The Incredible Story Behind Thailand’s Award-Winning Spa

Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary In Koh Samui: Food For Your Mind, Body And Soul
Kamalaya: A Place Where You Feel Life's Full Potential

John Stewart was introduced to Asian philosophy and spirituality at the age of 15.

At 23, he joined his yogi master in India and spent his first year living in a cave beside a Himalayan river. During this year and the following years, he embraced a traditional yogi lifestyle that taught him the values of truth, simplicity, love and ‘sanatana’ (eternal) dharma.

While in India, he helped to build schools and hospitals in Indian communities and set up small local businesses in Kathmandu. After he left the ashram in 1993, he became a successful art dealer and settled for some years in Kathmandu with his wife Karina. Together, John and Karina founded the beautiful award-winning health retreat Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand.

Here is John’s remarkable story in his own words.

“Here we don’t wait for miracles, we create them!”

With these words my teacher inspired my life and the creation of Kamalaya.

I spent 25 years in the Himalaya’s, 16 of them as a yogi monk, a disciple of a great Himalayan master, learning to serve and practice ancient traditions and integrate them into grounded, practical reality.

I lived in a community beside a river in the Himalayan foothills a half days walk from the nearest road, without electricity or any modern convenience, and many years were spent carrying rocks.

Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand, is a place of peace and tranquility
Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand

We literally created land and moved a mountain.  On one side of the river, we piled rocks three metres high, it took several years until we had created a four hectare field, we then covered it with sand, fertilised it with cow dung and planted banana trees which helped create soil and over many years transformed it and now the area grows enough rice corn and wheat for the community.  Across the river, we dug out the mountain creating another field of the same size. Here we built temples, housing and stables for the horses and cows.

Using only our hands, iron bars and steel trays to do this work it seemed an impossible task, but patiently over time we achieved our goal, and it was during this time that my teacher told me, “Here we don’t wait for miracles, we create them”.

This experience informed the rest of my life.

Here is the cave where a Budhist monk once lived in Kamalaya, Koh Samui
Here is the cave where a Budhist monk once lived in Kamalaya, Koh Samui

Simplicity is to align your thoughts, speech and action with inner truth and to be happy with the results, and by living in this way, one will experience love.

I learned that true happiness and fulfilment come through service and in giving to others and that by practicing this, whatever we decide to do, we can make a difference. Positively influencing the world around us.

Experiencing how this simple life and teachings helped heal the wounds of loneliness, depression and the lack of meaning so often found in modern society

I was deeply inspired to integrate them fully into my life.

Knowing that few people could live such an austere and simple life, I often wondered how I could share this and all that I have been enriched by when I would return to the West.

My Buddhist teacher also sent me from time to time to Nepal to study with Tibetan Buddhist Masters and encouraged me to create small businesses focused on empowering local people.

The majestic view seen from the poolside at Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand
The majestic view seen from the poolside at Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand

He had someone give me $3000 dollars telling me that if I would be a caretaker of this as sacred money it would grow. I developed a line of jewellery and yoga clothes and the profits were used to build schools, medical clinics and a hospital in remote areas.  This gave me experience living a life of service and devotion

In 1982, I met my future wife, Karina, who had taken a sabbatical from her studies at Princeton University.  I knew right away that I was in love and wanted to marry Karina, and for the next 11 years I stayed in touch with her after she returned America through letters and the occasional phone call.  This was all before the internet.

Kamalaya's co-founders Karina Stewart with her husband John Stewart
Kamalaya’s co-founders Karina and her husband John Stewart

In 1993 the time came to leave India, I was told: “You won’t know what you have truly learned unless you go and build something.”

I knew what I had to do!

I went to the US to find Karina and luckily she was single, and we decided to marry.  I asked her then what she thought of bringing together health and spirituality and creating a place where we could practice both and this became our vision and we began dreaming of Kamalaya.

Karina is a Master of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a yoga instructor, and a Cultural Anthropologist and she created much of the content of Kamalaya, articulating our vision; an integrated vision where each part of our life supports the whole.

We moved to Nepal and slowly began to build a flourishing business in art and herbal health products.

In 2000, while recovering from a life-threatening illness on Koh Samui, a small island in Thailand; I stumbled upon a cave where Buddhist monks had immersed themselves in forest retreats for several hundred years.

I was profoundly touched as it reminded me of my time in India living in a cave in the Himalayas and so… Kamalaya Koh Samui was born.

One of the many breathtaking views at Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand
Another breathtaking view at Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand

The cave is the heart of Kamalaya and we became care-takers of this sacred land suffused with years of meditation, contemplation and prayers.

Kamalaya is an expression of the gratitude Karina and I feel for the inspiring teachings we have received and which we attempt to live in our lives.

We set out to translate ancient wisdom and traditional healing along with modern science into a contemporary language and setting, and to offer our guests a holistic pathway to optimum health and vitality, along with the opportunity to reconnect to a deeper part of themselves so often forgotten in the modern world.

Every aspect of Kamalaya, from the land, the architecture and the gardens, to the food, treatments, classes, whether fitness or mentoring, the sense of place and of course our team of over 300:  Everything has been brought together to nourish and support you in an integrated and authentic way.  Connecting Mind Body and Spirit.

We envisioned that Kamalaya would benefit and make a contribution to anyone with whom we came in contact: our guests as well as our team, owners and shareholders as well as suppliers and associates. Creating a positive ecosystem that would live and grow and that you might be inspired to take home with you.

Neither Karina nor I had the depth of business experience needed to create Kamalaya.  We had faith in our ability, a passionate commitment to our vision; and our daily practice, which kept us focused on our goal.  We learned step-by-step the complexities of business and dealt with challenges one-by-one.

Sunset at Kamalaya overlooking the sea
Sunset at Kamalaya overlooking the sea

Marc Cornaz, already successful in the corporate world, went on to become an entrepreneur with expertise in startups, joined us in 2003 bringing his extensive business and management experience to further strengthen us.

We faced what seemed like insurmountable obstacles and together we overcame them and built and nurtured Kamalaya believing business should serve human needs, and serve the community with a generosity of spirit.

Today, many of our guests express a life-changing experience. The results of our guest comment cards show consistent levels of over 90 % as the average rating for our services and many come again and again, often returning every year.

Our guests speak of the sense of community, of reconnecting to themselves, of deep healing and experiencing love and Joy.

“Feel life’s potential” is Kamalaya’s invitation to each and every one, to perceive and experience both the personal and the transcendent nature of life.

Each individual carries within the seed of the same potential manifesting in all life, the seed to fulfil and unfold life’s magnificence.

Both, day-to-day reality and transcendent reality are coexistent and in truth, there is no separation.

So at Kamalaya, it is spirituality and business.

During my years in the Himalayas I learned to shoulder all my self-created responsibilities, to maintain my spiritual practice and become proficient in “both” realities as one, because they are interdependent and coexistent.

So you can say ‘we take care of business’ or ‘chop wood carry water.’

I was taught to look into the future and visualise it, and I would be able to create a miracle. For me, Kamalaya is this miracle.

I would like to invite you to look into your future and visualise your dream of a healthy, healed and connected world.  And then, to visualise how you would like to contribute to make this happen and create your own miracle!

The Carousel would like to thank John Stewart, the co-founder of Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Thailand, for sharing his remarkable story. For more details about Kamalaya, click here. 

John’s story was taken from his speech on ‘Spirituality of Business – The Story of Kamalaya’ held at the Healing Summit in Berlin in March, 2016.


Written by John Stewart

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