Last week I wrote about the difficult side of my trip to Thailand, but there was also a whole lot of excellence. Here’s a part of it…
The first time I went to The Sanctuary ten years ago, I felt a little like I was cheating. It wasn’t something backpackers my age did. They stayed in the most basic places they could find and ate the cheapest food. Choosing The Sanctuary was splashing out. It was a choice in ease, convenience and quality. I was allured by the private bay, the restaurant full of vegetarian delights, the beautiful spa and the array of different yoga classes. For an extra tenner a night, everything was at my finger tips. It was a true holiday within my travels and I revelled in it — until that trip was cut sharply short.
Fast forward ten years and I found myself with the opportunity to return. I had won a flight to Singapore and wanted to combine the trip to the city with a visit elsewhere. I toyed with the idea of adventuring somewhere remote or immersing myself in the culture of one of the bigger cities, but I realised that what I needed was a rest, and that’s when I remembered The Sanctuary.
A quick Goggle confirmed it was still in existence and had in fact been extended and also lauded in various papers as “hip”, “phenomenal” and “like no ordinary resort”. I worried that it may have lost its original relaxed vibe and, as before, I felt a little lazy. With more than ten years of independent travel under my belt, I was choosing to go to Koh Phangan, one of the most cliched and well-trodden backpacker destinations in the world. And not only that — I was going to a resort. But there was a key deciding factor — The Sanctuary’s yoga holiday package.
In search of the perfect yoga retreat
One of the main things I wanted from my holiday was to practice yoga. Having trained as a teacher, I’ve become quite picky with my classes and I researched far and wide to find the perfect fit. I didn’t want a traditional organised retreat with one teacher and a fixed schedule. Not only do these tend to be more expensive and aimed at that teacher’s students, I also didn’t want to be constrained by timings. Another option I looked into was renting a bungalow near to a yoga studio, but I didn’t find anything that fitted my needs — it was either the wrong style of yoga or limited to one teacher — and as I didn’t know who they were, I didn’t want to gamble my holiday only to find we didn’t vibe. So again, I came back to The Sanctuary.
The Sanctuary’s yoga holiday is a sot of build-your-own retreat.You can choose between three, seven or ten days and each come with a variety of different offerings. I opted for the seven day, which includes seven group yoga/ pilates classes, two private yoga / pilates lessons, five spa treatments, five visits to the herbal steam room, a welcome meal, one therapy session of your choice, and seven nights accommodation. There are four yoga / pilates classes a day to choose from, a whole menu of spa treatments, from massages to body scrubs, and the therapy sessions on offer include acupuncture, a naturopath consultation, Rolfing and more. Added to this, there is a free daily guided mediation and a schedule of events including movies on the beach, open-mic nights and ecstatic dance. To me this sounded perfect — offering both variety and choice. I was sold.
Ten years later
So off I went to Koh Phangan. A decade later and the island has surely changed. My ferry there was filled with young backpackers and pink tourists, chatting furiously about their party plans. The ubiquitous full moon party was to happen on the last day of my yoga holiday and many were planning to go there. I had been considering going to the party myself — if only to take a peek — but the stories I later heard of filthy seas and ugly behaviour made me realise I could do without. Sometimes you don’t have to see things to believe them.
The changes on the island were especially noticeable in Haad Rin, the beach where the full moon party takes place. I arrived at midday, seven days before the rave, and it was filled with drunken souls, a dirty beach, and enshrouded in an edgy vibe. When I visited before, the party and island were renowned but much less mainstream. Back then, to visit Thailand was somewhat adventurous. Nowadays, it’s the easy choice and as such the number of tourists and backpackers has swelled. I know some parts of the island have managed to retain their beauty, but Haad Rin didn’t feel good and I was relieved when my boat finally came to take me to The Sanctuary, just five minutes away by sea.
Despite the tiny distance, The Sanctuary on Haad Tien is a world away from Haad Rin. As soon as you step foot on the bay, you can feel the change in vibe. It harps back to the hippy days of the island and many ex-pats have chosen to settle in and around the bay, living a festival lifestyle.
The resort itself is made up of a maze of wooden bungalows that wind up the hill through gorgeous jungle gardens, and then extend further behind the beach with more modern air-conditioned huts. There are also dorms and larger houses for groups.
I stayed in a hillside bungalow with a balcony that soon became my favourite spot for reading in the hammock and staring down to the sea through the mass of jungle trees.
Most of Haad Tien bay is taken up by the resort, apart from a handful of smaller bungalow sites and restaurants, meaning the beach is semi-private. It’s also good for swimming, which is rare during April on Koh Phangan.
