Unwind and remember who you are at Kamalaya


At age 43, Howie Snyder has put aside hard-nosed business to help direct and promote a new holistic spa on the Thai island of Koh Samui.

“Off the east coast in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui wasn’t affected by the tsunami,” he says, stoically besuited for a day of wheeling and dealing. “And yes, despite the fact that it welcomes 900,000 visitors a year and is home to a higher concentration of spas than anywhere else in Thailand, it is still paradise.”

Howie likes to do something different every few years. At age 18, he left Rochester, N.Y., for China. “I have my mother’s heart and my grandfather’s Gypsy soul.” Then, laughing, “I guess this makes me the archetypal wandering Jew.”

In 1980, China really appealed to Howie’s inquisitive nature. Returning home after a year to conclude undergraduate studies at Columbia University with Chinese tucked under his linguistic belt, he found many professors writing books about China who had never been there. This is when he began studying Japanese, “because I’d never been there.”

Visiting Japan for the first time in 1985 to work at the Tsukuba Expo, he found himself on the cusp of the economic boom and quickly landed a job in finance.

“I stayed through the bubble years but banking got boring. I thought, grad school, now or never. It took one day to realize that nothing was going on vis-a-vis Asia in the U.S., so I went to work for Nippon TV in Washington, D.C. It was an amazing two years — attending Bush-Gorbachev summits, the 50th commemoration of Pearl Harbor — but there was no future for me.”

Howie spent two months learning Vietnamese (“six tones; if Chinese is the Latin of Asia, Vietnamese has to be Corsican!”) but couldn’t stay because of visa restrictions. He likes weird communist countries because he’s interested in the social premises for so-called ordinary societies, rather than the “melding into the one big mess of globalization.”

In 1993, he joined Krowll Associates, the largest investigative crisis management company in the world. “But then I got a hankering to go back to China, and enrolling at the Film Academy in Beijing, collaborated on a documentary about Chinese ‘manzai’ (two-person standup comedy), which showed on Chinese TV.”

This particular curiosity satisfied, Howie returned to Japan and the investigative business. But burnout is a high risk from stress, so he hightailed it back to China again for another 2 1/2 years.

“In 2000 I took a year off, went around the world. By this time I had taken up yoga. I began working here in 2002 for Coca-Cola as security operations manager for the World Cup.” By the end of the year he was with Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, looking after China’s portfolio of bad loans and distressed assets. “I was paid to roll in the mud with the natives.”

By last year, the toxic nature of such work had begun to poison his soul. “Sure it’s the perfect environment for a combative New York type, but it doesn’t bring out the best in people. Individuals get trampled on.”

So he quit, went to Koh Samui for a colon-cleansing fast. “This is where I met up with the people I’m now working alongside on the Kamalaya project: John Stewart, a Canadian who lived in India for 15 years, and the Australian architect Robert Powell, who has designed the spa as an unfolding lotus. Also Netherlander Dirk Djistra, who made his investment making ballet shoes in Thailand.”

Howie recalls a TV commercial for the Remington electric razor, with company owner Victor Kiam saying, “I liked it so much I bought the company.” “Joining Kamalaya was a bit like that. I just loved the concept and those involved. Looking back at the boom-bust cycle of my life, it was like coming home.”

He’d been going to spas on a regular basis since 1989, so knew the business and the diversity of therapies. “Expats in Asia need such places to unwind and remember who they are.”

Even though 15 new hotels opened on Koh Samui last year, the 13,000 rooms that the island can offer visitors are still insufficient.

Kamalaya — from the words for lotus (“kamah”) and realm (“alaya”) — is a holistic spa and sanctuary centered around a cave that once served Buddhist priests as a meditational retreat. Sited at the edge of a lagoon, it evokes what Howie calls “remembered wellness,” a key ingredient he believes in all healing and well-being.

Kamalaya offers a total integration of mind, body and spirit, with all the traditional practices, fully trained staff and regular visiting masters of meditation, Chinese and Indian medicine, yoga, tai chi and qi gong.

“We have 60 rooms, 27 treatment rooms, a Wellness Center, massage complex, and the Mantra complex (a yoga pavilion and a conference hall),” Howie enthuses. “At the Alchemy bar, you can order a liver flush drink. All therapeutic and beauty products are organic and our own brand. We really have tried to think of everything.”

Most importantly, each new arrival receives an initial health consultation, with a regime of treatments devised accordingly to meet individual needs and preferences.

Believing this is a genuine turning point in his life, Howie finds it hard to see beyond Kamalaya. “This is a $15 million investment, half equity, half debt. As a director, I’m a shareholder, and along with 40-plus others have total faith. Check out our introductory offer, from Kamalaya’s opening on Nov. 11 until Feb. 28.”

A Hillside Room is $100 a night per person, while a 75-sq.-meter bungalow is just $150 per night, including all meals, round-trip airport transfers and free yoga and meditation classes.

A soft-nosed snip, if you ask me!