A resort on Koh Samui has been offering refuge for eight guests and almost fifty employees since March. How does it feel to experience this crisis in luxury isolation?
Even after several months in isolation, Emily Sarkies does not miss her home in Australia. As well as? Palm trees, papaya and hibiscus bushes grow in front of her office window, behind them the ocean shimmers light blue. “I now perceive the nature around me even more intensely, I listen to the silence, watch drops of water on a lotus flower or the play of light in the leaf green,” she says. For two and a half years she has been working as a naturopath and wellness consultant at the Kamalaya spa resort on the Thai island of Koh Samui.
This inner calm even increased during the shutdown, explains Emily. Because while in March all the hotels and restaurants all around closed and their staff were fired, the Kamalaya staff didn’t have to worry about their job. Everyone was allowed to stay. In normal operation, 200 people work there to give the up to 100 guests a nice break from everyday life. “It would be incompatible with our philosophy and our image of human beings to just put them out the door,” say the owners, Canadian John, 66, and American Karina Stewart, 58, on the Zoom phone call.
The guests were also allowed to stay if they wanted, if they did not know where to go or if they could no longer get back home. “It was immediately clear to us that the house would remain open,” emphasizes John Stewart. To date, eight guests have accepted the offer – including an English woman, a Danish couple and an Italian woman. The latter is particularly happy to be here. Sure, the resort is also a kind of golden cage, because nobody can get out and in at will. All residents and staff are in quarantine, even if it may not feel that way. But there is no question that a curfew with a tropical garden and beach is easier to bear than in an apartment in Italy.
So the days in the resort go on like before: in the morning at half past seven meditation, afterwards yoga, breakfast, during the day we go to the beach or for coaching, for the tea ceremony, for breathing exercises. Body treatments and swimming in the pool are now allowed again.
49 employees always take care of the few guests every 14 days. During this time they live in the resort themselves and are allowed to participate in the daily program. “Our idea was to use this time to change our perspective,” says Karina Stewart. That means: The employees slip into the role of guests in their free time. “We wanted them to know what else the guests experience here.” When their assignment is over, they live at home with their families – also in isolation, and payment continues. Are the Stuarts dream dancers, idealists who can’t count? “Not at all,” says John Stuart, “at the end of the day we have to make money, make profits. But that’s what we want with our people who have always been loyal to us.” Now it’s time to give something back.
So now cooks, drivers, maids and therapists meet with guests while meditating or doing yoga. This creates completely new friendships, says Leila Abachi, who works as a homeopath and nutritionist, in a video call. “We can feel even more clearly how everyone and everything is connected.” A little esoteric is not only the staff here, but also the guests who choose this resort.
For example Joan Haydon and her husband Brandon from Chicago. They describe gratitude and deep attachment to John and Karina – for their offer to stay, at a very fair price, as Joan says. The couple is on a late honeymoon. “We have been preparing for four years,” she says. They quit their jobs and apartment before leaving, and they couldn’t have easily returned home. Given the many corona deaths and the current crisis in the United States, they are probably better off at the resort on the island than at home.
So are everyone happy in the Lotus realm, as Kamalaya translates? Not quite: Because the Stewarts of all people cannot spend this unusual time together. Fourteen hours, thousands of miles, and a significant time difference have been between the two since the shutdown tore the couple apart. At the end of March, Karina Stewart had flown to the USA to bring her mother to Thailand. “We were already at the Bangkok airport, ready to fly to Koh Samui,” she says. But the officials were adamant – sending the mother and daughter back to Arizona. Karina Stewart makes the best of it: “We are zooming in for a kind of candlelight breakfast,” she jokes. For months they have been holding conferences every day and discussing all business matters. “It’s terrible, I miss John terribly,” she says. It is probably helpful that John lived in a Buddhist monastery for 16 years as a young man. “I get up every day at sunrise and meditate,” he says.
He can deal with loneliness, but the couple still hopes that the entry ban will fall at the beginning of July at the latest and that they will be reunited. Karina, who studied acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, anthropology and Asian religions in Princeton, is already developing new ideas for what to do in the resort after the pandemic – for treatments that strengthen the immune system and are even more sensitive to touch. After the long period of forced spacing, many people are probably starving to touch. “But until then, we work with the other senses – with smell, taste, sounds and visual stimuli,” she says.
Emily Sarkies still has time to philosophize with the beach waiter Khun Chris and to relocate a caterpillar family to a safe sheet. She practices stand-up paddling with the waitress Khun Nan and does stretching with Khun Pam, the quiet housekeeper. But slowly life is slowly starting up again outside the resort walls. The first restaurants and shops open, and massage parlors should soon be able to work again.
The first-class quarantine should end soon. How long do you want to stay? “We really don’t know,” says Joan Dayton. In any case, she and her husband are in no hurry to get away.