When it comes to hippydom, I’m curious but agnostic – 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 knit-your-own-yoghurt 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 Times and The Guardian in the UK – 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 in lurid wife-beater 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 on the expensive side for what you get – my sister and I paid THB4,050/$164 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 – and were only put off by finding a fearsome spider in one of the rooms.
Especially if you’re there for a short period, avoid the package deals, which start at THB19,850/$800 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 expensive for what you get. In The Sanctuary’s defence, however, it’s no more expensive than other equivalent yoga retreats in the region (see 'Weekend Getaways' for other retreats in South-East Asia) – 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 than ever before.
The food is even better. It’s all vegetarian, and much of it raw and vegan – and so varied and delicious that carnivores will likely question their eating habits (I did). The smoothies are world class as well.
And yet there was something about the clientele at The Sanctuary that suggested the late stages of a 1960s social experiment. Everywhere I looked, people were hugging – not brisk ones, but proper lingering ones. 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. Only one girl seemed unimpressed throughout, and she had ‘VEGAN’ tattooed across her chest.
Along with yoga, we took meditation classes. I enjoyed the first session – essentially a tape of a soft-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 – chanting the Sanskrit Gayatri hymn 108 times while sitting cross-legged for almost an hour felt awkward in more ways than one, especially as it’s not the catchiest tune. 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.
But 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 quickfix treatment. The preparation included eating only raw food and vegetables the day before, then fasting on the day of the colonic irrigation – this meant consuming nothing except for 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 – my sister and I had adjoining bathrooms, so we could hear everything (weird). The hut contained a plastic bucket attached to the wall and filled with coffee, with a tube coming from it. Moon explained how we’d self-administer the colonic, an intimidating process involving lying on a bench and inserting the tube ourselves, using olive oil as a lubricant.
You release a bulldog clip from the tube and lie back as the coffee flows into your large intestine, massaging your belly to help the liquid flow around. We had asked Moon how we’d know when to, ‘you know, let go’, and he told us that we’d just know. He was right. After initial problems with an awkward kink in my tube, I was soon feeling the coffee roar round my colon – a truly odd sensation – and then getting the most powerful feeling of, ‘I need to go… NOW’.
Half an hour or so after starting, inspecting my mince-like excretions in a sieve while listening to a soundtrack of chanting monks and my sister giggling next door, I can say I was possibly more bemused than bowled over. I did feel good, though – clean, healthy, energised and not as tired or hungry as I had expected to be. Over our communal vegetable soup afterwards, we found that most of the other fasters were 100 per cent 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, their hair stronger. 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. We were kind of relieved to leave for a mini full-moon party where they sold Class-A drugs behind the bar (‘LSD with your whisky, sir?’) – not since my fi rst year of university has a bucket of vodka-Red Bull been downed with such glee.
Rooms start from $75 (avoid the package deals). See www.thesanctuarythailand.com.
SilkAir flies to Koh Samui for $743 return (www.silkair.com). Ferries from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan run three times a day and take 45 minutes, with the first at 9.40am and the last at 3.30pm, costing THB75/$3 one-way.
CHEAP YOGA GETAWAYS
Hotel Himalaya Yoga, Kathmandu ($11/night)
If you don’t think you’re getting good value at this basic but clean and functional Buddhist-run hotel, throw in free weekday yoga classes from 7-8am, and free meditation classes from 6-7pm. See www.yoganp.com.
Relax Bay Resort, Koh Lanta ($36/night)
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. See www.relaxbay.com.
Ganga Vatika Boutique Guest House, Rishikesh, India ($42/night)
The 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. See www.gangavatika.com.