The Sanctuary Thailand review
A beachside healing retreat on tropical Koh Phangnan
The Quick Read: Apparently part of the inspiration for Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, The Sanctuary on Koh Phangnan was a badly kept secret among hippy backpackers until the owner started to become more business-like about it in 1998. Nowadays, people make the arduous journey over air, land and sea to the remote bay for genuine escape in a world where that is getting harder and harder to achieve. It’s known for yoga teacher training, tantra workshops and some of the best healers in the world, and it’s run bona fide detox programmes since 2001 – though you can just come to chill. Their hands-off approach allows you to really connect with your body, your inner self, the tropical nature around you and the people you meet there. Regulars return again and again and first-timers extend their planned stays by days, weeks and sometimes months.
Who it’s best for: People travel to The Sanctuary for many reasons: a schedule-free holiday, a pit-stop on long-term travels or to attend a variety of healing workshops and health retreats. You’d feel totally comfortable here alone – and very free – but equally ok bringing a companion.
What you do: Come to just relax, book treatments and dip in and out of yoga, pilates and meditation sessions, have access to some of the best healers in the world, do a yoga teacher training course, or do what we and thousands of others have done there over the last 13 years: a thorough detox cleanse. The Sanctuary has a dedicated Wellness Centre where the fasters can relax in hammocks, read books about health and spirituality and socialise without being tempted by the food in the restaurant.
The detox programme is precisely structured with a timetable of when to take bentonite clay shakes (to fill you up and clear you out) and herbal nutrient pills, and there are optional colonics. Between that, the package includes a yoga or Pilates class with excellent teachers, a soothing spa treatment and time in the steam room each day. This keeps you so busy there’s not much time to think about food. Any downtime you get is spent lounging in hammocks, chatting to fellow fasters or bonding with the many cats who live in the bay (if that’s your thing).
The steam room is a sanctuary within The Sanctuary. Built into the rock and nestled under a giant rainforest tree, the steam is sweet smelling and you can practically feel the impurities emanating away from your body. When you’ve had enough you can jump into the nearby cold plunge pool, or the ocean. Repeat the process again for maximum detoxification.
At 4pm every day it’s self-administered coffee-colonic time. This is alarming at first but it’s remarkable how quickly it becomes routine. There’s a free group meditation every day at 6pm, and at 7pm, it’s ‘dinner’ time, when fasters gather around a long table in the Wellness Centre to drink a thin vegetable broth together. This ritual means you don’t miss the social aspect of sharing meals and is an opportunity for those farther along the detox process to support those who have just started.
The programmes range from a one-day quick detox to a ten-day master cleanse. We were recommended the seven-day cleanse and although we struggled on the fourth day, we were glad we stuck it out and could boast of not eating for a week when we returned home.
Where you stay: The Sanctuary lies on Had Thien beach surrounded by a tangle of jungle, a ten-minute boat ride but a world away from the full moon parties overrun by gap-year kids on Had Rin. The architecture incorporates nature: a chunk of quartz granite pokes up through the restaurant floor and forms the walls of bathrooms, giant 30-foot trees form a canopy over bamboo huts.
Accommodation is varied. We stayed in a charming wood and bamboo Thai bungalow decorated with art from Laos and Indonesia, which included a hammock-slung balcony with a patch of ocean-view. The bathroom is open to the elements and the creatures of the jungle (mostly ants and gekkos), contributing to the becoming-one-with-nature feeling. If bugs haunt your nightmares however, there are rooms with closed bathrooms including terracotta-tiled Spanish-villa-style rooms. The cheapest option is a dorm which provides you with a bed in a shared space and the constant camaraderie of your fellow fasters (women only).
How was it for us: Confession: I am a card-carrying Sanctuary-nista. I’ve been three times and I keep coming back because I get a taste of how it feels to be the best person I can be, to shine out at my full beam. I put it down to the workshops, healers, people you meet and the experiences you have. My latest visit was my first detox ever, and I struggled with my mood and energy levels on the third and fourth day. But on the fifth and sixth day, I was full of energy, got that shining-out feeling and felt like it’d all been worthwhile. When I got home friends commented that my eyes were brighter and I was more willing to throw myself into all aspects of my life than I was before the detox.
What we took home: I took home a stone less body weight (6kg, 13lbs) than I brought to The Sanctuary, but more importantly for me, I felt stronger, more energetic and more aware of what’s happening in my body. I quickly forgot vague plans to eliminate bread and dairy from my diet, but one of the healers’ warnings that sugar is ‘poison’ for my body has stayed with me.
Would we go back: Yes, ideally for longer next time. Several people I met there have made a Sanctuary detox an annual event in their calendar and after experiencing my first fast, I can see why it would help to have a regular internal spring clean.
People watch: The Thai hosts of the Wellness Centre, Joy and Bow (the knowledgeable Mr Moon was away when I visited) check in with you and give you gentle support. Londoner Jonny can answer more detail questions about the fasting process. His enthusiasm puts people at ease and helps them to get the most out of the experience.
Away from the detox technicalities, yoga teacher Ben is wonderfully patient. He greets each person in the class with a namaste and encourages students to practice humility, reminding everyone that there is no competition.
Food watch: If you’re detoxing but stay at the Sanctuary for a few days before or/and after the fast – as is recommended so your digestive system doesn’t get a nasty shock – you’ll find a healthy menu that will help you prepare and ease back into eating. The raw food meals take inspiration from the dishes of Thailand, for example the spicy green papaya salad, and are tasty enough to convince the un-initiated. The rest of the menu includes smoothies which promise to soften your mind or boost your energy; Indian dishes and fresh seafood.
What’s queenly: The Sanctuary’s spa offers decent massages, facials and hair treatments, but the world-renowned healers are something else. Different healers are there at different times of the year but every Sunday at 3pm they meet at the Tea Temple to tell people about the treatments they offer: from tarot readings to profoundly healing massages, energy work to astrology. Their treatments aren’t included in the detox packages but a visit to one of them can be a life-changing experience.
What’s lowly: The Sanctuary’s environmental policies include recycling, filtered-water taps and hang-dry laundry, but they could do more. As you can’t drink tap water in Thailand, plastic water bottles litter everywhere. To limit this, The Sanctuary could give everyone a metal bottle to use. They could also stop using plastic straws.
Insider tip: Bring a distinctive pair of flip flops. You are always having to slip off your shoes to go into the restaurant, Wellness Centre and Tea Temple, and when you come out again it’s easy to pick up someone else’s. Or, even better, wear no shoes at all to connect with the earth like a real hippy.
Price going solo: From 2590 Thai Baht (about £52) per room per night for a deluxe air conditioned room, room only. From 30,850 Thai Baht (about £674) per person for a 7 night detox retreat including accommodation, arrival dinner, 5 yoga or pilates classes, free meditation, 5 spa treatments, a 5.5 day detox programme, a daily steam pass and daily support.
Price with a companion: You pay no more for the room if you share a room – so it would be a mere 1295 (about £26) each per room per night room only, and the cost of a healthy retreat would also be reduced – ask the venue for options.
Value for money: Compared to similar places in the area, The Sanctuary’s detox programme is good value for money. Similar packages at nearby (admittedly more luxury) spas are twice as much.
Reviewed by Anna Leach
© Queen of Retreats