Excerpt from Travelers' Tales Thailand edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger
The Secrets of Tham Krabok
© Michael Buckley (1992)
Travel can be a form of escapism as addictive as drugs. The monks at Wat Tham Krabok seem to have an answer for both.
WAT THAM KRABOK, 7 A.M.: THIRTY YOUNG MEN ARE KNEELING in two long lines, heaving their guts into buckets. The sound of violent retching shatters the air. A motley crowd of monks and onlookers is banging drums and cheering them on. And why, you ask, cheering them on? Well, this all has a perfectly rational explanation: we’re spectators at the worlds most unorthodox - and successful - cold turkey program. It’s an awful way to start the day, but in this fifteen-minute session, Thai heroin addicts are given a vile brown Liquid that induces vomiting, and then consume a pail of water. The session is supposed to rid the body of toxins.
The secret potion is brewed from scores of wild plants that grow in the valley around the monastery; it also appears to contain nicotine, which acts as a harsh emetic. It is rumored among addicts that traces of the brown elixir stay in the body forever, and will kill the recipient if he or she ever touches hard drugs again.
The abbot of the monastery, Pra Chamroon Parnchand, claims he can wean any addict off a habit in an intense ten-day period; addicts often stay up to a month to consolidate their cure. Upon entering the monastery addicts make a commitment never to touch drugs again - the oath is written on rice paper and swallowed. This amounts to a religious vow: drug addiction, it has been suggested, is a spiritual thing, and requires a spiritual cure. For the first five days patients take herbal medicines; for the next five days they have steam baths, which ease aches and pains and lead to a feeling of cleanliness and well-being. They are given spiritual counseling to strengthen their resolve and abandon drug use. After this period, patients can opt to stay on - joining work crews to cultivate the monastery’s maize fields, or helping with other projects.
Pra Chamroon claims a phenomenal 70 percent success rate, based on follow-up research with clients interviewed two years after taking the treatment. If this is so, the rate is exponentially higher than any rehabilitation program in the West. To date, over 80.000 addicts have passed through the gates of the monastery.
Pra Chamroon is a living legend. In his twenties, he was a police officer with a family. His work involved highly dangerous detection and arrest cases - some of them undercover narcotics operations. Like the historical Buddha, he had a powerful vision of saving people from suffering; he turned his back on police work, left behind his wife and children, and disappeared into the jungle for a lengthy period. He decided to become a monk, but wasn’t interested in following an established Buddhist school. His aunt, Luang Poh Yai was his spiritual mentor.
Wat Tham Krabok lies in a valley midway between Lopburi and Saraburi, and 130 km from Bangkok. It can be reached on a daytrip from Lopburi. Tham Krabok means “Bamboo Cave” - in 1957, Luang Poh Yai, Pra Chamroon, and a few monks withdrew to a cave among the limestone crags behind the present monastery to meditate. In 1959, bowing to international pressure, the Thai government outlawed the use of opium. When two addicts approached the caves asking for treatment, Luang Poh Yai - an expert herbalist - recommended some medicines. The word spread that addicts were being cured at Tham Krabok, and buildings were put up to house patients and their relatives, with projects paid for entirely by donations. In 1975, Pra Chamroon won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Services for his work with addicts. Such is the reputation of the monastery nowadays that entire Hmong tribal villages from the north have arrived for the detox program, prompting opium barons to issue threats on Pra Chamroon’s life because of loss of “customers.” Other steady clients at the monastery are the “walking dead” - heroin addicts from the slums of Bangkok.
I got to try out the detox process - well, the more pleasant part of it: the herbal steam bath. The sauna is wood-fired, and heavily scented with lemongrass and morning glory. The fire was being stoked by Gordon, a black American who didn’t care to talk about his experiences, although he did let slip that he was a Vietnam War vet, and that he’d taken a lifetime vow to stay at the monastery. There are two sets of saunas at Tham Krabok - one for addicts, one for monks. Wrapped in a sarong, I spent a volcanic twenty minutes in the monks’ sauna - sweating like I’d never sweated before. But afterwards I felt terrific - renewed, invigorated, ready to take on the world.
In the afternoon I was adopted by the resident photo-monk, nicknamed “Aye” (pronounced “eh?” with a rising tone). Speaking in broken English, Aye did an admirable job of showing me around. He was in charge of a work-squad of rehabilitated addicts - so he conscripted me to help lug equipment up to a building site. When this task was completed, he decided to take me off to a vantage point in the hills to photograph the monastery. Or rather, he bounded over rubble and rocks like a mountain goat, leaving me behind - huffing and puffing and cursing, and scrambling for footholds on the steep rocks. At the top of this climb, I got a rude shock; we were standing on a pile of rocks that formed a precarious overhang - right over a huge cliff. He flourished his Nikon and started taking photos of the monastery far below, and indicated I should stand right on the edge of this rock-pile overhang so he could include me in the picture. What kind of crazy Monk is this? I thought, as he perched on the very edge to demonstrate.
