“…when it is time to leave I feel more alive than I thought possible.”
The Times UK
The Guardian, Saturday 16 May 2009
A short boat ride away from Koh Phangan’s full-moon frenzy, a laid-back yoga retreat offers ravers calm after the party storm
I’m perched on the end of a longtail boat, cocktail in hand, head to the wind. The silhouettes of thousands of people line the length of the beach in front of me, and a throbbing bass reverberates in my chest. Just two minutes ago, I was in the middle of that neon-clad throng, dancing full-moon-style with the best of them. And now here I am, making my James Bond-style getaway to quieter shores up the coast. If only I could leave every party in this way.
Unlike its neighbour Koh Samui, the mountainous island of Koh Phangan in southern Thailand has no airport and only a small number of roads. Its terrain has saved it from large-scale development, and much of the island is only accessible by boat. Aside from the mainstream commerciality of Hat Rin, near-deserted beaches and pockets of solitude abound.
In fact, the further up the coast you go, the quieter life becomes. Huge limestone rocks frame the bays, and dense forest rises up the hillside behind. At this time of year – June to September, before the monsoon comes knocking – it’s the islands on the eastern side of the peninsula that remain drier and sunnier.
As we round the headland and point our boat towards the next bay, my shoulders relax. The atmosphere has changed drastically, and in place of the craziness of Hat Rin, a more peaceful scene comes into view – the calm after the party storm.
By the light of the full moon, I can just make out wooden huts standing precariously on the rocks. People sit around bonfires on the beach, and the pace of life drops about 20 notches. This is what I love about Koh Phangan. Within a four-mile radius two different worlds exist. As the Thais say, “Same same, but different.”
I discovered this particular stretch of coastline after a two-month spell in Nepal. I’d pushed my body to its limits trekking around the Annapurna circuit and contracted a particularly nasty and resilient stomach parasite in the process. A girl I met in Kathmandu told me that to stand any chance of getting well again, I should hop on the next flight to Thailand and get myself to Koh Phangan, pronto.
One plane ride, a night bus, a catamaran, two taxis and a longtail boat later, and I arrived at the Sanctuary resort. Tucked into a corner of Hat Thian beach, the it is the kind of place you book into for a week and end up staying for a month.
Here, among the thatched roofs, decks and balconies above a translucent Gulf of Thailand, health and well-being is a laid-back, low-key affair. The antithesis of a clinical five-star spa, nobody’s going to come at you with a white coat and a clipboard and, depending on your inclination and budget, you can do as much or as little as you like. You can detox or retox, stay in dorm for 120 baht per night (around £2.30) or a 5,400 baht-a-night air-conditioned chalet.
As well as the large tree-house-style restaurant, the Sanctuary has a small shop, a spa offering Balinese body wraps and pineapple scrubs, a plunge pool and a herbal steam room built into the rocks. Incense floats on the breeze and people drift between yoga and meditation classes or laze around in hammocks sipping fresh fruit smoothies.
If you have to up the ante – to add some oomph to your Om – there’s elephant trekking, jet-skiing and cooking classes, along with diving and snorkelling in the Ang Thong marine national park. Many of the Sanctuary’s guests drift in and out of the retreat, interspersing its serenity with the buzz of Hat Rin or less commercial local bars nearby.
Some come just for the yoga, which is held three times a day in a large hall in the jungle, others to gorge on seafood or healthy veggie dishes, tucking into the likes of Thai spinach salad with peanut coconut sauce, or pad pak sai met ma muang (stir fried vegetables with cashew nuts and chilli).
Give it time to settle and there’s kayaking, snorkelling and hikes up to the lookout, not to mention a well-stocked library and workshops on every complementary therapy under the sun. They’re balm for the party animals, who slip away from the Sanctuary to cane it under a full moon before returning for rest and recovery.
To one side, in its own enclave, is the wellness centre – a separate home for the cleansing programmes. Run by a man called Moon, for whom fasting is a way of life, the detoxes range from one to seven days, with milder juice fasts and specific liver-cleansing regimes.
I opt for the three-day cleanse, feeling a little nervous about its psychological and physical effects. Moon tells me to eat nothing but raw fruit and vegetables for two days in order to prepare my body. After that only a coconut, clay and psyllium juice will pass my lips during the fast.
Considering the Sanctuary serves some of the best vegetarian food this side of California, it feels sadistic in the extreme. Moon tells me my body will thank me when it’s all over, while I remind myself that Dolly Parton wrote some of her best songs while fasting. So maybe some good will come of it.
