The Sanctuary, Koh Phanghan, Thailand
Iconic jungle and beach retreat for detoxing, healing and hanging out
Best for: Escaping life’s stresses and catching up with yourself
Not for: Those who want a 5 star luxury experience
Takes up to 77 guests
Set on a tropical bay and backed by lush jungle on the gorgeous east coast of Koh Phangan, the iconic Sanctuary Thailand has been delivering inspired retreats for over 20 years. Come for supportive detox retreats, yoga and Pilates holidays, wellness and creative workshops, top notch visiting healers and a hugely relaxing, low-key atmosphere. The retreat centres around a renowned vegetarian and vegan beachfront restaurant and has some of the friendliest staff in Thailand. Regulars return again and again and first-timers often extend their planned stays by days and even weeks.
The world-renowned healers that visit at different times of the year. Every Sunday 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 programmes, but a visit to one of them can be a life-changing experience.
It’s impressively easy to extend your stay at short notice here, but you may need to take one of the more basic rooms with cold water showers until something else becomes available. Also note that most bathrooms are naturally open to the elements, which means the creatures of the jungle (mostly ants, frogs and gekkos) contribute to the becoming-one-with-nature feeling. If bugs haunt your nightmares, go for one of the six concrete-lined, air conditioned and fully enclosed bedrooms and bathrooms.
Read our expert review
Anna Leach reviews this iconic beachside wellness retreat, where the magical atmosphere and fertile ground for personal growth has drawn her back over and over again
Come for an intense detox retreat, a yoga and Pilates holiday or book a free range stay and pick and choose treatments, classes and activities which include creative workshops as part of the ingenius School of Life programme.
There are nine detox programmes to choose from, ranging from a day-long gentle cleanse to a 10-day master cleanse. For first timers, the gentle cleanse includes shakes, juices, a light lunch and broth for dinner and no colonics. Or you can go for a more intensive three, five, seven or ten day detox with coffee colonics and probiotic replacements. There’s also a seven day candida cleanse, a liver cleanse and a three or seven day raw food detox.
All retreats include a pre-fast interview and consultation, a fasting support manual, one or more yoga classes, at least one spa treatment and a steam room pass each day, and depending on which programme you go for, other supplements or therapies. You’ll follow a precisely structured timetable of when to take bentonite clay shakes (to fill you up and clear you out) and herbal nutrient pills, and you’re encouraged to journal while you detox to offload your mental and emotional cares. There’s constant supervision and support throughout with a post-cleanse guide to take away.
Choose a three, seven or 10 night yoga retreat with visiting expert teachers, who include Peter Clifford, a wonderful Australian yoga master in his 70s who teaches a flowing Classical Hatha style.
On each retreat you have access to a yoga or Pilates class each day, plus a certain number of private classes, treatments and private therapy sessions at the Tea Temple depending on the length of your stay. All three options include a daily steam room pass.
All yoga holidays start with a welcome meal, after which food is not included so you can eat what and when you please or do a detox programme. On the 7 and 10 day holidays you can also pay for a raw food and herbal supplements package. Yoga mats and accessories are provided.
Effective two week weight loss programmes start on a Monday with a raw food diet five days and then go deeper with a seven day cleanse. You’ll have daily yoga or Pilates classes as a group, a handful of private yoga sessions and some personal training if you so wish. Also included are ten massages, four healing sessions at the Tea Temple, and daily access to the steam room.
The School of Life is a series of experiential retreats, workshops and events held at The Sanctuary between December and March each year. Light and interesting, they are about learning whilst having fun. Workshops and retreat subject depend on visiting teachers but can include raw food cooking classes in the Sala Kitchen, dance, creative writing, Thai Vedic Bodywork, and courses in Feminine Archetypes, Neuro Linguistic Programming and life coaching.
The Sanctuary has been a meeting place for natural healers and body workers for over 20 years – check the schedule of visiting therapists which changes throughout the year. Every Sunday they meet at the Tea Temple to tell people about the treatments they offer, which include various forms of massage, bodywork, energy work, psychotherapy, guidance and consultations. Whenever you visit, an experienced and talented team create a comfortable, relaxed and safe space at the Tea Temple for you to find out what benefits your health and wellbeing.