I found out why Aye was so nimble-footed. The monks at Tham Krabok belong to a separate order; by Thai Buddhist standards, they are a radical group. One of the vows the monks here take is never, ever, to use any kind of transport - no bicycles, no roller-skates, no elephants, nothing - just a pair of feet. This promotes a tighter-knit community as monks have to think twice about walking off to Bangkok - 130 kilometers away - a trip of five days on foot, as opposed to three hours by bus. Wat Tham Krabok does have its own vehicles - but these are operated only by lay-people attached to the monastery.
Cameras, on the other hand, are permitted. Aye proudly showed me his high-tech photo and video equipment. Decorating walls of his humble room were large black-and-white prints of activities around the monastery - Aye had taken all the photos. This surprised me because Thai monks don’t paint, take photos, compose music or make videos - indulging in such creative self- expression is something that no Theravada monk is permitted in Thailand, because these pursuits are thought to be forms of craving. Nor do Thai Buddhist monks make statues or temple decorations - at Tham Krabok, however, it is the monks who cast huge Buddhas for shrines at the monastery. And the brown-robed monks at Tham Krabok are actively involved in all the building and farming projects around the monastery - producing their own rice, maize, peas, honey, and other foodstuffs. These practices run contrary to the Vinaya, the 2000-year-old code of conduct for Buddhists, which forbids heavy labor, such as tilling the soil.
Five percent of the addicts treated are female - the fact that monks at Tham Krabok deal directly with female addicts (often prostitutes) is another unorthodox procedure for Buddhism. In addition to the 200 monks, there are 20 nuns attached to the monastery and about 150 supporting lay people. At any time there can be up to 150 patients and relatives in residence (an average of 50 addicts a week pass through the program.)
Once a year, the monks of Tham Krabok go on “vacation” for a week, or maybe a month. Their idea of a holiday is very different from yours or mine. They go on foot, with a retinue of lay followers. Aye showed me photographs from one of these trips. Each monk shoulders a ten-kilogram (22-pound) white umbrella, which is used as a tent at night - the weight comes from a wooden staking pole, and from attached mosquito netting. The entire band of 200 monks and retinue carry their own supplies; at night the monks form a circle of umbrella-tents, light their lamps - and create their own village. This may sound like a camping trip but it’s not - the monks look at travel from a purely spiritual angle. Aye informed me that this walkabout is a kind of pilgrimage - to gain merit, and accumulate wisdom. Travel is limiting the comfort of the body to gain freedom of the mind.
I mention all this because it is my firm belief that travel involves experiences, not sights. Real travel is coming across people whose viewpoints are completely different from your own, finding out that you still have much in common, that you can communicate regardless - and that you can learn a lot. Travel is transformation - if the trip shook your ideas up, if the experience changed you, then the journey was a success.
From the addict’s point of view, it’s a very different kind of learning experience at Tham Krabok; how to regain confidence in body, mind, and soul. Peter, from West Germany, was addicted to heroin for 25 years before visiting Tham Krabok. He underwent a month-long session, was completely cured, became a monk, and has been at the monastery since.
How is it that the staff of Tham Krabok have succeeded in rehabilitating addicts where most Western programs have failed? I asked Peter if Tham Krabok’s methods could be applied elsewhere. No, he said - the secret herbal medicines cannot be exported because the abbot is afraid they will be misused. But that’s beside the point: most of the cure is counseling - it depends on the Thai reverence for monks. A monk plays the role of guard, nurse, and confidant - half the monks are ex-addicts. The monks use every trick in the book - peer pressure, pressure from relatives-in-residence, marriage counseling, spiritual counseling. Without the monks there is no cure, but the monks cannot travel to other countries because they cannot walk there - so the program remains at Tham Krabok. Westerners, if interested, simply have to go there: the week after my visit, 30 Australian addicts were on their way to the monastery.
Michael Buckley is a writer and photographer who lives part of the year in Vancouver, Canada, and is a frequent visitor to Southeast Asia. He is author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a comprehensive guidebook to Indochina (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006).
|[Home] [Invitation] [In the Ring] [Library] [Five Precepts] [Directions] [Treatment] [Information] [Monastery Rules] [Tudong]|