Phuket’s Sanctuary for the Mind, Body, and Soul.
When Chris McCormack came to Thanyapura in December, 2013, it wasn’t like this. Not even close. Its name hardly registered on the local radar. “On Google, I searched for keywords like ‘Phuket triathlon’ and ‘Phuket wellness’ and there was just nothing about Thanyapura. It didn’t appear at all,” says McCormack, one of the world’s most prolific triathletes and now Executive Chairman at Thanyapura, on gauging the scope of work to come during his first days on staff. “The growth has really been tremendous.”
In the sixteen months since the man known as “Macca” joined the senior management team, the athletic programmes have flourished, the facilities have expanded, and the brand has solidified around a mantra of mindfulness. Each week brings new world-class sports stars to the spacious grounds at Thalang on the western fringe of Khao Phra Taew National Park. The place is crawling with talent.
The Dutch National Swim Team trained at Thanyapura for a month, and the British, Hungarian, and Russian teams have all spent at least a week doing the same. Frequently, groups of aspiring semi-pro triathletes fill the on-site sports hotel, lured by the thought of riding from Phuket to Phang Nga and diving into the sea the next morning for open-water swim workouts with the legendary Jurgen Zack. The more universally famous Maria Sharapova has visited too (her signature drink is available at The Booster Bar). This year, former Tour de France rider Nick Gates will join the coaching staff, no doubt leading cyclists on long and challenging rides across the hilly southern terrain.
“See the table behind us?” asks McCormack, kicking his head back, toward a four-top table in a corner of DiVine, the facility’s award-winning organic restaurant. “The couple sitting there practically wrote the book on barefoot running. They’ll probably be on staff next week. That’s the way it goes here.”
This kind of star-power might have seemed a pipe dream when Klaus Hebben founded the complex in 2009. At first, it had nothing to do with elite athletes. Nor was it a source of revenue, per se. Discouraged by the state of scholastic options on the island, the German tycoon drafted a multi-platform project that would prepare students for the International Baccalaureate while guiding them toward healthy lifestyle choices. He began to funnel substantial resources into what would become Phuket International Academy Day School (PIADS), a non-profit organization whose educational programmes were built upon the pillars of mindfulness.
The school stood as an outlet for Hebben’s profound belief in total wellness — mind, body, and soul — and as a means to provide holistic education to children. The project would incorporate fitness facilities made available, free of use, to students and their parents. It would bring families closer together and point the needle in a healthier direction. From there, Hebben’s vision continued to expand, gaining clarity, colour, and depth, like orchid flowers in bloom. A triathlete and spiritual practitioner, he dreamt of doing more for the community. The Mind Centre was the next addition.
A quadrangle of one-story white buildings set in a secluded alcove, the Mind Centre is devoted to clearing the clutter from everyday life. Yoga and meditation courses led by luminaries like Andrea Capellari, who has worked as the Italian interpreter for the Dalai Lama, nurture spiritual well-being. The courses, however, are not only designed for zen-masters. Beginners might sit upright in chairs during meditation practice, rather than on the floor with legs folded. Athletes, in particular, are encouraged to attend classes in which they might learn to improve their focus. “Too often we stay in the artificial world,” says Pierre Gagnan, a visiting mind trainer. “We ignore the experimental side of life. We don’t listen to the sounds around us and truly think about them. We forget to live.”
Once the Mind Centre gained traction, the Sports and Leisure Club was established. Bricks and mortar gave substance to concept as facilities that would make any self-respecting athlete salivate were built. They’re dizzying, Disney-like in scale, and veritably Olympian in pedigree: Plexicushion tennis courts; two swimming pools, including a 50-metre Olympic-sized pool with a professional timing system, scoreboard, and underwater video analysis window; a 900-square-metre fitness centre that houses a variety of programmes, from pilates and martial arts to dance and spinning; a health centre, which offers anti-aging remedies based on preventive medicine; a soft 500-metre track with a field of synthetic turf; and a
teched-out training room with a treadmill for lactate tests and CompuTrainers set up for Function Threshold Power (FTP) tests.
By 2013, following the construction of the cosy and commodious sports hotel, Thanyapura was nearly complete, but it remained Hebben’s ship in a bottle. He had channelled all his energy into fitting his vast dream through a narrow opening. Without proper direction, it would remain behind walls of glass. So when he met McCormack while the triathlete was on holiday, he pulled out all the stops to recruit him, envisioning a brighter future with Macca in the fold.
McCormack first set his sights on overhauling the business, and with it, the sports programmes. He enlisted fellow triathlete and Asia-based entrepreneur Michael Dhulst, who had organized sporting events in the past and had the chops to tackle the task. So far, the two have revamped the Thanyapura image by going digital, introducing hashtags and using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to engage outside audiences. They’ve made inroads with famous figures and brands, testing the waters to find mutually beneficial partnerships. They’ve also laid the foundation for PIADS to become a United World College with an athletic leaning. “There are dreams and there’s reality,” says Dhulst. “We’re making sure Klaus’s
vision works as a viable business.”
The progressive minds shaping Thanyapura from the ground up have turned over many stones in the pursuit of perfection. The onsite organic farm grows produce used in most of the dishes at DiVine, whose brick oven, Sunday brunches, and incredible buffets draw major crowds. Grind Café, offering organic coffee and a relaxed lounge vibe, wouldnt feel out of place in Bangkok. The training room lets cyclists measure their watts produced and runners pinpoint their target training zones. There’s an outdoor Muay Thai gym in the works, too.
From detox programmes to Instagram contests that support Yaowawit School in Phang Nga, a governmentapproved welfare boarding school for children from underprivileged families, if it’s good for the body and good for the mind, the team has embraced it. Their efforts have substantiated a belief in health and wellbeing, the goals made possible through heeding our quiet inner forces.
Thanyapura is a one-of-a-kind institution — not just in Asia, but the world. There’s no place like it. That’s pretty much the consensus from those who have spent any amount of time there.
BY CRAIG SAUERS