Sunday, September 21, 2008

Broken hearted in a Thai retreat

Find sanctuary from a broken heart the Thai way: fasting, meditation; colonic therapy - and, for those brave enough, bellydancing

Massages are part of the restaurant’s restorative regime
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It's 5am. I have just waved my housemate off on holiday with her lovely boyfriend who loves her. I have not slept for three nights since being dumped via e-mail by the man I'm in love with. And I have just seen a mouse in my kitchen. My God, do I feel sorry for myself.

I then make the type of decision one usually makes only at dawn, when heartbroken, and in the vicinity of the internet. I decide to go to Thailand to do a seven-day fast. So no more tears or self-pity. Not for me the just-been-dumped 40-per-cent-proof diet. Oh, no. I will cleanse, purify and sort myself out... or something like that.

It takes two days, two trains, a taxi, car ride, three planes, a ferry and a fishing boat to reach The Sanctuary. When I'm deposited on the beach everyone else looks thin, brown and happy. Oh, and absolutely everybody is in love, too. I have a severe case of fat, white, jet-lagged miserablitis.

The Sanctuary is situated on Haad Tien, a beautiful short sweep of beach on Koh Pha-Ngan, off Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. As well as the resort, spa and fasting services, it offers workshops and treatments including bellydancing, meditation, tantra, Ayurvedic massage and shamanic healing. People come from all over the world to hang out, learn stuff and generally look beautiful.

But I'm more interested in the restaurant. It has an excellent reputation and I decide to go for lunch to cheer myself up. On the way I pop into the wellness centre to find out about my fasting programme. Big mistake. I'm quizzed on what I've eaten that day, and when I say toast and, in a whisper, coffee, I'm told that it's nothing but raw fruit and vegetables for the next two days.

While most holidays are about excess, this experience will be an exercise in discipline; no eating, drinking or contacting my ex. And I have to get up at 7am every day for the first of four daily clay shakes - a drink made of psyllium husks and bentonite clay mixed with water or watermelon juice that fills you up and purifies your system. Every 90 minutes there's something else to do - another shake, herbs, lymph drainage, vegetable broth, steam room or colonic.

Ah, yes, the colonics. Moon, the fasting centre manager, takes a group of us uninitiated “colonic virgins” to a bathroom to show us how to self-administer. He suggests we take along our iPods and relax as best we can as the water does it work. Which leaves me wondering, is it the ultimate compliment or insult to take a musician with you at such an intensely personal time? My first colonic experience is simultaneously scary, fascinating and gross, although a few days after doing it twice a day I quickly become blasé. And also come to realise just how many soulful ballads of ill-fated love have found their way on to my iPod.

Included in the fasting package is a daily steam-room session. The room is built into the rock, and at dusk the light falls through the roof and with all the herbs and steam it's quite magical. Especially when a boy who looks like Jesus starts chanting. Something inside me shifts and I leave the steam feeling better than I have in weeks.

Although the clay shakes fill me up, the process of not eating - something I've done every day since birth, is significant. When you exercise this much control over one area of your life it spills over into other parts, too. As the days roll by I watch my thoughts about my ex change into more powerful ones, and notice that they become less about him and more about me. I'm getting myself back.

Failed relationships aren't the only reason people come to The Sanctuary. Ben, 31, a music producer from London, came “to shake things up, to do something completely the opposite of what you do at home”, while Heike, 36, a marketing manager from Berlin, told me, “I wanted to detox, to get rid of emotional and physical baggage”.

There is a strong sense of group bonding. Talk revolves mainly around what day of the week-long fast you're on. After a few days you become laughably absent-minded, have no energy and don't do much. On day three I nearly fall over in yoga attempting the demanding “standing up” position, and after that retire to my hammock to look at air for 12 hours. Weirdly, this is not unenjoyable.

I have a sea-salt body scrub that leaves my skin feeling softer than it has since I was in nappies. A few days later I have the papaya bodywrap, which involves being slathered in mashed-up papaya, a head and face massage, and being left to cook in it. And yes, when the therapist isn't looking I eat a bit from my face.

On finishing the fast, food is no longer a big deal. I've lost a couple of kilos, but, more important, I feel outrageously healthy. For the remaining ten days I eat only raw food, with the teensiest bit of chocolate and the odd rum, and when it's time to leave I feel more alive than I thought possible.

Alas, I am built more for momentary lapses in judgment than permanent holiness. I get drunk on the flight home, see my ex the next day, and a few weeks later get the most horrible flu and upset, as again it becomes gut-wrenchingly clear that we're done. However, thanks to my new calmed state of being, it's dealt with in a few days, and the only comfort food that features is extra avocado on my salad. I admit I am left wondering, is it too soon to go back to Thailand?

Going solo? Five classic reads

Tender Is The Night F. Scott Fitzgerald
However bad your break-up is, it can't be as much of a car crash as Scott and Zelda's estrangement, fictionalised in his 1934 novel.

One Is Fun! Delia Smith
Cook yourself back to health and happiness with perfect single servings. And remember - smile!

Portnoy's Complaint Philip Roth
One can be fun in other ways, too, as proven by this debauched hymn to flying solo.

The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood
A vision of patriarchal oppression and thoroughly dysfunctional relationships that will leave you thanking your stars that you're single.

Sailing Alone Around The World Joshua Slocum
Think you're lonely? This 1900 memoir of three solitary years on a dodgy fishing boat will put things in perspective.

Tom Gatti

Buy these books at discounted prices from The Times Books First on 0870 1608080 or at timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

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