Thailand’s The Sanctuary: How a hippie hideaway reworked right into a high seashore retreat

Koh Phangan, Thailand (CNN) – Michael Doyle made regular trips to Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand in the mid-1980s and enjoyed the relaxed life in rustic beach bungalows on the island between two stations as a psychiatric nurse in Australia.

Eventually he settled in Hat Rin, a sunset-view beach on the southern tip of the island where a rapidly growing international hippie scene offered everything from trance music and tai chi to hedonism and spirituality.

By 1989 Hat Rin had become world famous for its monthly full moon party on the beach, and Doyle was merging with the stream of the “new Goa”.

One day in 1991, a chance acquaintance invited Doyle to a celebration to mark the opening of a new location on a secret beach up the coast. It was called “The Sanctuary” and could only be reached by rented boat or on foot over steep hills and rocky headlands.

He accepted and chose the latter route. He and his new acquaintances began the strenuous hike.

“When we came over the first hill, the sight of a crystal white beach without anyone was pure magic,” says Doyle. But they had not yet reached “the beach”, and so the group continued on a narrow path between huge boulders.

“We saw the second bay just before sunset,” says Doyle. “As I went down from there, I felt like I was going through some kind of invisible membrane and I realized, ‘Well, my life has changed.'”

The sanctuary was between Volkswagen-sized blocks of granite that spilled onto white sand, and at the time consisted of a longhouse, a couple of wood and thatch bungalows, and an open-air cafe. The opening party lasted three days, with a lively exchange of food and entertainment, including the erection of a large bamboo-framed meditation pyramid.

An enchanted doyle stayed for three months with a handful of other long-term long-term workers who stopped by to build more bungalows.

Originally, The Sanctuary was only accessible by rented boat or on foot.

Courtesy The Sanctuary

The perfect mood

Behind the project were two Koh Phangan residents, Gill Beddows and Steve Sanders, who decided to start The Sanctuary after being annoyed by the ongoing commercialization of the Hat Rin scene.

“We ran a café in Hat Rin and were involved in the big parties,” says Beddows. “But one day Steve said he found the most beautiful beach on the coast.”

He suggested that they try to do something more useful there.

Known in the area as Hat Thian (Mangrove Beach), the bay belonged to a single Thai family that Sanders was friends with. This made it easier to come to an agreement to lease the property and build the sanctuary compared to the many other bays that were split between several rival families.

Thailand-THE-SANCTUARY-humble beginnings

The Sanctuary, pictured here in its early days, was founded in the 1990s.

Courtesy The Sanctuary

“We started construction in 1990,” says Beddows. “Steve and I had spent time at the Osho Ashram in India and that experience influenced us a lot. From the beginning we focused on wellness and spirituality and offered an alternative to the party scenes on other beaches. We wanted it to be a center for like-minded people to practice yoga and detox as well as various other therapies and treatments that are well accepted today but were practically witchcraft back then. “

For the first seven or eight years, The Sanctuary and its longtime residents were suspicious of the public and media attention.

“We felt that the place had the perfect atmosphere and we didn’t want it to be spoiled,” says Doyle of those years. “So we tried for a while to keep it to ourselves as much as possible as word of mouth among friends.”

Inspiration for ‘The Beach’?

Coincidentally or not, in 1996, first-time writer Alex Garland published “The Beach”, an exciting story that traces the fate of a small, casual group of globetrotters who found their own utopian community on a remote Thai beach.

Reprinted 25 times in less than a year, the novel became “Lord of the Flies” for Generation X and turned into a $ 40 million film in 2000, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Leonard DiCaprio.

The story begins when Richard, the British protagonist, meets a crazy Scottish backpacker in a guest house on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, who sticks a hand-drawn card on Richard’s door before killing himself.

Richard and a French couple follow the map to a hidden lagoon on a beautiful island, where they find a colony of hedonistic idealists from around the world who strive not to discover their idyll.

CNN Travel couldn’t reach Garland to confirm or deny the connection, but parallels with The Sanctuary sparked rumors that a visit to the secluded resort had inspired him.

“We lived under the hippie belief that everyone could live together, and we didn’t have to let the outside world in and let money spoil everything.”

Gill Beddows, co-founder of The Sanctuary

First, both Garland’s Fictional Community and The Sanctuary were founded in 1990.

Just like Gill Beddows oversaw the development of The Sanctuary, backed by a construction arts partner, the secret beach community in Garland’s novel is overseen by Sal, a woman with a carpenter friend. While Beddows and Sanders are from the UK, Sal and her partner are American and South African.

