October 8, 2004
A Buddhist monastery in a quiet corner of Thailand has attracted 100,000 drug addicts from all over the world with a uniquely painful, vomit-inducing cure. Jason Gagliardi reports.
At about the fifth or sixth projectile heave, I say a silent, little prayer of thanks that I'm not really a drug addict in search of redemption. To my left and right, tortured souls hooked on everything from heroin to crack to methamphetamines are vomiting geysers, their gaunt frames wracked with each choking eruption.
"God help me," gags Jean-Pierre, a Frenchman, clutching his pale, slim body with bony arms. Strung along worn-out veins, like some hellish dotto- dot puzzle, are angry red track marks, some clearly recent.
"I feel like I'm dying," he moans. "Drink, drink," urges the browndraped Buddhist monk, holding a scoop of water to his lips.
Coughing and spluttering, Jean- Pierre forces down the liquid, which scarcely has pause to settle before departing violently.
This is Tham Krabok monastery, perhaps the world's weirdest drug rehabilitation centre; a quiet corner of Thailand where bodies are cleansed and spirits soothed through violent bouts of upchucking
It's a place that has gained a degree of international fame - not least since one of its success stories, erstwhile minor Britpop star Tim Arnold and his godmother June Brown (Dot Cotton of Eastenders) made a very public plea to drug-addled Pete Doherty of the Libertines to seek help there following his much publicised meltdown.
Five minutes earlier, we had each downed a glass of a vile, brown concoction - "bouillon de ashtray", as one of the monks so charmingly put it - then waited for nausea to arrive.
It doesn't take long. I feel the first queasy rumblings within less than a minute. Imagine doing a dozen shots of tequila in a row, and you still wouldn't come close. When the first gutwrenching spasm hits, I lean over the purpose-built trough, and blow ballistic chunks.
When the first gut-wrenching spasm hits, I lean over the purpose-built trough, and blow ballistic chunks.
For the three foreigners and nine Thais along the trough, whose bodies still flow with all manner of uppers and downers, the effects are even more severe. Some experience violent convulsions. Others look so drained they might expire at any moment.
"This is a very powerful substance," says Phra Hans, a serene, Swiss monk who came to the temple four years ago. The recipe, comprising 108 herbs, barks, roots, leaves and other ingredients, is known only to a handful of senior monks.
"It withdraws the poisons from the body," says Phra Hans, never an addict himself.
"In fact, more natural drugs, like heroin and cocaine, can be withdrawn from the system very quickly, within days, but synthetic things like methadone, amphetamines and valium take much longer."
As part of the regime, arrivals at Tham Krabok begin by taking a "Sajja", a sacred vow, to renounce drugs.
"Detoxification means two things," says Phra Hans. "To withdraw poisons from one's body, but also to withdraw one's soul from the ghetto of darkness. … We try to address the reasons people take drugs in the first place."
"Boredom, depression, existential longing," recites Arnold, checking them off on his fingers. "And lots more besides."
Arnold, 28, came to Tham Krabok last year in the grip of a crack habit. A week into the treatment, he found his mission in life when initiated into another of Tham Krabok's mysteries - an esoteric method of making music by transposing melodies from squiggly lines traced from cracks in rocks and earth, dreamed up by the abbot.
He now lives at the temple and has been spending time with Doherty, an old friend, who has recently set up a charity to help addicts who wish to visit the monastery, but can't afford the air fare.
After his heady Britpop days went wrong and he ended up broke, Arnold scrounged enough money to get to Tham Krabok. He felt at peace there, despite the intense physical shock of the monastery's detoxification program and the culture shock of cloistered monastery life.
"I had this weird feeling that I'd finally come home," he says. "I think part of it is because the monks treat you like a real human being. They give you the benefit of the doubt that you might be a good person. They don't meet you on the basis that you're a bad, naughty drug addict."
Clients are given a mantra and sacred syllables to speak when tempted. They are told meditation will "clear the mind and put balm on the soul". It's difficult to gauge long-term results, but Phra Hans says, of the 300 patients he's known in four years, he's still in touch with 60 - and half have remained clean.
The daily routine imposes order on lives where chaos reigned. A bell wakes the patients at 5am. They sweep until 6am, then they're free to read, wander the small compound (it's unfenced, but they're forbidden to leave) or meditate until breakfast at 9am. Coupons are used for food - cash is not allowed. The next mandatory activity is a herbal steam bath at 2pm, followed by meditation at 3pm, then Sajjas for new arrivals, and more sweeping. At 5pm, the addicts kneel along the trough and await the vomiting potion. Chanting at 6.30pm with the temple's 100 or more monks is optional. A bitter tea - a vastly watered-down version of the vomiting medicine - is sipped throughout the day to cleanse the liver and kidneys.
The minimum stay is 7 days, the maximum one month, and addicts need pay only for food. Some, however, find the cloistered existence preferable to a return to the outside world.
Phra Jan, an olive-skinned, handsome fellow, was born a Czech, but moved to Luxembourg, where he attained a senior position in the government's trade office.
"Little did anyone know that, for years, I was smoking heroin in my office every single day," he says. "I had tried every clinic and cure at home. Then I came here, and something changed. A year and a half ago, I was invited to become a monk. I would like to remain in Thailand. It's easier for me here."
There are no miracle cures, he adds. "You don't take the medicine and go home healed. That's a fantasy. The main work is on the mind."
Tham Krabok, 130 kilometres north of Bangkok in Saraburi province, means "cave of those with something to say". It was nothing more than a series of guano-daubed chambers in the surrounding limestone karsts when it was settled in 1956 by Luang Por Charoen, who had been wandering the forests on a pilgrimage. He was joined by his older brother, Chamroon, and a venerated aunt. The three were accomplished herbalists, and developed their vomiting potion after a visit by a desperate opium addict, who told them he would stay until he died or was cured.
In 1975, Chamroon won a major peace award for his work with addicts, and the program began to receive publicity overseas. Chamroon died in 1999, but Charoen, 75, remains in sound health. It's estimated that more than 100,000 patients have been treated, although local admissions have tailed off in the past two years, with addicts scared of being caught in the Government's much-vaunted "war on drugs" (widely believed to have included extrajudicial executions of some 2000 alleged dealers by mysterious, masked men.)
After the vomiting ordeal, I take a walk with Jean-Pierre, Andy and other patients. We stroll up to a platform ringed by enormous seated Buddhas. As we arrive, the heavens open. It's true tropical rain, big bullet drops. We are soon soaked, and walk back slowly.
"This feels good," says Jean-Pierre.
It does. It feels like hope.
To find out more about Tim Arnold's charity, visit www.tkbuk.com
|[Home] [Invitation] [In the Ring] [Library] [Five Precepts] [Directions] [Treatment] [Information] [Monastery Rules] [Tudong]|