A life-changing wellness retreat on a Thai island

How a working mum swapped play dates for downward dogs on a magical Thai island for her first wellness retreat ever — and found it more transformative than she could have imagined.

Relax and invigorate at this Thai wellness retreat
  • Flip Byrnes
  • August 2019

Reclining on the roof of a supply boat chugging towards Koh Samui island, whipped by warm wind and watching the coastline unfurl like a loosely strung ribbon, I’m having an interesting conversation with Kalle from Berlin. “So,” he says softly, “Apparently in my past life I was a sailor, and before that, a French woman called Anna.”

“Oh,” I respond in an equally conspiratorial whisper. “I had reiki and saw bright lights and a fluffy duck...”

Fluffy ducks and past lives? What? If this sounds out of your sphere, only a week earlier it wouldn’t have been in mine either – let alone Kalle’s, who’d never done so much as a yoga pose. But then, this exchange takes place as part of a mid-ocean debrief as we are leaving The Sanctuary Thailand, a wellness retreat that proclaims to be for those seeking “something else”.

The Sanctuary is not just a yoga haunt, detox centre and alternative therapy hub, though. It can also be an idyllic beach holiday, where you end up dipping your toes in the waters of wellness.

The Sanctuary is a remote slice of paradise in the Thai jungle.
The Sanctuary is a remote slice of paradise in the Thai jungle.

The lush, mountainous Koh Phangan island, where you’ll find the resort, is a world away from my usual life of picking up tiny shoes and eating leftover peanut butter crusts. For a start, it is only accessible by boat (or a bumpy 40-minute 4WD track if the sea is rough), following a flight and an island-hopping ferry. But the palm-fringed paradise that lies in wait as you wade to the beach, carrying your suitcase aloft, having jumped from the longtail fishing boat, is well worth the journey. This adventure literally starts with a splash.

We’re not the first to be swept away by the open energy of this pocket of Thailand. Remember The Beach? The book and movie (starring Leonardo DiCaprio) depicting a utopian backpacker community? It’s not such a fantasy. The Sanctuary is said to be the original community that inspired the storyline and author Alex Garland began writing his book more than 20 years ago right here. While many beaches claim to have inspired the tale, The Sanctuary’s Haad Tien is the beach.

“There are definite characters from the book I could give actual names to,” says general manager Michael Doyle. “It’s true, he [Alex] passed through here and got inspiration from the early community.”

But instead of backpackers waving spirit fingers, you’ll find a thriving, yet laid-back resort receiving burnt out executives, the curious and those in some sort of transition phase. Welcome to The Beach 2.0.

The retreat is located along the famous Haad Tien beach.
The retreat is located along the famous Haad Tien beach.

“This is an oasis, a ‘catch up with yourself’ spot,” explains Michael. “Here you take a breath and get exposed to many experiences you haven’t tried before, but you have to dive on in.”

For the first few days of my DIY six-day retreat (you can book in for scheduled programs or, like me, reserve accommodation only and then add experiences according to your whims) I do anything but dive in – unless it’s into the sparkling blue water. Michael talks about people like me – a working mum with toddlers juggling roles, suffering from the type of exhaustion that a good night’s sleep won’t fix. I’m carving out these precious six days to refuel on a more than superficial level.

In The Sanctuary speak, I’m filling my cup. Luckily, this isn’t an austere boot camp-style clinic but more of a “choose your own pace” kind of retreat. So, my cup is filled with cocktails, kid-free activities like yoga, reading and stand-up paddleboarding. Aside from daily yoga, there’s a calendar of workshops and a host of healing therapies on offer from holistic intuitive massage to cupping, dance and reflexology.

I start recalibrating gently by sleeping in and waking up inside a verdant cocoon as the jungle leaves radiate green hues off my bamboo ceiling. Out the window, little lizards scamper along tree branches laced with dew-like diamonds. I potter between the beachfront restaurant serving delicious salads and seafood curries, the massage pavilion and the white-sand beach. Travelling alone (as many guests do), I’m welcomed into conversations and at other times, I choose my own space. I move slowly, think slowly and find my energy returning like a phone charging one bar at a time.

Mealtimes inevitably become social at the communal restaurant.
Mealtimes inevitably become social at the communal restaurant.

By day four, curiosity sets in and it’s time to join the fun. Detoxing – a popular choice – might be for another time but I don’t have to look far to find that “something else”. Every Sunday is The Gathering, where healers explain their practices. Flicking through the folder of treatments in the Tea Temple is akin to reading a menu for the soul. Trauma and Tension Release Exercises (TRE) with Fiona? Life Coaching with Faith? Or a little Past Life Channelling?

