A week-long session of fasting with daily coffee colonics is not exactly the first thing that springs to mind when holidaying in Thailand. But as someone who has discovered that doing things the hard way is often the most rewarding, I embarked on a week-long detox programme in a bid for better digestive health. The seemingly casual question 'How was your coffee?' took on a whole new meaning.
The Sanctuary is a health resort on Haad Tien, a secluded beach on the island of Ko Phangan. It opened in 1991, offering yoga and a meditation retreat for those jaded by the Full Moon Party scene of Haad Rin. Since then, it has slowly evolved, adding a detox centre in 2000 and a healing centre called The Tea Temple in 2009.
The resort is English-owned but managed by Waterford man Michael Doyle. A former nurse, he left Ireland in the early 1980s to travel and work before settling in Ko Phangan to manage The Sanctuary in 1998. With a smile on his face he told me that he has "been trapped here ever since".
Michael said he loves to witness the transformation that the fasting guests go through from their time of arrival. "You gradually see their brow unfurl, their face relax and their eyes become shiny and bright," he said.
Moon, the manager at The Sanctuary's wellness centre, orientated me to the detox programme, which prescribed four psyllium husk and bentonite clay shakes per day to ward off hunger and to "get things moving". The programme also includes a course of herbal and probiotic supplements and daily colonic irrigation.
Moon is there to facilitate and support participants on the programme. He learned about fasting from personal experience and told me that "nature is my teacher". Moon has been fasting every year since the age of 11, when he started because of a tapeworm. At 39, he has amazingly young skin, bright eyes and appears to have boundless energy.
The first two days of the fast were the most difficult; I had headaches, dizziness and nausea, which I attributed to caffeine withdrawal. These symptoms could have been minimised if I had followed the 10-day, pre-fast dietary advice. When my energy was low, I followed Moon's advice and lay down in one of the hammocks of the Wellness Centre or chilled out on the beach.
As the week progressed, this sluggishness arose intermittently and acted as a useful reminder as to why I was doing the detox. But overall, I felt good and not weak or listless as expected. I was surprised to find that, at times, I felt full of vitality, with increased energy levels and a clear and focused mind. Those bursts of energy were put to good use in The Sanctuary, which hosted many talks, classes and workshops. The different halls dotted around the beachside jungle property lend themselves perfectly for groups to gather. There are three yoga classes daily and daily Pilates and meditation sessions. These are held in a beautiful space - you can hear the waves lap upon the shore and the relaxing, rhythmic sounds of the jungle.
Throughout the week there are sessions on many different creative and healing practices. Some of these include creative writing, still life drawing, martial arts, chanting, dancing and hula hooping. Evening entertainment comes by way of an open mic night and a movie night, and on Sundays there is a market selling clothing and jewellery. The Tea Temple holds daily talks on the different types of therapies available. A variety of practitioners work there, so whatever complementary therapy or healing practice you're looking for, it can be found. The Sanctuary is more of a community than a resort.
The beachside restaurant is tastefully built around the massive boulders that frame the bay, and is made cosy with Thai-style floor seating. It serves Western and local cuisine and specialises in appetising vegetarian and raw food.
Although I had only passing moments of feeling hungry, I really missed eating and tasting good food. So instead of punishing myself, I kept away from the restaurant and hung out with the other fasters in the Wellness Centre.
Every evening at 7pm we all sat down for the big meal of the day: clear vegetable broth. The soup was as tasteless as it sounds, but it was helpful not to miss out on the social interaction gained from sharing mealtimes.
Most of the group were fasting for similar reasons - wanting to detox from years of abusing our bodies and sold on the promise of increased energy levels. Others wanted to lose weight and some had specific health issues which they treated with fasting. Most inspiring was Monica Macrae, a doctor from New Zealand who uses fasting as a way to lessen the symptoms of an autoimmune disease that has caused her to have fluid on her heart and lungs. Monica fasts because she says it "intuitively feel that it helps my body heal".
Broth time often turned into a session during which we swapped stories about our symptoms. As we were all at different stages of the fast, it was useful to get advice from others who were more advanced along the programme, and in turn pass it on to the newbies.
No topic was out of bounds and updates were swapped on how our eight-litre coffee colonic went down. Such intimate conversations are bound to fast-track any relationship, and it was this camaraderie that encouraged me to keep going throughout the week.
If all this clean living sounds a bit too virtuous, you will be happy to hear that there is a party side to Haad Tien and its two neighbouring bays (Haad Yuan and Why Nam). The concept of 'detox to retox' is practised enthusiastically. The waterside club, Eden, holds club nights on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The open-air jungle bar called Guy's has the action on Fridays. It's a hedonist's heaven with partiers coming from other parts of the island to dance until well after sunrise.
The three bays attract an 'alternative' crowd from all over the world. People are generally very friendly and open, and there is a lovely mix of creativity, partying and spirituality. If you're a fan of festivals such as Burning Man or Body and Soul, it's likely you will love this place.
During my stay I met many interesting people and had countless numbers of inspiring conversations. Like me, most of the other travellers were doing so solo and in their 30s. Many of them were return visitors, which gives the place a real family feeling.
After seven days' fasting I was 5kg lighter and ready to eat again. I felt energetic and was sleeping better. My taste buds became sharper and my tendency to overeat had diminished. The detox helped me develop a deeper connection to my digestive system and now, weeks later, I still feel more attuned to foods that suit me best.
Another meaningful connection I made was to the place and its people. The Sanctuary and the three bays grow on you the more time you spend and the more you adapt to the pace of life. It's the kind of place you plan to go for a week or two and end up staying for months. Changing flights and extending visas is a common occurrence - both of which I did, but I still felt like I left prematurely.
I will return, and when I do I want to find it just as peaceful as I left it. So please, shush, and don't tell anyone. Let's just keep this little slice of paradise for ourselves.
The Sanctuary offers yoga holidays and detox and weight loss programmes. Its all-inclusive, three-and-a-half day fasting programme, which includes five nights' accommodation, starts from €354 (15,780 Thai Baht). For more information on The Sanctuary, visit: www.thesanctuarythailand.com.
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