Toby Skinner checks into The Sanctuary on Thailand’s Koh Phangan
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’m curious to be jumping 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 over-excited 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 in the rainforest, with the yoga studios at the top.
Yet despite the gorgeous location, I’m not too impressed to arrive and find that my online booking has 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 pay around $970 for a basic room with no air-conditioning, a cold outside shower, mosquitoes galore and a resident frog (we find him sitting on our safe). We consider moving to one of the even more basic rooms in another resort along the beach (for about a 10th of the price) and just turning up for the yoga – and are 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 around $4,900 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 which abound in the region – many of which seem to be charging a yoga premium, which in some particular cases effectively means enjoying ‘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’m 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. It’s so varied and delicious that carnivores will likely question their eating habits (I did). The smoothies are certainly world class as well.
And yet there is something about the clientele at The Sanctuary that suggests the late stages of a 1960s social experiment. Everywhere I look, people are hugging – not brisk hugs, but proper lingering ones. When I ask people how they are, they use adjectives such as ‘wonderful’ and ‘divine’. It’s sort of nice, but it strikes me as not quite right, as if the retreat has sucked out people’s sense of humour and left blissed-out Zen-bots in their place.
The open-mic night, for example, is a whirl of communal singing and over-indulgent moral support, especially for the guy who tells a 25-minute story about a bus journey in Bolivia that makes us pine for a heckler. Only one girl seems unimpressed throughout, and she has ‘VEGAN’ tattooed across her chest...
Along with yoga, we take meditation classes. I enjoy the first session – essentially a tape of a soft-spoken Irish woman whispering soothing platitudes such as ‘let it be’ – which sends me to sleep, causing mirth in the yoga room as I’m left snoring on the floor five minutes after the tape has ended.
But the second class turns out to be meditative chanting, which is less soporific – chanting the Sanskrit Gayatri hymn 108 times while sitting cross-legged for almost an hour feels awkward in more ways than one, especially as it’s not the catchiest tune. Yet the class of eight seems completely absorbed, a state that isn’t broken by the chant leader’s glib assertion that the hymn will send positive energy to all the less fortunate people who live around the world.
But the defining Sanctuary experience is the detox cleanse, which involves fasting and colonic irrigation. They recommend you detox for at least three days, but we only do one. Preparation includes eating only raw fruit and vegetables the day before, then fasting on the day of the colonic irrigation – this means consuming nothing except for two barely palatable clay shakes, some herbal pills and a plain vegetable broth.
The process itself is bizarre. First we’re shown an explanatory pamphlet by our detox leader Moon, which is largely made up of ‘me and my internal waste’ stories. Angie from Arizona looks delighted with a giant worm that she’s flushed out.
At 5pm, we’re led into a spartan bathroom hut – my sister and I have adjoining bathrooms, so we can hear everything (weird). The hut contains a plastic bucket full of coffee, which is attached to the wall and has a tube hanging down. Moon explains how we ewill self-administer the colonic, lying on a bench and inserting the tube ourselves, using olive oil as a lubricant.
You release a bull dog 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 ask Moon how we will know when to, ‘you know, let go’, and he tells us that we’ll just know. And he’s right. After initial problems with an awkward kink in my tube, I’m soon feeling the coffee roar round my colon – a truly odd sensation – and then I get the most powerful feeling of, um, ‘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’m more bemused than bowled over. I do 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 find that most of the other fasters are 100 per cent converts. Many are back for the fourth or fifth time, and they tell us that they now wouldn’t go a year without at least one cleanse. People report their eyes being brighter, their skin smoother, their hair stronger. And it’s true – everyone at The Sanctuary does look healthy. Extremely healthy.
In the end, though, we’re part of the silent minority that remains only partially convinced. So it’s no surprise when we’re relieved to leave for a mini full-moon party where they sell Class A drugs behind the bar (‘LSD with your whisky, sir?’). Not since my first year of university has a bucket of vodka and Red Bull been downed with such fervent glee.