Of all the healers, I’m drawn to Daisy Kaye, a breathwork and female energy specialist who says the feminine needs deep, scheduled rest. “The nervous system has to return to still point every day,” she says. “Maybe you’ll need 30 minutes of practice just to get those two minutes of deep rest.”

I’d love to take her up on it but I already have a busy day of rest scheduled. It starts with yoga, my first class in four years. Our instructor, Jonny, takes his time to warm us up. “In a metropolitan hour class, you may have 10 minutes to warm up your spine,” he says. “Here, let’s take a leisurely 25 minutes.” I can feel light and air wiggling into cramped muscles and leave feeling an inch taller. As Jonny says, “I regret doing yoga this morning, said no-one ever.”

I try reiki, where energy is transmitted through the hands of a healer. I’m glad gentle Ema warned me there may be white lights, a sense of warmth and even animals, because I had it all – right down to a fluffy white duck. Apparently, my energy was “parched” and I sucked new energy right in.

Nearing nightfall and on a high after my day of experimentation, I reconsider Daisy’s encouragement to attend that evening’s Sacred Cacao Five Element Dance Ceremony. “By the end of the ceremony, you have created a community and a connection. You’ll have resonated with others here,” she says.

Gathering courage as twilight settles, I make my way to a hilltop wooden pavilion. The door thrusts open and candlelight floods out, illuminating Daisy in a fully-body halo like a James Bond goddess. She beckons me inside. “Take a deep breath, close the eyes, let the jaw go – inhale, ahhh,” she whispers. “Welcome into this space, where all your intentions can be made manifest. With each breath you take, remember that you are blessed.” She lets go and moves to the next participant. And so, the ceremony begins.

The Sacred Cacao Five Element Dance Ceremony is a spiritual journey.
The Sacred Cacao Five Element Dance Ceremony is a spiritual journey.

I’m all at sea, literally, as we’re encouraged to dance the elements to music, starting with water. Sweeping arms conjure mountainous waves and our hands are fish. We switch to air, running on tiptoes before fanning the imaginary embers of intentions with fire and stomping on negativity with earth.

The bonus of experiencing remedies at The Sanctuary is that you not only find the best international practitioners here – I had healers from the UK, Holland and Australia – but you also meet a multicultural cross-section of society among fellow travellers.

The twirling dancers around me include an American interior designer, an English financial planner, a lithe Russian dancer and timid-looking Kalle, who later admits the dance ceremony was quite an introduction into the world of health and wellbeing – and his favourite experience of the week.

The evening culminates in one of the New Yorkers doing the caterpillar, leaving a small pool of sweat on the floor (it’s Thailand, it’s hot), which he thoughtfully wipes up. “We didn’t want to create any OH&S issues,” he laughs the next day. He says he’s done this type of dancing before, “but we don’t let go, not like this”.

The range of therapies go from basic to the out-there - such as primal dancing!
The range of therapies go from basic to the out-there - such as primal dancing!

Daisy was right. The next day, my fellow participants have become my best buddies. Sarah, a British banker, wears a suit almost all year but for two weeks, she literally lets her hair down, adds a few feathers and revives. “Just knowing I will come here is enough to keep me going when I’m stuck in a rut,” she says.

Just when I start to wonder how hair feathers would go down on the school run, it’s time to go. Michael had warned me that “no-one leaves here unchanged”. All you have to do is drag yourself out of the hammock and try things you only flash over in a magazine. “Dip your toe in the water and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find that thing that can become a discipline for your life,” he says.

I can’t see euphoric dancing becoming a regular routine but I am rising 15 minutes earlier for meditation, heading out the door for a sunrise jog and eating more mindfully. Caught up in the magic of new motherhood, self-care had somehow been denigrated to being a luxury. I’d forgotten the invigorating effects of yoga and the value of a healthy meal over toddler-chewed leftovers eaten on the run.

You can end up making deep friendships in a place like this.
You can end up making deep friendships in a place like this.

Leaving young children for a week pulls mercilessly on the heartstrings and the absence of tiny hugging arms and wild imaginative tales hits me hard at unexpected moments. But it was an enriching time invested wisely because I have returned as a more present, energised and engaged person. For me, The Sanctuary re-lit a spark and now that fire is something I try to stoke every day.

Need to know

The Sanctuary is cash only. No credit cards are accepted and the closest ATM is a longtail boat ride away or via a hectic 45-minute 4WD track. Spend as little or as much as you like with accommodation ranging from AUD $15 for a dorm bed to AUD $340 for a multi-room, treetop chalet. Our pick? The Hillside Bungalows with balconies from AUD $109 a night.