Sanctuary Resort, Koh Pha Ngan Thailand

The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan Doesn’t Live Up to its Reputation

For my very first trip to Thailand in 2002 I chose a week-long Yoga retreat on Koh Phra Thong, a little-known island in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of the country, and Yoga has been part of every subsequent trip. So as I made plans to return to Thailand for the first time in four years I researched destinations that would offer Yoga and beautiful beaches on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand, an area that I had never visited. Over and over, one name kept cropping up: The Sanctuary Resort at Koh Pha Ngan.

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Beach at The Sanctuary, Haad Tien Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Although best known for its no-holds-barred full moon parties, the island of Koh Pha Ngan also has a tradition of secluded resorts that offer yoga, meditation, and fasting programs, and The Sanctuary was said to be the best of the bunch. I contacted the managers to explain I wanted to review the resort on my blog and inquired whether they offered a media rate; they offered me a discount and asked that I contact them a few days before my arrival to make final arrangements. However, when I did so they had no cabins available and suggested I try again in a few days. The following week, although they still had no cabins available, the resort manager offered to reserve a space for me in their dorm and, knowing the dorm rooms are usually booked on a first-come, first-serve basis, I eagerly accepted.

Following the instructions on their website, I flew to Koh Samui from Bangkok and took the Thong Nai Pan ferry boat from Mae Nam pier, which delivers passengers directly to The Sanctuary on Haad Tien Bay. Unfortunately, on the day I arrived the seas were too rough to land at Haad Tien Bay and the boat had to put me off at Haad Rin Town, but I had been forewarned about this possibility by the resort’s website, which stated: “To get here by boat from Haad Rin Town, locate the taxi boat drivers at the port. They can bring you to The Sanctuary, which is a short 15 min journey.” I began asking about onward transport to the resort but was told that the once-per-day jeep taxi that braves the horrendous dirt track masquerading as a road had already come and gone. The long tail boat operators wanted 2000 Baht to take a single passenger (about $67 US), which was astoundingly expensive, even in a country where things are getting pricier by the day. They insisted that my only other option was to hike up and over two steep hills with all my luggage on my back. Hot, sweaty, and by now frustrated, I decided to phone the resort for assistance. Stepping into an Internet cafe, I presented the number shown on the resort’s website and in their emails, but the phone was out of service.

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Restaurant at The Sanctuary

Fortunately, the woman in the Internet cafe pulled out a map and explained what I needed to do. My ferry boat had dropped me at the Haad Rin West pier, which is located on one side of a very narrow isthmus. Long tails departing from the west side have to make a long journey around the isthmus to the east side, where The Sanctuary is located, thus the high fare. Smelling a sucker, the boat owners didn’t tell me that I simply had to walk five minutes to the other side of the isthmus.

Fifteen minutes and 200 Baht (~$7) later, I jumped into thigh-high water and hefted my backpack across sloping sand and up a stairway to the resort’s front desk, where I introduced myself to the reception manager, Lenka. Unsmiling and brusque, she ran me through the drill. I was given a number that was to be used for all purchases during my stay and instructed to check my bill each day to make sure it was correct. This same number was written on a dry-erase board hanging at the end of the reception desk, in full view of every guest. When I expressed concern that anyone could use my number, she reiterated that it was my responsibility to check my charges each day and insisted I would not be charged for disputed amounts. Their emails had promised: “Last but not least for all you internet geeks we now have WiFi all over the Sanctuary in every nook and cranny and the houses also,” but Lenka informed me that the wifi didn’t work well because the resort was surrounded by rock. However, since my iPhone picked up the connection with no problem, she offered to sell me a 1000-minute package for 2000 Baht ($67!). Irritated, I pointed out that nowhere on their website or in emails had it disclosed that the wifi was fee based. Her dismissive reply was, “It is what it is.

Disgusted but too exhausted to argue, I hefted my pack and carefully negotiated the rickety stairs leading to the dormitory, built directly over the restaurant and bar. The keyless door opened into a large room that seemed more like an enclosed deck. Not only did it vibrate each time someone came up the stairs, it faced directly onto the beach where full moon debauchery went on all night long every Friday evening. The 12 “dorm beds” were vinyl mats on the hard wooden floor. That didn’t bother me too much as I’ve slept on the floor many times, but the lack of any lockers where I could secure all my electronic equipment was unacceptable, so I traipsed back downstairs to discuss alternative options. At Lenka’s suggestion, I found accommodations elsewhere on the bay, which at least allowed me to attend the Sanctuary’s classes and special events.

