe pretty well (all things considered) and have been doing so for years. Those kinds of exercises are almost guaranteed to leave me high/dry, shaking my head and panting.
It was, therefore, with a degree of trepidation that I entered the sanctuary that is probably one of the most picturesque resorts in Southeast Asia with the expectation that I would emerge purified, detoxified and with a zen-like demeanour and beatific outlook on the world. Could the experience actually change my life?
The people responsible for the assignment must have recognised the challenge on their essentially-oiled hands and figured; if we can do anything (anything at all) to help this guy, then we must be on to a good thing with the programme. Happily, they were not, and are not wrong.
Travelling these days is a pain in the flabby (non-yoga-honed) butt. We’re all aware of this. Going online to apply for a Thailand Pass (without which you can’t even enter the country) is four and a half hours of my life that I’ll never get back, but I do appreciate that those who don’t work with steam-driven computers may be quicker.
Being greeted at Koh Samui’s delightful little airport – an experience that used to be such a delight – is now like a scene out of Contagion. I would ask the question as to why hazmat suits have to be quite so ill-fitting and unbecoming. Couldn’t we get Armani involved?
Being whisked from airport to resort in what appeared to be an unmarked van wasn’t much fun either, but almost everything is forgotten once the doors open into one of the Banyan Tree Samui’s pool villas. There is an instantaneous change of pace and mood, and the air almost seems to be charged with relaxation ions.
You expect excellent accommodation from every Banyan Tree, but there is something about the spirit of this place that is a little bit special. It’s as though there’s a remote control with three settings – calm, very calm, and … Om.
Fixtures and fittings are on point, and the point is well made. There’s a room for simply chilling in; a bedroom that leads directly through French windows to a larger-than-anyone-has-a-right-to-expect pool, and a bathroom that is spacious, peaceful and stocked with cosmetic goodies. Should I mention the jacuzzi next to the pool, kept at a constant, delicious 38 degrees? Probably not.
If there’s a better place anywhere in the world to spend the number of hours required to wait out the results of a Covid test, then I’d like to know where it is. I was half hoping that I might have had to quarantine within the confines of my villa for a few days. I wouldn’t have minded.
But that’s not what I was there for. I was on a mission; to relax and become more mindful, even if it killed me. While the villa became my refuge and retreat, the management of the Banyan Tree Samui had plans for me, and those included a number of treatments, classes and activities designed to make me realise just how unfit I am (bodily) and how cluttered (despite being empty) my mind has become.
A ‘relaxing massage’ ended in my delightful therapist identifying more knots in my back and shoulders than would have been created in the duration of a boy scouts’ summer camp. Her attempts to ‘take them out’, Ninja style (after due consultation) led to me chanting the ‘no pain no gain’ mantra in rhythm to the massage room muzak that we all know so well. I was the willing enabler; and good heavens did it feel good/bad/good/Om.
Then it was time for yoga under the tutelage of the inimitable Bikram Keshari Patra – a diminutive man with a treacly, mellifluous voice that lulls, and a demeanour that reeks of peace and tranquillity. He is both spiritual guide and Torturer-in-Chief (to those for whom the word ‘supple’ is only ever in reference to leather).
The man knows what he’s doing; whether bending wills and bodies to previously unreached positions on a yoga mat, to breathing exercises at the beach and conducting sound meditation. He’ll work out what you need to do and more often than not you’ll feel better for having done it, without knowing exactly why.
At this point my cynicism glands are trying to reconnect with my brain and I’m tempted to allow them. Like most people, I suspect, I take breathing for granted and don’t think too much about it. But when instructed in techniques that combine the process with a rhythm based on the physical exercise being carried out, I started to notice a difference. This was truly frightening. Have I been breathing badly all these years?
For those people buying into the Wellbeing Sanctuary programme there are options aplenty. I thoroughly enjoyed cooking ‘Hearty Recipes’ alongside Master Chef Wirat Saoya, and subsequently sitting down to eat a delicious (healthy) spicy chicken and basil salad followed by (healthy) steamed seabass with a delightful piquant sauce so characteristic of Thai cuisine. Healthy options are available at the two main restaurants and designated as such, although you’re on your own for breakfast and may need to work it out for yourself. Clues: fresh fruit = good. Bacon… not so much, but it was excellent. I’m told.
I also enjoyed my Muay Thai class, in which I noticed myself breathing more rhythmically (and, therefore, effectively) with my physical movements, thereby finding extra energy when exerting. Revelation.
By that stage of the experience (ironically, perhaps, after some kicking and punching) I was calm enough to be able to recite my AUM (the basic sound of the universe, apparently – who knew?) with expert timing, controlled breathing and a genuine sense of conscious grounding. My cynicism glands were filing for emancipation.
There is plenty to do on the programme, but you don’t have to do everything. Indeed, you are encouraged not to. If you can’t sit back and relax at a Banyan Tree then there’s little point in going in the first place. The point is that you choose what you want to do (or what you think you need to do) and you do it – if and when you feel like it. At your own pace; in your own time. The programme presents options and guidelines, and you’ll always have expert guides,
The Wellness Sanctuary programme at the Banyan Tree Samui may not change your life. But on the other hand, it just might.