'I went for seven nights; I left after five weeks' - How a trip to Thailand changed a single mum's life
After her grown-up son left home, Sharon Bannerton took a trip to Kamalaya Resort
Over the years people jokingly said I was like Shirley Valentine; if I could, I would have had chats with the walls.
And so, last summer, I did become Shirley Valentine in some ways...
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As a single mum to a 21-year-old boy, all my life had revolved around him. I was driven by work too, and have owned and run my own businesses, as well as working for major corporations. But, looking after Jack was my true purpose in life, and gave me great joy and satisfaction; until that dreaded day came when he announced he was moving out.
I found myself totally lost; aside from my work I did everything around my son, and now it was me and the four walls. The silence was deafening! Even the dog had gone to dog heaven a few weeks earlier.
As they say, when life throws you a lemon... well, I threw myself into my work, and worked harder at the gym, but that gap was just not being filled.
PR is demanding, it can also be quite social, and I have many great friends, but I was still at a total loss.
I realised I needed to get away to re-evaluate my life, and to decide how life was going to look now.
I googled different holidays; yoga retreats in America and meditation in Greece, but then I came across a blog by a woman at a similar life-changing stage. I read with interest and it felt like I was reading about my own life. She had just come back from Kamalaya, an award-wining resort on Koh Samui in Thailand, where she did a programme called Embracing Change. I instantly followed her links - and, to my amazement, there I was booking this holistic programme on the other side of the world.
I was leaving the comforts of my home, traveling to Thailand, and staying in Kamalaya, completely on my own!
This was a first. I had never travelled a long distance on my own, or gone on a holiday alone - Shirley Valentine was on the move.
I travelled direct from Dublin to Hong Kong and after a three-hour transfer to the tropical island of Koh Samui, I arrived in the most breathtakingly beautiful and calming sanctuary I have ever experienced.
To describe Kamalaya as a hotel or a retreat would be wrong. This is a place where you take a step back and you look at yourself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Despite the emphasis on wellness, Kamalaya doesn't do rules.
There are about a dozen different wellness programmes combining an array of holistic therapies, from talking therapies to fasting, diet advice, meditation, massage and exercise plans.
But, you can choose to do some, or all, of your programme; or you can have a lie in or head off exploring the nearby islands. Phones and laptops are allowed and there's even organic wine and chocolate.
Delicious and varied menus are largely vegetarian and vegan, although there are plenty of meat substitutes and fabulous fish dishes. And, never ever before, has healthy eating tasted so good, with not the slightest hint of deprivation.
"We're not a boot camp," Karina Stewart, who founded the resort with her husband John, told me on arrival.
"Spirituality and luxury are not mutually exclusive. We are all about natural healing in a natural environment. The more our guests embrace what there is to offer here, the more uplifting the experience will be, and the more likely they are to find the change they're seeking."
And somehow, almost unconsciously, at some stage of your stay, you realise that maybe for the first time in your life, you are at peace with yourself.
I met people from all walks of life: young and old, business owners, corporate execs, retired, homemakers, mums and dads, singletons, marrieds, with and without their partners.
There is no norm, just people with one central goal of finding themselves. There are numerous health and well-being programmes, from fitness to detox to meditation and relaxation. But Kamalaya is more than just a health kick. It goes deeper and it's very spiritual.
Everywhere you go there are Buddhist cave temples where you can meditate, or quiet individual treatment rooms tucked away in the lush greenery, and steam caverns hidden among rocky grottos.
Pilates, yoga, a raft of healing therapies and talks are all provided, and, for many, it is equally therapeutic to just laze by the swimming pools or on the private beach.
Spa treatment rooms offer therapies that focus on a particular area, such as an injury or stress issue, and many simply promote relaxation.
You can try Indian head massage, Chinese stomach massage, acupuncture, spiritual healing and Ayurvedic treatments that instantly generate a wave of wellbeing and calm.
Smitha, a former Buddhist monk, is the resort's queen of stress management, and has the same calming effect on the mind that her colleagues in the spa have on your body!
She is a tower of no-nonsense practical guidance, prompting gentle self-reflection where you eventually realise that the answers are all inside you, already, and she just teased them to the surface.
Overlooking the sea, set in lush green foliage, the resort has a sense of tranquillity and a nurturing atmosphere that instantly makes you feel better, no matter why you're there.
Half of the occupants are lone travellers, from all over the world, and more than half are return visitors; many returning over and over again for their 'fix' of introspection and calm.
In the restaurant there is a community table, where you can sit and have your meals, and chat. But you can also sit elsewhere on your own, if you prefer. There is no expectation.
No one judges you, and, from the moment you arrive there, people know that sometimes you need space, and sometimes you need to share with your new-found friends.
People discuss their life and experiences, and their reasons for being there. And this willingness to talk and to listen is part of the healing process in this very magical sanctuary.
I went for seven nights and I left, reluctantly, after five weeks.
Embracing change not only put me back on my path, but reawakened my ambition and encouraged me to start living my own life, for myself, and embracing every day for what it brings.
Kamalaya is not the end of a journey, instead it is very much the beginning...
* Kamalaya on the Thai island of Koh Samui was founded by John and Karina Stewart in 2005 and has achieved numerous accolades, including World Spa & Wellness Awards and the US Conde Nast Gold List. kamalaya.com
* Kamalaya is on the south-eastern side of the tropical island of Koh Samui, about 25km and a 45-minute drive from Koh Samui Airport. The resort provides private transfers.
* Flights from Ireland are one stop, via Bangkok, Thailand, or nearby Asian cities including Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
* Sharon flew from Dublin direct to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, and from Hong Kong to Koh Samui with Bangkok Airways.
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.