You can swim, snorkel and sunbathe on the unspoilt Haad Tien bay, and when the sea is calm there’s a shaded pontoon (with the obligatory hammock) in the middle of the bay – ideal as a snorkel pit stop. The Sanctuary also has kayaks and paddle boards you can use.
Walkers will love the jungle hikes along the island path that runs through rainforest above a set of lovely beaches. Why Nam beach is small and peaceful, with just one bungalow resort and a restaurant, Haad Yuan is more developed and great for swimming, while Haad Tien has a few affordable resorts which you can pop into for food or shopping. Had Yao, an hour’s north, was often empty on our visit if you’re craving a deserted beach day.
It’s not all wholesome detox and yoga here – you can also just come to chill out, meet people and have a lot of fun. At The Sanctuary there’s a fun open mic night each week for those who want and a movie night each Tuesday and Saturday. And elsewhere in the bay, there are Saturday morning raves in the sunshine for those who want at Guy’s Bar, and at Eden bar up on the rocks on the peninsula on Saturday nights. You can avoid these, as they’re not at The Sanctuary, but they are part of the rhythm of the bay. Bear in mind this is a party island, and occasionally you’ll hear night-time noise from nearby parties at party capital Haad Rin.
Detoxing is an intense experience, especially if you are doing colonics – be sure to leave yourself a couple of days after the retreat so you can ready yourself to re-enter the real world.
– Bring a distinctive pair of flip flops. You are always having to slip off your shoes everywhere, 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.
Only bring cash, for The Sanctuary doesn’t take cards and there are no cash machines nearby. There are safes in the best rooms, and at reception, if you need to use them.
Wifi is available throughout The Sanctuary, and there are power sockets in all bedrooms.
– You can usually extend your stay at short notice, something The Sanctuary are very used to accommodating. As a result, they are also experts in assisting in flight changes!
When to Go
Mid-December to mid-April is high season, with hot and humid sunbathing weather and high waves on the boat over. It can get very busy, so if you crave peace, April and May are quieter and hot, while June is one of the quietest periods a little cooler.
During these months the sea is very calm and flat. Mid-July to the end of August is another busy season, with great weather and calm seas, while September and October are quiet months but also with great weather and calm seas. November is monsoon, when the waves pick up again, often making boat travel to the island a little tricky. For quiet, avoid the full moon party season and any Thai national holidays.
The all-natural menu at The Sanctuary is simply delicious and one of the best in Thailand we’ve come across for the price. Try Thai curries, Indian food, salads, mood boosting smoothies and super fresh fish and seafood. Wholemeal bread and cakes are baked daily, and beer, spirits, imported wines and cocktails are available at the bar.
If you go for the cleansing/raw menu, expect light delicious treats, not only for those aiming to detox but also for anyone interesting in making the lifestyle switch to raw food. The spicy green papaya salad is tasty enough to convince the un-initiated.
You can eat on the open air terrace of the beach side restaurant, on the beach itself at bamboo tables, or at The Tea Temple which serves tea, local coffee, snacks and a healthy lunch menu. There’s also an indoor dining space with comfy cushions and tables for two or more so you can group together with new friends or be alone. Other things might be going on as you eat, such as an alternative movie projection or Open Mic night, but most of the time it’s just a super chilled place to nourish yourself.
The Sanctuary separates and recycles its rubbish and uses a hang-dry laundry to dry sarongs and linens. A daily beach clean up by the team and regular Karma Yoga (volunteer) beach clean up sessions to help keep the local environment clean. Recycled paper straws are used for juices, and you can buy affordable aluminium water bottles and fill them up with the free filtered water from refill stations dotted around the property. Do that, or bring your own, for the island battles with plastic water bottles because the tap water in Thailand isn’t safe to drink.
Transfer time: 15 min to ferry pier, 50 min ferry to Haad Rin, 20 min taxi boat ride to Haad Tien.