The Dhamma Times, 3 July 2004
|New Zealand Herald, Bangkok - Thamkrabok is a faraway place for the very far gone. The Buddhist monastery is set against a Thai landscape that resembles an idyllic Oriental watercolour: all stony outcrops and forested peaks.|
Gargantuan statues rise out of the foliage like fevered hallucinations.
Packs of stray dogs snarl at strangers who are not clad in the brown monks' robes or the faded red pyjamas worn by the drug abusers who are staying here.
"Winner" is spelled out hopefully in ancient Buddhist script on the shirt backs of these addicts who are undergoing the world's most extreme - yet possibly most effective - drugs rehabilitation regime.
Hundreds of long-term speed freaks, pill poppers, crack addicts, junkies, glue-sniffers and alcoholics arrive at this stark Buddhist waystation in central Thailand every year to endure a gruelling programme of purging and spartan living.
Though in the West most detox patients eventually succumb to their drug cravings, nearly 70 per cent of the tens of thousands of troubled men and women who have been through treatment at Wat Thamkrabok since 1958 have stayed drug-free, according to one Australian study.
But the place is a far cry from such celebrity-friendly detox haunts as the Priory or Betty Ford clinic. The temple's brutal vomit cure proved too much for Pete Doherty, the self-destructive frontman of the Libertines punk thrash band, who bolted before dawn on day three of his 10-day detox treatment.
He ran away with another English addict who claims he cut short his rehabilitation just two days before it was due to come to an end to give the angst-ridden guitarist moral support.
"The singer seemed unwilling or unable to let go of his dark side," says Phra Hans, a Swiss spiritual counsellor at Thamkrabok. A statement signed by Doherty before he fled says: "Thamkrabok Monastery have done everything they could to help me, but I am not strong enough for this treatment."
Richard, an ex-convict from Leeds who kicked his ฃ3000 ($8500)-a-week "smack and crack habit" seven months ago and is now a monk at Thamkrabok, described the loss of the "two English lads" as disheartening.
"You gotta truly believe in yourself. You can acquire good habits as easily as bad habits. The process has to be painful so you will not want to go through it ever again. It is the toughest detox you will find, and I have tried them all."
About 40 per cent of the monks are former addicts who have stayed at Thamkrabok to become ordained. With cigarettes dangling from their mouths, some look impious, but the abbot, Charoen Panchand, allows them to taper off gradually from nicotine dependence.
Patients line up once a day to swallow a shot glass of a mouth-curdlingly bitter herbal extract which leaves them retching and spewing into concrete gutters.
The organic purgative is a viscous dark brew made from 108 seeds, leaves and tree barks. The secret formula is said to have come to Luang Poh Yai, the visionary aunt of the abbot, in a dream.
Gulping water from a pail and violently expelling a plume of vomit elicits applause from the gaggle of spectators who are brought in to witness the wretched people fight their drugs at public "vomit shows".
Monks who take a daily dose to expel any toxins remaining in their bodies offer tips on the proper stance for projectile vomiting. Shoving fingers down the throat won't always speed the process. Knocking back copious amounts of water is better.
Most of the participants are Thai, but a growing proportion of the addicts are middle-class Europeans who have relapsed after gentler treatment back home.
Thamkrabok has no chemical crutches, night nurses, sleeping-tablets or guarantees. It does not require Aids tests, either.
Methadone addicts suffer immensely. Because the synthetic opiate has a longer half-life in the brain, it is more insidious than heroin. Nathalie, a 22-year-old from Sheffield who has been an addict since the age of 16, thrashed sleeplessly night after night, fighting off the sensation of worms writhing in her bone marrow.
One strapping Australian hooked on methadone once remained awake for 48 days straight, according to Phra Hans.
Rhythmic sweeping helped to soothe his jangled nerves, and now a "broom meditation" is incorporated in the programme.
Last week, five Britons turned up for the monastery's radical detox regime. Jet-lagged after a 13-hour flight, they must cope simultaneously with withdrawal symptoms and extreme culture shock.
Despite its picturesque backdrop, the monastery is built on a flyblown site wedged between pock-marked hills, a quarry and a teeming refugee camp where Hmong hill tribes from Laos have lived under armed guard for three generations.
Even though daily herbal steam baths and Thai massage are on offer to ease bodies racked by convulsions, by no stretch of the imagination can Wat Thamkrabok be described as a spa.
"At Bangkok airport, I noticed two guys on their way out," says Austin, a trembling addict from Yorkshire into his third day of rehab. "You could tell they were both on heroin. They spoke English and I was tempted to ask them where to score one last time. I was a bit shocked when we arrived," he confesses. "I thought it would be some majestic place in the mountains. There were all these chickens pecking around and lizards in the rooms."
The dormitories for foreigners have scrubbed tile floors and patched mosquito nets draped over the simple cots. No mobile phones are allowed.
The use of personal stereos is controversial. Music helps many to deal with the rigours of rehabilitation, but the more orthodox monks worry that music associated with past drug experience can create "a toxic womb" keeping reality at bay.
Feeling rough and seeing double, Austin says when he was offered a massage on his first day, he anticipated gentle caresses from the petite masseuse. Instead, the 29-year-old former Army cook was painfully thumped and poked.
"It felt great after she stopped, " he admits. "At the rehab place I went to before this one, by this time I was hurting a lot more than I am now. It must be herbs."
The rigorous detoxification process requires addicts to take the purgative elixir for the first five days. Alcoholics or opium addicts, who risk vomiting blood, are given black herbal pastilles instead.
The monastery's sexagenarian herbalist, Wala Yanghun, gathers fresh ingredients from the garden and brews the bitter black medicine in a vat.
Visitors who use the monastery steam baths in the afternoon drink a diluted tea made to the same formula. It tastes revolting, rather like castor oil churned with coffee grounds, pond scum and laced with Fisherman's Friend lozenges.
The outreach programme at Wat Thamkrabok took off in the early 60s, when opium addiction was becoming a widespread problem. Wandering hippies who completed the programme spread the word, and foreign addicts began to arrive.
Its popularity peaked in 1997, linked to a boom in methamphetamine addiction. More than 2000 desperate addicts requested help from the abbot to quit. Numbers have since dropped, but more than 400 people detoxed last year, and 125 have been through since this January.
Satja, the sacred vow of abstinence, is as much a key as the medicine, Phra Hans explains. If addicts treat it frivolously the monastery will not excuse them.
No second chances at detox are possible. Thamkrabok is not a clinic with a revolving door. After a week, the abbot dispenses a kahtah, a divine phrase that must be committed to memory and repeated in case of temptation. The holy paper is swallowed by the addict.
The Thamkrabok way stresses the importance of experiencing all the agonies of withdrawal. Through pain, the addicts can forge mental strength to figure out what drove them to seek oblivion in drugs or drink.
The recovering addict monks are kept busy realising the abbot's eccentric visions. They have built a 100-tonne water wheel that may eventually be put to use on Bangkok's canals, as well as a mammoth speedboat, which perches unfinished in the monastery grounds.
The bodies of the abbot's deceased siblings are now at rest inside hefty coffins and are embalmed in homemade fluid, which the monks must change regularly.
If Austin and his four British room-mates can endure the hardships of this brutal purge, and journey with their Thai colleagues through the paranoia and pain, their task is indeed heroic.