I cast a wistful glance in the direction of the cake cabinet and sulk off to my salad. The cleanse is not for the fainthearted, and it’s a good idea to eat healthily beforehand and get in the right frame of mind, but I was amazed how good I felt after.
Back on solids, and the days pass in a haze of extended mealtimes, chats about life, and swims in the ocean. I make the most of the morning yoga, experience one of the best massages of my life, and leave feeling stronger, happier and more relaxed than I have in a long time.
As well as the Sanctuary, there are a number of smaller-scale resorts, both in Hat Thian and Hat Yuan, that serve phenomenal Thai and Western food. Most also have cheap beach huts to rent. My favourite is the Bamboo Hut, an open-air restaurant with a smattering of bungalows perched on top of the rocks between the beaches. It does a mind-blowing tofu cheeseburger and the best chocolate coconut muffin you’ll ever taste. Fasters need not apply.
read this article on The Guardian UK
Time Out – Beijing January 2009 – Winter Escapes
The 21 most quirky, brilliant and unique trips Asia has to offer
Detox in style at The Sanctuary, Thailand
Go to Thailand and choose colonic irrigation over partying? That might sound crazy, but after a stay at The Sanctuary on Koh Phangan in southern Thailand, your mind, body and possibly even your soul will thank you.
The Sanctuary, which lives up to its name and is set on its own beach, is famous for detoxing. After a winter of comfort eating in Beijing, sign up for the ‘fruit fast’ programme. A nine-night package including a daily spa treatment and yoga class, accommodation and fasting programme costs 5,500RMB
Be prepared to spend your time downing clay shakes, fruit juices and numerous weird and wonderful herbs, as well as sweating out toxins in yoga classes and a lovely spa, where treatments are included in the price. It does attract the beautiful people – the place is usually full of gorgeous Californians talking loudly about chakras – but it attracts plenty of regular folk too; don’t be surprised to come across seemingly normal lads on a mission to lose weight, or becoming obsessed with their colonics.
Ah yes, the colonics. Wimp out and decline if you want – the jury is still out on how beneficial the process really is – but, after seeing how healthy everyone who does get up close and personal with a hose looks, you’ll be tempted to sign up.
read this article on TimeOut Beijing
Fabulous Magazine, UK
06/14/2008 – VIP Vacations
Love On The Road
This Week Zoë and Train Man Brave Colonic Irrigation
Train Man’s just come out of the bathroom and I’ve asked him what colour his poo was. It’s probably the least romantic conversation we’ve ever had, but there are extenuating circumstances – we’re staying at a spa where talking about your faecal matter is the norm.
After last week’s partying, I thought it was time for a detox. I know it’s melodramatic, but since India we’ve been a little lardy. Even Train Man – the only man I know who looks good in skinny jeans. Or used to.
So we checked into The Sanctuary, a delicious haven on an almost private beach on Ko Phangan, and set about the two-day ‘pre-cleanse’ of eating tropical fruit and sumptuous salads.
On day three, the appropriately named spa manager, Moon, did a (clothed) demo on self-administered coffee colonics. I suddenly felt so guilty about what I’d badgered Train Man into that when Moon said the word “anus”, I started giggling nervously. I soon stopped when he handed us the rubber gloves.
Although the colonics weren’t enjoyable, eating nothing but clay shakes and herbal pills for four days was surprisingly easy given the serene surroundings. We’ve sunbathed by day and watched feel-good flicks with other cleansers by night.
And after Train Man watched The Devil Wears Prada with 20 women, I really owe him. Tomorrow we leave Poo Camp after a week and I’m pleased to say we’re feeling perky. Train Man’s eyes are sparkling and I haven’t been this slim since I was 13. And the best thing? I’m not even craving pudding.
So what was Train Man’s answer to my icky question? “Bright green, babe. Oh and I’m sure that Matchbox car I swallowed when I was three was in there.”
We’ll never speak of this again.
Miles travelled: 0.5 to the next beach / Terse sentences exchanged: 0!! / Poo Tube moments: 8
read this article on Fabulous Magazine
The TimesOnline, UK – Feb 2008
Broken hearted in a Thai retreat
Find sanctuary from a broken heart the Thai way: fasting, meditation; colonic therapy – and, for those brave enough, belly-dancing
It’s 5am. I have just waved my housemate off on holiday with her lovely boyfriend who loves her. I have not slept for three nights since being dumped via e-mail by the man I’m in love with. And I have just seen a mouse in my kitchen. My God, do I feel sorry for myself.
