Thai Monks Help Wean Addicts From Drugs
Tham Kra Bok is not your typical monastery. There are the expected Buddha statues, the incense-lit shrines and the communal chants of shaven-headed monks.
But the 200 Buddhist monks of this village “wat” (temple), 95 miles north of Bangkok, are preoccupied with more than meditation and the search for nirvana.
For 30 years, they have run a drug addiction center.
The monks claim their follow-up studies show 70% of those who stick to Tham Kra Bok’s grueling 30-day program remain drug-free two years later. However, there has been no independent research to confirm this.
“It’s quite simply the most efficient drug treatment center in the world,” says a New Zealand monk, one of four Westerners who have settled here.
In 1957, nine pilgrim monks founded Tham Kra Bok in a small cave nestled among limestone crags. Two years later, the Thai government outlawed opium, and increasing numbers of addicts came seeking help.
Since then, more than 70,000 have gone through the program.
Addicts come from all over. Junkies from Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum district line up to register along with sons of multimillionaires and even the occasional monk.
Hundreds of Hmong hill-tribe people, many who were given opium as babies to help them sleep better, come by bus from northern Thailand.
Both men and women seek help. Thais pay 50 to 70 baht (about $2 or $3) a day for basic expenses; foreigners are charged 100 baht ($4).
As the temple’s reputation spreads, heroin-addicted Westerners are arriving on the doorstep in increasing numbers--about 30 to 40 a year.
The treatment is simple, quick, cheap and, in the words of the monks, “20% physical, 80% spiritual.”
Before being shepherded into a long, narrow alleyway, new arrivals make a solemn vow never again to indulge in drugs.
Kneeling, they are given a brown, foul-smelling herbal mixture to drink. They then consume a pail of water.
As dozens of their peers chant, bang drums and shake symbols in a cacophonous concert, the addicts are seized by a violent fit of vomiting meant to purge drugs from the system.
They are then quickly ushered into private cells where they remain for the next four days, emerging only for the daily dreaded pilgrimage to what they call the vomitorium.
“Because the drugs are expelled so quickly from the body, you don’t see the kind of painful withdrawal symptoms that normally accompany going cold turkey,” said Peter, a German monk who was a heroin addict for 25 years before going straight at Tham Kra Bok.
After five days, the addicts are released into a communal compound and trips to the vomitorium are replaced by herbal steam bath sessions to sweat out any drug residue.
On the 10th day, they join work crews in the monastery’s maize fields. Twenty days later, after renewing a drug-free vow, they are released.
“The first five days expel the drugs from the system, the next five teach them they can get up, function and sleep without drugs, and the final 20 days show them they can even perform manual labor while straight,” explained one monk.
Those who sign on for the treatment must expect to stay the course. The few addicts who try to escape will be tracked down, if possible, and brought back to the monastery, where they will have to start the treatment again.
Underneath the ascetic exterior are some pretty tough, worldly monks. Among their ranks are several former addicts and traffickers, law enforcement officers, and even a former mercenary from New York.
Abbot Chamroon Parnchand was a narcotics police officer before donning a monk’s robe.
“Since many of us are former addicts, we’re living proof for the patients that the dictum ‘once a junkie always a junkie’ isn’t true,” said another monk.
“Only someone who has been on drugs can understand what these addicts are going through and counsel them.”
Western drug authorities, who often rely heavily on methadone to treat addicts, are skeptical about the program, but Asians have long been convinced of its success, and the monks are confident that Western drug experts can be won over.
Abbot Chamroon won the Magsaysay Prize--Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize--for his efforts, an achievement the monks regard as vindication of their treatment.
The monks’ aura stretches to the streets of Bangkok.
“When I go back, my old dealers won’t even look at me,” said Chris, a heroin addict. “They know I’ve been here, and they don’t want to break their Karma.”