When it comes to hippy-dom, I’m curious but sceptical. In other words, I kind of like yoga, simple, healthy living and (whisper it) peace and love, but am easily put off by any hint of yogic smugness. So I was curious to jump on the yoga-retreat bandwagon with a trip to The Sanctuary – a Koh Phangan retreat that’s been raved about in the UK press – for five days of yoga, meditation, vegetarianism and colonic irrigation.
Getting to The Sanctuary involves flying to Koh Samui, getting a ferry to Koh Phangan and then taking a 20-minute water taxi from Haad Rin (the infamous Full Moon Party beach). Getting to Samui is pricier than other Thai airports, and that’s without the extra journey to the retreat. However, it’s a fun trip – pretty little airport, great people-watching on the ferry to Koh Phangan, and finally relief when you leave the crowds of late teens dressed in lurid vests to take a little wooden boat round the coast.
The Sanctuary is set on a beautiful secluded beach, with only a few other quiet resorts and a pontoon with a hammock a short swim away. It’s all wooden ethnic loveliness, built on a hill into the rainforest, with the yoga studios at the top. Yet despite the gorgeous location, we weren’t too impressed to arrive and find that our online booking had seemingly been forgotten and that they don’t take credit cards (meaning an irritating trip back to Haad Rin’s ATM).
And the place is expensive for what you get – we paid Dhs602 for a basic room with no air-con, a cold outside shower, mosquitoes galore and a resident frog (we found him sitting on our safe). We considered moving to one of the even more basic rooms in another resort along the beach (for about a tenth of the price) and just turning up for the yoga.
Especially if you’re there for a short period, avoid the package deals, which start at Dhs2,938 for a week in a dorm. Unless you’re going to be doing an intensive yoga course or more than a week of fasting and colonic irrigation, they’re overpriced for what you get. In The Sanctuary’s defence, however, it’s no more expensive than other equivalent yoga retreats in the region – many seem to be charging a yoga premium, which in some cases effectively means ‘simple living’ at premium prices. On the plus side at The Sanctuary – aside from the sheer beauty of the place – the regular daily yoga is brilliant. It covers all levels of competence, from beginners’ classes up to instructors’ courses, overseen by quality teachers in a Zen studio at the top of the resort, where the silence is broken only by soothing chirrups from the rainforest. After four days of yoga, I was touching my toes for the first time in my adult life and generally feeling more in touch with my oversized body.
The food is even better. It’s all vegetarian, much of it raw and vegan – and so varied and delicious that carnivores will likely question their eating habits (I did). The smoothies are also world class. And yet there was something about the clientele at The Sanctuary that suggested the late stages of a ’60s social experiment. Everywhere I looked, people were hugging – and I’m talking proper lingering hugs. When we asked people how they were, they’d use adjectives such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘divine’. It was sort of nice, but it struck me as not quite right, as if the retreat had sucked out people’s sense of humour and left blissed-out Zen-bots in their place.
The open-mic night, for example, was a whirl of communal singing and over-indulgent moral support, especially for the guy who told a 25-minute story about a bus journey in Bolivia that made us pine for a heckler.
Along with yoga, we took meditation classes. I enjoyed the first session – essentially a tape of a softly spoken Irish woman whispering soothing platitudes such as ‘Let it be’ – which sent me to sleep, causing mirth in the yoga room as I was left snoring five minutes after the tape ended. But the second class turned out to be meditative chanting, which was less soporific. Yet the class of eight seemed completely absorbed, a state that wasn’t broken by the chant leader’s glib assertion that the chant would send positive energy to less fortunate people around the world.
The defining Sanctuary experience is the detox cleanse, involving a fast and colonic irrigation. They recommend you detox for at least three days, but we only did one day, so my view is based on the quick-fix option. The preparation included eating only raw food and vegetables the day before, then fasting on the day of the colonic irrigation – this meant eating nothing except two barely palatable clay shakes, some herbal pills and a plain vegetable broth.
The process itself was bizarre. First we were shown an explanatory pamphlet by detox leader Moon, which was largely made up of ‘me and my internal waste’ stories. Angie from Arizona was pictured with a giant worm from her insides, and seemed to be delighted by it. At our allotted time of 5pm, we were led into a spartan bathroom hut…
Over our communal vegetable soup afterwards, we found that most of the other fasters were Sanctuary converts. Many were back for the fourth or fifth time, and said that they now wouldn’t go a year without at least one cleanse. People reported their eyes being brighter, their skin smoother. And it’s true – everyone at The Sanctuary did look healthy. In the end, though, we were the silent minority that remained only partially convinced.
Rooms at The Sanctuary start from Dhs275 a night. www.thesanctuarythailand.com.
Three more to try
Alternative yoga destinations
Hotel Himalaya Yoga, Kathmandu, Nepal
This basic but clean and functional Buddhist-run hotel is great value, offering free weekday yoga classes at 7am, and free meditation classes at 6pm.
From Dhs40 per night. www.yoganp.com.
Relax Bay Resort, Koh Lanta, Thailand
This beach resort on Koh Lanta, 80km south of Krabi airport, has its own stretch of sandy beach and wooden beach huts overlooking the sea. There are morning Vinyasa yoga classes on the beach, as well as spa treatments and great diving.
From Dhs132 a night. www.relaxbay.com.
Ganga Vatika Boutique Guest House, Rishikesh, India
The spectacular views over the Himalayas and the Ganges alone justify the asking price at this simple, ethnic-style guesthouse in Rishikesh, which has been dubbed the yoga capital of the world and where The Beatles wrote 48 songs during a stay in one of the city’s ashrams. The Ganga Vatika is part of the Yogalaya Ashram, where you can learn everything from Hatha and Vyayam yoga to meditation, Ayurveda and Vedanta philosophy.
From Dhs154 a night. www.gangavatika.com.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to Bangkok from Dhs2,690 return, then Bangkok Air flies direct to Koh Samui from Bangkok from Dhs691. Ferries to Koh Phangan run three times a day and take 45 minutes, costing Dhs11 one-way.