At the heart of everything at The Sanctuary is the restaurant, fronting the bay and filled with everything from raw food to comfort food and pizza. Most is vegetarian but there is also an extensive fish menu. Everyone is requested to turn of their devices after 6pm, encouraging a social atmosphere. I was there for a friendly open-mic night and the lively Sunday market.
The Tea Temple is also a social hub. A new addition since my last visit, it’s a little cafe where you can arrange visits with The Sanctuary’s healers or simply enjoy an iced tea and some raw food snacks while reading the books on offer. On Sundays, they have a gathering where all the healers explain their various offerings and do some live displays. It’s a good introduction to the world of alternative health and helpful if trying to choose among the therapies.
The Tea Temple also offers a weekly changing schedule of free talks and paid group sessions for things such as tribal dancing, improvisation and sound healings. I didn’t manage to experience it, but there is also a new air-conditioned sound dome that particularly facilitates the journey of sound. The whole thing reminded me of a microcosm of Ubud, and I found myself enjoying afternoons reading dharma and eating bliss balls while surrounded by digital nomads and healthy holiday aficionados.
The real centre for health at The Sanctuary is the wellness centre, which is popular for fasting retreats complete with colonic irrigation. Some of the resort’s facilities are geared towards the fasters, including an extensive cleansing menu and gentle yoga sessions. Having had my fill of cleansing in Ubud, I didn’t opt for it this time and only ever went there to grab a coconut (oh, how I’d missed them!).
I did, however, spend a fair amount of time in the spa, a beautiful oasis for a dose of pure relaxation. My holiday came with five spa sessions so I happily indulged in massages, a facial and a Bali Boreh wrap. I didn’t try anywhere else, but speaking to fellow guests who had also ventured afar, I was told that The Sanctuary came tops.
And of course, there was the yoga. Having injured myself some months ago, my practice has dropped and it was great to get back into it. I gently eased myself in with the relaxing 10am sessions and then moved to the 8am flow. I also tried to fit in a daily 4pm session of prana yoga with Simon who is an attentive and precise teacher offering a relaxing yet invigorating style of yoga. I also tried pilates and chose to have my private lesson in that. It’s the first time I’ve tried pilates since school and I am already a convert. The teacher, Lauren, was wonderful. If you’re looking for power yoga then the classes at The Sanctuary wouldn’t be your fit, but for me they were great.
This trip to Thailand was my first solo journey in a while and a reminder that, for me, solo travel is nearly always made by the people I meet along the way. I like some time alone but my true joy comes from sharing it. This time I was lucky to meet some travellers from Berlin of all places. In my two months in the city, I’ve made few German friends but in Thailand I found four. Together we ventured outside of The Sanctuary up to the hill overlooking Haad Yuan, the neighbouring bay, which is home to more of a party scene as well as some restaurants with beautiful views across the island. I can recommend Bamboo Hut as a great spot for a cheap dinner with a view. I also enjoyed chatting with the friendly staff at the Sanctuary and on my last few days I met a man who has climbed Everest six times! It was fascinating to quiz him on his adventures and his relationship to fear.
Where health meets hedonism
An interesting thing about The Sanctuary is that it’s a place where you can choose health and hedonism in equal measures. Alongside its smoothies, the restaurant also serves cocktails and there’s a tempting cake display alongside the raw desserts. You can walk just up the hill to be in the midst of techno dance parties and drug-fuelled revelry, and on Friday nights Haad Tien itself is home to a legendary party at Guy’s Bar, which goes on until the next day. For me, this was the low point of my time there. The noise of the party takes over the bay, making for a troubled night’s sleep. I used the complimentary ear plugs but still kept waking to the sounds of intense techno backed by a chorus of groaning frogs. The nightmare didn’t end until 11am the next day. For this reason, unless you want to go to the party yourself or are a very sound sleeper, I recommend avoiding The Sanctuary on Fridays.
That said, I soon recovered and fell back into the rhythm of Sanctuary life —the yoga, the spa, the sea, the coconuts. It’s a place that facilitates relaxation. It may not be the most adventurous option, but it is a delightful and beautiful one. After all, there is no correct way to travel. It’s impossible to cheat.
Useful info on The Sanctuary
The Sanctuary is situated on Haad Tien Bay, a five-minute boat ride from Haad Rin. There are also two daily boats from Koh Samui. A seven-day yoga holiday costs 20,460 Thai Baht, or nightly bungalows range from 770 Thai Baht. There are also dorm beds for 220 Thai Baht.
Have you ever been to The Sanctuary or chosen an easy option?