Little Epiphanies

Samujana in Koh Samui put their guests through a week’s worth of intense physical and mental training

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Samujana in Koh Samui put their guests through a week’s worth of intense physical and mental training

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Surrounded by chirping morning birds, a sky turning from coral to blue, and Kom’s hypnotic voice, the early morning practice was therapeutic

Tucked away in the north-eastern part of Koh Samui and at least half an hour’s drive from city centre Chaweng, Samujana is tranquil – much more so than the intense workouts that are to come over the week. Aside from the quiet hum of ceiling fans in the open bar and dining areas, the only sound was the rattling leaves from tree canopies surrounding the retreat. Outside the dining area are loungers and an infinity pool that stretches into the glistening Gulf of Thailand. My Hong Kong-paced brain happily shut off.

While waiting for the other retreatgoers to arrive, I snuck in a Deep Thai Massage, which should be pre-booked at least 20 minutes in advance as Samujana doesn’t have in-house therapists. Though the treatment paled slightly in comparison to spa-dedicated retreats, my body learnt to appreciate the brief pampering before being put to test with sunrise and sunset yoga and Muay Thai, totalling more than four hours of exercise every day.

It was night by the time everyone arrived, and we were escorted to the living room for a quick introduction from our yoga instructor, Kom, a slender, taciturn Thai man; and our Muay Thai instructor AJ, though friendly, looks daunting with a bleached Mohawk and tribal tattoos. But luckily, I wasn’t the only one intimidated: all retreat-goers were slightly worried after learning of his background as a personal fitness instructor in the British Army and anecdotes of breaking opponents’ necks with his legs. Of course, we didn’t know then we’d be pleasantly surprised in the sessions to come.

The evening ended with a dinner of local Thai street food. The spread consisted of grilled shrimp and fish, roasted vegetables, a plethora of salads, tom yum kung and fresh fruit. Though suggestions of the pool hall and cinema floated around, our group decided to rest for tomorrow’s sunrise yoga at 6.30am.


Surrounded by chirping morning birds, a sky turning from coral to blue, and Kom’s hypnotic voice, the early morning practice was therapeutic, interrupted only by appreciative reactions when our instructor performed something of Cirque de Soleil standard. At the end of class, Kom dropped onto his back with limbs stretched to the sky and signalled us hop on for a back stretching exercise. He grabbed onto our palms, balanced our thighs on his feet and instructed us to spread our arms like wings as he dipped our heads inches away from his. A similar pose was repeated on the back with him supporting our shoulders and hamstrings; he even encouraged us to lift one leg or scoop them toward our head to test our stamina. More fearful for his slim limbs than actually falling – as our bodies were only a few feet away from the grass – I soon learnt that the only way to face my fears is to let go and learn to trust the instructor, an epiphany that only kicked in after awkwardly trembling in mid-air for three days.

Our efforts were rewarded every morning with a savoury breakfast (like smoked salmon omelette, oatmeal or soup glass-noodles); cereals with a choice of almond or skim milk; fresh watermelon and pineapple juice; as well as brown toast (which we all politely declined, because who wants to eat carbs in front of health junkies?). Lengthy conversations were usually saved for dinner, as it’s time to catch some shut-eye before Muay Thai.


By 11.30am, the sun was almost directly above us, so thankfully Thai boxing took place under a canopy. After briefing us on the basics, AJ kicked off with a series of warm-ups including minute-long planks, push-ups three ways and sit ups. After putting on heavy-weight gloves – which we were advised to tap a few times to scare off centipedes and spiders inside – we started punching and kicking, focusing on footwork, hand-eye coordination, highkicks, elbow-thrusts, aiming for areas that cause unfathomable pain.

Contrary to our expectations, the class was tons of fun. AJ trained according to our individual capabilities, meaning no kick was too high or a punch too far out of range when enough effort was put in, even for a newbie like myself.

In the subsequent days, classes evolved from techniques to sparring, where we were taught to combine moves to take down the opponent – usually AJ, who was sandwiched between protective gear to shield us from his conditioned body. (His precise words were, “Your legs will break if they hit mine”). In rather comical scenes of padded bodies attempting wobbly kicks and odd punches, we learnt the most important lesson in Muay Thai: sometimes an effective attack can only be executed if the boxer is willing to sacrifice a less critical body part; a punch in the stomach is bearable damage when decapitating the opponent’s knee, for example. Who knew Thai boxing could be so philosophical, despite the blood and gore?

Ninety minutes of limb-work was met with lunch, usually a tom yum soup, grilled fish, salads and seafood delights after an hour of sweat.

In the few hours until the next workout, Samujana provided a tour of the island. The first day was a visit to Chaweng, a small neighbourhood of shopping malls, upscale restaurants and pharmacies; and North Samui, hitting sites like the Wat Plai Laem and Big Buddha, where the deities are plated not in the conventional gold or brass, but in a melange of interesting pastels. If towering statues are not of interest, duck into souvenir shops or buy a basket of feed for the swarms of fish causing a in ruckus the otherwise peaceful river.

The activity for the day after was a cooking class. Other trips included those to Maenam, Bophut, Lamai, a day at sea and even a spa treatment at the nearby Six Senses.


Dragging my tired body to sunset yoga every evening was most challenging; but it never took long for Kom to get us back into exercise-mode with a series of sun salutations and shoulder-opening stretches. The view also helped: the blue sky cascaded into fiery amber and dipped into an emerald sea that would soon be consumed by darkness. Clouds swum atop as birds returned to their nests, letting out a brief song as if to encourage us to – in Kom’s words – stretch a little deeper.

As I laid down in final savasana, my body tinged with exhaustion, but I was always grateful for the effort I have managed to put into the hours of exercise every day. Despite aching muscles, countless sweat stains and silently swearing “I’ll take a rest day tomorrow”, we all scored full marks for attendance, with smiles of gratitude by the time sunset rolled around.

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