I then make the type of decision one usually makes only at dawn, when heartbroken, and in the vicinity of the internet. I decide to go to Thailand to do a seven-day fast. So no more tears or self-pity. Not for me the just-been-dumped 40-per-cent-proof diet. Oh, no. I will cleanse, purify and sort myself out… or something like that.
It takes two days, two trains, a taxi, car ride, three planes, a ferry and a fishing boat to reach The Sanctuary. When I’m deposited on the beach everyone else looks thin, brown and happy. Oh, and absolutely everybody is in love, too. I have a severe case of fat, white, jet-lagged miserablists.
The Sanctuary is situated on Haad Tien, a beautiful short sweep of beach on Koh Pha-Ngan, off Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. As well as the resort, spa and fasting services, it offers workshops and treatments including bellydancing, meditation, tantra, Ayurvedic massage and shamanic healing. People come from all over the world to hang out, learn stuff and generally look beautiful.
But I’m more interested in the restaurant. It has an excellent reputation and I decide to go for lunch to cheer myself up. On the way I pop into the wellness centre to find out about my fasting programme. Big mistake. I’m quizzed on what I’ve eaten that day, and when I say toast and, in a whisper, coffee, I’m told that it’s nothing but raw fruit and vegetables for the next two days.
While most holidays are about excess, this experience will be an exercise in discipline; no eating, drinking or contacting my ex. And I have to get up at 7am every day for the first of four daily clay shakes – a drink made of psyllium husks and bentonite clay mixed with water or watermelon juice that fills you up and purifies your system. Every 90 minutes there’s something else to do – another shake, herbs, lymph drainage, vegetable broth, steam room or colonic.
Ah, yes, the colonics. Moon, the fasting centre manager, takes a group of us uninitiated “colonic virgins” to a bathroom to show us how to self-administer. He suggests we take along our iPods and relax as best we can as the water does it work. Which leaves me wondering, is it the ultimate compliment or insult to take a musician with you at such an intensely personal time? My first colonic experience is simultaneously scary, fascinating and gross, although a few days after doing it twice a day I quickly become blasé. And also come to realise just how many soulful ballads of ill-fated love have found their way on to my iPod.
Included in the fasting package is a daily steam-room session. The room is built into the rock, and at dusk the light falls through the roof and with all the herbs and steam it’s quite magical. Especially when a boy who looks like Jesus starts chanting. Something inside me shifts and I leave the steam feeling better than I have in weeks.
Although the clay shakes fill me up, the process of not eating – something I’ve done every day since birth, is significant. When you exercise this much control over one area of your life it spills over into other parts, too. As the days roll by I watch my thoughts about my ex change into more powerful ones, and notice that they become less about him and more about me. I’m getting myself back.
Failed relationships aren’t the only reason people come to The Sanctuary. Ben, 31, a music producer from London, came “to shake things up, to do something completely the opposite of what you do at home”, while Heike, 36, a marketing manager from Berlin, told me, “I wanted to detox, to get rid of emotional and physical baggage”.
There is a strong sense of group bonding. Talk revolves mainly around what day of the week-long fast you’re on. After a few days you become laughably absent-minded, have no energy and don’t do much. On day three I nearly fall over in yoga attempting the demanding “standing up” position, and after that retire to my hammock to look at air for 12 hours. Weirdly, this is not unenjoyable.
I have a sea-salt body scrub that leaves my skin feeling softer than it has since I was in nappies. A few days later I have the papaya bodywrap, which involves being slathered in mashed-up papaya, a head and face massage, and being left to cook in it. And yes, when the therapist isn’t looking I eat a bit from my face.
On finishing the fast, food is no longer a big deal. I’ve lost a couple of kilos, but, more important, I feel outrageously healthy. For the remaining ten days I eat only raw food, with the teensiest bit of chocolate and the odd rum, and when it’s time to leave I feel more alive than I thought possible.
Alas, I am built more for momentary lapses in judgment than permanent holiness. I get drunk on the flight home, see my ex the next day, and a few weeks later get the most horrible flu and upset, as again it becomes gut-wrenchingly clear that we’re done. However, thanks to my new calmed state of being, it’s dealt with in a few days, and the only comfort food that features is extra avocado on my salad. I admit I am left wondering, is it too soon to go back to Thailand?
read the article at the TimesOnline