The fasting centers and rudimentary health retreats have little in common with the luxurious, pampering spa resorts that sprang up across Asia in the late 1990s. Like other Gulf of Thailand getaways, many were once the preserve of the pierced and tattooed classes. But as onetime travelers swapped backpacks for briefcases and Koh Samui opened an airport, the resorts found themselves swamped with stressed-out executives in need of a little spiritual care.
For $260 a week (excluding bamboo bungalow rooms that range from $6 to $45 a night), the Spa at Samui's eastern Lamai beach offers nothing less than the elixir of youth. With promises of "a longer and happier life," derivative traders, TV producers, flight attendants and other visitors swallow herbal nutrition tablets, quaff detoxifiers and regularly flush their insides. The talk over laxative tea runs from the latest stock fluctuations to—I'm not joking—the day's excreta. The guest book includes testaments to changed lives and—I wish I were joking—photos of half-meter-long expunged intestinal parasites. In addition to a seven-day fast, the Spa offers three-day courses and, for the busy spirit, the single-day "liver flush fast." The resort is also a magnet for passing alternative health therapists touting everything from hypnotherapy to acupuncture. Ask around: while many are skilled professionals, some are clearly charlatans. Check out spasamui.com or call (66-77) 230-855 for reservations. For more upmarket bungalows, try the Tamarind Retreat, 500 m away on a coconut-palmed hillside, with its own steam room and natural plunge pool (from $50). Call (66-77) 424-221 or e-mail via tamarindretreat.com.
Those with an appetite for more (or maybe less) can also try the quieter Healing Child (also called the Health Oasis) at Ban Bo on the north side of Samui. Here the managers are pushing back the frontiers of science. "The feeling of hunger is emotionally rather than physically based," they claim, adding that anyone feeling woozy during a fast is merely suffering "an illusion of the mind." Hunger moves in cycles, they say. Pangs return after 4 hours, then 9, 18, 36, three days, one week, two weeks, three weeks and finally six weeks. For some, the treatments may sound a tad too fecal. "It may sound funny, but we need to love our s___," says founder Mel Loverh. Perhaps surprisingly, then, Loverh boasts of a "personal record of over 700 colonics." Courses cost from $150 for three-and-a-half days to $560 for nine days. Accommodation is brick-and-red-roofed bungalows or the one beachfront house, and is either included in the course package or priced at between $4 and $90 a night. Log on to healingchild.com or call (66-77) 420-124.
On Samui's least-developed beach, Ao Thong, the Samui Dharma Healing Center offers a personalized, no-frills holistic fast. For $300 a week, American owner Hillary Hitt and husband Greg give one-on-one and group counseling sessions as well as classes on nutrition, meditation and yoga to a maximum of 18 participants. "Cleansing is a journey, a deep spiritual experience. You need a teacher and you need support," says Hitt. A lot of it, in fact. In the first few days of fasting, guests can expect "nausea, dizziness, headaches, exhaustion, heaviness, bloating and moods of anger, depression, fear, sadness and even excitement." Smoking and alcohol are banned and there's no restaurant. Guests can keep their colonic tubes, however. Wooden bungalows are extra at $7.50-$17.50 a night. Call (66-77) 234-170 or check out dharmahealing.com.
For those seeking a non-intestinal route to Nirvana, two long-running Buddhist meditation centers in the area run regular retreats. On the southern Thai coast, Wat Suan Mokkh runs monthly 10-day meditation courses led by resident monks and visiting teachers. The $28 fee covers food and lodging. Meditators sit for a series of 30-minute sessions, listen to talks, chant and relax in nearby hot springs. Find more details at suanmokkh.org. An hour from Samui by boat is Koh Phangan, home of legendary Full Moon parties and the austere Wat Kow Tahm meditation center. Rosemary and Steve Weissman's retreats, which last for anywhere from 10 days to three months ($83 for 10 days), are not for the daydreamer. Talking, reading, writing and even sign language are banned. Click onto watkowtahm.org for more information. Don't even think of bringing a packed lunch.