In the novel, Sal Richard explains, “Of course this is more than a beach resort. But at the same time it’s just a beach resort. We come here to relax on a nice beach, but it’s not a beach resort because we’re trying to get out of beach resorts Get away. Or we’re trying to create a place that doesn’t turn into a beach resort. See? “

When asked if Garland actually went to The Sanctuary, Doyle says, “I have a fuzzy memory of a man hanging out in a hammock in the mid-1990s and watching the flow of life for just a few weeks. And I know names call.” a couple of the characters in the story, so there is. It didn’t click as much on the book as it did on the movie. “

Beddows is more open to Garland’s inspiration.

Thailand THE HOLY 0004

A variety of sleeping options are available, from private suites to dormitories.

Courtesy The Sanctuary

“As soon as the book came out, I knew it.” She says. “There were just too many coincidences.

“We lived under the hippie belief that everyone could live together, and we didn’t have to let the outside world in and let money spoil everything. Gradually, reality came in, knowing that without income this was unsustainable.

“As our yoga, self-exploration and detox programs expanded and these things became more marketable in Thailand, we realized it would be crazy not to share the knowledge and skills we had developed. We were already ahead of the curve . ”

The couple invited Doyle to run The Sanctuary in 1998 so they could attend to other interests on the islands as well as back home in the UK.

A self-confessed “organized Capricorn,” Doyle introduced the resort into the 21st century, expanding its wellness and spirituality programs to a wide-reaching market while maintaining the intimacy and casualness cherished by loyal guests who returned year for year Year.

By 2013, The Sanctuary was booked out for most of the time, and the staff declined hundreds of requests for stays over the Christmas and New Years holidays.

Former Sanctuary barman Nolan Dalby took over the day-to-day management of the resort in 2016, although Doyle, who now lives in neighboring Koh Samui, remains involved.

Covid-19 brings new challenges with it

When the spread of the coronavirus accelerated worldwide in March 2020, The Sanctuary was in the middle of another successful peak season. Though international news caused the majority of guests to depart and those arriving canceled their reservations, about a dozen guests at the Sanctuary stayed well into the month.

Doyle recalls, “We had to make a lot of decisions quickly because there was a risk that the borders would be closed and people would still be in the house. Given the safety and comfort of our guests and what was sustainable for us as a company. ” One evening we all called the restaurant for a discussion.

“We let them know they might not even be on the beach during the island’s lockdown and that food supplies might run out. Everyone left in the end, except for one couple who we’ve been giving cheap prices for so long,” it said out. “

With Dalby and a reduced crew – many Sanctuary employees chose to return to their homes during Thailand’s general lockdown from mid-March to mid-May – the resort continued to operate.

The restaurant offered a short menu for long-term residents from Hat Thian, which was only available for takeout during lockdown and later for dinner. Dalby bought a smaller generator to save fuel and run electricity for limited hours per day.

While many hotels and resorts on Koh Phangan and across Thailand have closed completely from mid-March to June or later, The Sanctuary has maintained its record of not even closing for a day since it originally opened.

Thailand THE HOLY 00001

The sanctuary’s wellness programs include yoga, self-exploration, and detox.

Courtesy The Sanctuary

“In many ways, these current challenges bring me back to the early days,” says Doyle. “I remember when I arrived in 1991, The Sanctuary only had a small Kubota generator that would turn on in the late morning to run a smoothie mixer in the restaurant, and then for a few more hours in the evening.”

Dalby had fewer guests in the house to keep him occupied and focused on finding ways to bring the Sanctuary experience to people incarcerated elsewhere in the world.

With the help of a photographer who visited The Sanctuary shortly after the lockdown, Dalby developed a rustic video recording studio in one of the available bungalows so that live yoga classes could be streamed via Facebook and other internet media.

As more equipment was purchased and the open air studio became more technologically sophisticated, Dalby connected it to Vimeo Livestream Studio online so they could host teachers, therapists and other experts outside of Thailand taking classes in meditation, exercise, home detox and Pilates gave and yoga to live models in the studio.

The Sanctuary now has its own video channel that broadcasts both live and recorded events via social media, as well as a dedicated website, Sanctuary Wellness Live.

“With Thailand’s international arrivals still strictly limited, the Vimeo studio is keeping the Sanctuary experience open to everyone,” says Dalby.

Meanwhile, on the “beach” a steady stream of local visitors, both Thais and expatriates who live in Thailand, enjoy daily yoga classes, wellness offers, meditation, healthy food and detox programs (on request) and the beautiful bay itself – relative isolation – almost like 20 years ago.

The Sanctuary, 6 153/14 Ban Tai, Koh Phangan District, Surat Thani 84280; +66 (0) 77 954 073

Comments are closed.