Friends recommended the Sanctuary (thesanctuary-kpg.com), a health retreat nestled away on Haad Tien beach on the island of Koh Phangan in southern Thailand. The island is notorious for its full-moon parties, during which an international cast of backpackers mingle and dance on Haad Rin beach. They also ingest enough mind-altering chemicals to cause the nearest psychiatric hospital to double its staff on the big night. But a brief longtail-boat ride away from the lunacy, the Sanctuary offers a return to sanity and a healthier frame of mind.
In fact, the story goes that the Sanctuary owes its existence to the mentally imbalanced high jinks at Haad Rin. About a dozen years ago, a pair of ex-hausted British travelers fled the full-moon frenzy in a hired longtail. They landed on then-uninhabited Haad Tien beach, set up camp and were so charmed by the tranquility of the setting that they decided to make more-permanent arrangements. Today, the same towering palms and sprawling cashew trees that sheltered them that first night now shade guests as they take their meals in the gour-met vegetarian restaurant.
There have been other additions. The Sanctuary has grown from a single hut into a full-fledged retreat that includes a dormi-tory, bungalows and a spa, as well as yoga and meditation halls perched on a rocky hill overlooking the beach. For guests who prefer privacy and domestic amenities, there are several hillside homes with bathtubs, kitchens and decks over-looking the Gulf of Thailand.
As I discover, a big part of the health treatments that go on at the spa involve not eating, or at least not eating anything resembling food. The bright and airy Wellness Center is set back from the beach and offers several rigorous regimens, fasts and colonics designed to clean the body inside and out. As a cleansing client, this means I spend my days in Thailand ingesting nothing but murky "shakes" of volcanic clay, psyllium husk and watermelon juice—all the while undergoing daily coffee colonics. In Nepal or Mongolia—places with little culinary cachet—fasting might make sense. But in the kingdom of miang khum and larb gai, skipping a dinner of piquant red-curry snapper in favor of clay is just cruel.
I ask manager Susan van Kampen, an elfin woman who radiates good health, about the benefits. "Different people get different things out of it," she says. "At the least, it's a chance to clean some of the toxins out of your system. It's also a good time to think about your eating and drinking habits." Upon her recommendation, I decide on a three-and-a-half-day cleanse. Before I begin, however, I have to spend two days eating raw foods to prepare my system for the shock.
Once the flushing begins, days take on a rhythm syncopated by shakes, herbal supplements and evening colonics. The latter are not as disagreeable as one might imagine. The rooms in which the bowel rinses take place are tastefully tiled, have incense and pleasant music to take your mind off the plumbing noises. Moon, my cleanse guru—his Thai nickname is due to his broad round face—is the only Thai I've met who doesn't think fasting is inane. He's a veteran cleanser who swears by it. His wife, a beautiful, bird-like woman named Lak who works in the spa, doesn't share his sympathies and taunts me with green curries and papaya salad.
When Moon's not chasing me with his Timex to get me to swallow pills or shakes, I pass hours swinging in my hammock contemplating king prawns in chili sauce. But it's not the meals I miss so much as the sense of purpose meals provide. Eating gives me something to do. The closest I come to cheating happens one afternoon in the spa while undergoing a papaya body-wrap treat-ment. As I lie mari-nating in the pulpy, orange goop, I realize that with a little bend-ing, I could eat the for-bidden fruit slathered on my shoulder. I resist. I'm not hungry, only bored.
Time passes in a blur of intense yoga classes and skipped meals. My energy level never goes too low, and I feel acutely alert. I start to notice that I am standing taller, breathing deeper and stretching farther. On the fourth day I finally break the fast: papaya drizzled with lime and a mug of ginger tea. Not exactly paad thai and an ice-cold Singha beer, but to my expectant lips and empty stomach it's manna.