Lovely bay but dirty sand, including oil that coated my feet

Lovely bay but dirty sand, including oil that coated my feet

I’d like to be able to report that things got better during my nine-day stay but they went downhill. The resort’s common areas seem neglected and needed a good cleaning; the mats in the Yoga shala smelled so rank that I couldn’t bring myself to use one. Fountains filled with standing water around the property were breeding grounds for some of the most gigantic mosquitoes I have ever seen; to combat the problem landscapers roamed the property with obnoxiously loud fogging machines that blanketed everything in choking clouds of insecticide. The restaurant’s food was mediocre and overpriced, as were spa services; a one-hour Thai massages in Bangkok costs 350 Baht but The Sanctuary price was 550 Baht. Litter was strewn across the beach and the coarse, pebbly sand was impregnated with oil that leaks from long tail boats; it was often late afternoon before anyone from the resort made a half-hearted attempt to clean up the trash left over from the previous night’s revelry.

Trash on the beach at The Sanctuary

Trash on the beach at The Sanctuary

During my stay, the wifi never did work. Instead I had to plug in using a cable  in their Internet cafe, which only had a reliable connection two out of nine days. Guests were constantly being kicked off in the middle of composing emails or trying to make airline reservations, and were livid when the resort insisted they pay for using the computers, despite the connection problems. In fairness, I did talk to some guests who raved about The Sanctuary’s fasting program and the resort’s Yoga classes were well done. But had it not been for the great interactions I had with other guests like Richard Baimbridge, who introduced me to AcroYoga, I would have considered my visit a complete bust.

Pathway down to beach at Bamboo Huts, Haad Yuan Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

Pathway down to beach at Bamboo Huts, Haad Yuan Bay, Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

On day seven, thoroughly disgusted with The Sanctuary, I went in search of the Bamboo Huts restaurant, reputed to have the best food in the area at a great price. I crested the rocky outcropping separating Haad Tien Bay from Haad Yuan Bay and wound back down toward the beach through behemoth granite boulders scraped smooth by eons of wind and water. The restaurant perched atop one of these, with a million dollar view down to a pristine crescent beach backed by an aquamarine ocean. My meal was as delicious as had been promised and I learned that the restaurant was part of Bamboo Huts Resort. Scattered across the rocky escarpment, their adorable bamboo huts offer private bathrooms; 24-hour electric and hot water;  fast, reliable wifi for a fee; and are priced at only 350 Baht per night (~$12). The resort has no website or email, but reservations can be made by calling +087 8888592.

Restaurant at Bamboo Huts

Restaurant at Bamboo Huts

As my departure time drew near I discovered a shack at the other end of the beach where I could get a good, cheap local massage. A few Yoga sessions, a couple of massages, and the company of great new friends had inclined me to be kinder in this review than the resort deserved, but as I stood on the beach on my final morning, waiting for the ferry to arrive, Lenka said goodbye to several other guests then turned her back on me, walked away and pretended I didn’t exist, passive/aggressive to the end.

23 Comments on “The Sanctuary Resort on Koh Pha Ngan Doesn’t Live Up to its Reputation

  1. I have travelled to some of the best hotels in the world and I have to say that I absolutely love the Sanctuary . It’s not professing to be one of the most glamorous resorts and for the price I wouldn’t expect it to be . It does however have a unique spiritually uplifting atmosphere . It is incredibly special and I have never ever slept so well . I found the food very good and the staff relaxed and extremely helpful . Yes it is a little basic but after staying in glitzy hotels most of my life I find this refreshing and uplifting . No worries about getting dressed up and competing with other guests . Just chilling out , yoga every day from amazing teachers , surrounded by other like minded people who just want to chill and escape from the rat race .

  2. I know the sanctuary, I was there in 1999 and it was amazing. I went back in 2003/2004, and it was allready changing. A bit unfriendly, a lot more commercial, that same weird system with your number on the board where everyone can see it. Off course things ended up on our bill we never ordered and it was a big hassle to talk about that. We ended up paying our bill every night. They did not liked that, but for us it was the best solution. It was not that we didnot had a nice stay, it was ok, but we allready saw that things were changing and that the sanctuary was a little out of controll. So we decided this was it and coming back was not an option for us.

    • Hi Ilsa. I’m sorry you had the same sort of experience I did. Unfortunately, the Sanctuary seems to have become more abut money and less about serving the clients.

  3. Dear Barbara
    I had a similar experience to you at The Sanctuary. I was so annoyed by the end of my second stay there, that I wrote to the owner, Gill. She never replied. I swore I would never return, and have been going to The Spa at Koh Samui every year since then, with no complaints at all.

  4. Sorry you had a negative experience- it happens sometimes and it sucks when you happened to be that person.

    I’ve been to The Sanctuary a handful of times and love it. I usually stay at Beam or Bamboo huts just cuz the room rate is better, and eat and relax at the sanctuary. Haad Tien and the surrounding beaches are magical- there’s a reason why people return year after year and stay for month/s at a time… perhaps you were just there at a weird time. Anyway, sounds like you were just kinda not feeling it in general- mosquitoes, scammin boat drivers, dodgey wifi, relaxed security….. yup, sounds like Thailand to me. I live here in Thailand (teacher) and this series of beaches are my favorite vacation spot in the whole country hands down- so if you’re a reader, you might not want to let one blog post dictate your decision.

    Oh, and you’re gettin jacked if you’re paying B350 for a massage in bangkok- you shouldnt pay more than 200 in the tourist areas near MBK, but you can get great ones for 100 near the Tesco Lotus on On Nut.

    Sounds like you’re had some amazing travels- good on you and happy/safe travels for the future!

    Peace,

    -Teacher Jessie

    • Dear Jessie,

      Do you reccomend any places to stay in Haad Tien? I plan to live there for 1 month for a yoga course!

      Warmly,
      Drea

      • Hi Drea: Sorry for my slow reply, but I’ve been traveling. Sorry, but I don’t know any places on Haad Tien to recommend.

  5. Hi Barbara did you ever review the first yoga retreat you went on in 2002 on Koh Phra Thong?

    • Hi Myles: Unfortunately, my visit to Koh Phra Thong (Golden Buddha Beach
      Resort) happened prior to having this blog. Then the Tsunami hit and
      virtually wiped out the resort. I believe they have rebuilt, but I haven’t
      been there since, so I have no idea how things are there now, but when I
      visited it was a wonderful place.

      • Hi Barbara,

        Thanks for responding. The reason I was asking is because I work for Golden Buddha. I came here and was enchanted by the place. There is still nothing here and it is stunning. I am trying to bring the Yoga profile back to where it was prior to the Tsunami hence my question about the review. Best wishes 

  6. My congrats for writing a review as you see it. Your blog is also full of positive recommendations for places which keeps a balance. Hopefully The Sanctuary takes some action and becomes the haven that it tries to be.

  7. Although it is unfortunate to hear that this experience was not very good, as Islandmomma said, it is refreshing to see travel blogs that are not falsely displaying all their travels as stress-free and amazing. Every travel experience is a new one and can help you, and others, learn how to better approach them in the future (although you are always very thorough in your research). This is why travel is such a great thing – it helps us gain knowledge about not only other cultures, but our own elves and our expectations, interests and values.

    • Thank you Melanie! I really do feel a strong obligation to tell the truth,
      regardless of whether or not I’ve gotten a free press trip or discount, or
      paid full price. And I fail to understand why anyone would see that as
      somehow a fault and attack me personally for laying out the facts. Strange,
      but I’m gad I have loyal readers like you and Islandmomma who keep me from
      being too upset about it.

  8. I’m sorry it was a bad experience for you, but this kind of information is SO useful to those of us who haven’t been there and may be considering going. It’s so great to know that you always give an honest view. Don’t worry about the trolls!!!!

  9. Barbara, I’ve been a fan for a while, of you, your site and the whole breaking free of the mainstream and using social media to develop a business concept. But your review sounds like it’s written by a jaded travel writer. Is life so tough when you don’t get a freebie? Honestly, can you think about your life and read your post again?

    • Hi Adam: I did not ask for a freebie. I asked for a media rate, which is
      usually a slightly discounted rate and they emailed that they would be happy
      to accommodate me. This is fairly standard practice in the industry. If you
      have been reading my blog, as you state, you will know without a doubt that
      I am not a jaded travel writer. But I have an obligation to my readers to
      tell the truth, the whole truth, and only the truth about my experiences.
      Even if they had provided me with a free room, it would not have changed
      that commitment. Plain and simple, it was not a good experience.

      • Hi again, I’m sorry to sound so harsh. I don’t think it was your best work and after reading it I felt compelled to comment (I never comment on blogs) because I had such a strong negative reaction to the negative post. I usually love your posts but this one really ticked me off. I actually feel bad for criticizing, which is why I came back to it after vowing never to read your blog again. That’s just my bit of honesty, perhaps conveyed too harshly. I used “freebie” generally to include discounts. I’m not a troll or someone who gets a kick out of critisizing others. It was my honest reaction to your post.

        • Well Barbara, you have a right to your opinion, but mine is that the truth
          is always the best option. What if I didn’t tell the truth about what
          happened and someone visited The Sanctuary based upon my recommendation and
          had a bad experience like mine? I think that would be much worse.

  10. Wow, it’s too bad that something with a good reputation and good reviews turned out to really blow it with their customer service and treatment of their guests. The views and scenery (apart from the trash) look beautiful! Glad you were at least able to meet some good people!

  11. I have never thought much of the sanctuary, but Haad Yuan is one place I go back every year and would love to do so for many years to come. The food and view at Bamboo Huts restaurant are exceptionally good.

    I hear it is terrible weather their at the moment and my thoughts are with all my friends in Haad Yuan, I hope the storms pass quickly. Kind Regards, Roger @rogergibsonUK

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