Thamkrabok: The last resort for addicts

The Libertines' singer, Pete Doherty, has fled its brutal regime, but for many hardened drug users, the remote Thai monastery of Thamkrabok offers the only effective cure
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The Independent Online

Wat 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 dozen drug abusers who are staying here. The word "Winner" is spelled out hopefully in ancient Buddhist script on the shirtbacks of these addicts who are undergoing the world's most extreme - yet possibly most effective - drugs rehabilitation regime. Outside the monastery, many have long been written off as losers.

Wat 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 dozen drug abusers who are staying here. The word "Winner" is spelled out hopefully in ancient Buddhist script on the shirtbacks of these addicts who are undergoing the world's most extreme - yet possibly most effective - drugs rehabilitation regime. Outside the monastery, many have long been written off as losers.

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. While in the West, the vast majority of 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 managed to stay 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 the musician Pete Doherty, the self-destructive frontman of the Libertines punk thrash band, who earlier this month 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 own rehabilitation just two days before it was due to come to an end in order to give the angst-ridden guitarist "moral support".

Doherty surfaced briefly in Bangkok before jetting home, only to be arrested for reckless driving and possessing a flick knife. Worried about the health of their lead singer, the Libertines were forced to cancel performances at Glastonbury last weekend as well as at the Isle of Wight Festival. The band was recently rated the top indie group in Britain by NME magazine, and their new single is, rather prophetically, titled "Can't Stand Me Now".

"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."

Suffering withdrawal pains to the strains of a pop star howling out taunting heroin lyrics such as "The horse is brown/come on round" proved divisive for newcomers in the monastery's drug-treatment compound. All but one persisted with the rhythmic vomiting and herbal steam baths designed to accelerate the body's purification and ease withdrawal symptoms. The noisy celebrity in their midst was soon gone. His next stop would be a gig at Filthy McNasty's pub in London.

"When we lost the two English lads it was very disheartening," says Richard, an ex-convict from Leeds, who kicked his own £3,000-a-week "smack and crack habit" seven months ago and is now a monk at Thamkrabok. "It's just a waste. If this guy ever gets off heroin, he might be a superstar. His family and friends sent him here and he must have been trying to please them. You gotta truly believe in yourself, that 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. He was not ready for it. It is the toughest detox you will find, and I have tried them all."

Some 40 per cent of the monks here are former addicts who have stayed on at Thamkrabok to become ordained. With cigarettes dangling from their mouths, some look decidedly 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 that can be foraged locally. The secret formula is said to have come to Luang Poh Yai, the visionary aunt of the abbot, in a dream, and is administered free of charge to all comers. Gulping water from a pail, and violently expelling a great plume of vomit can elicit applause from the gaggles of spectators who are brought in to witness the wretched fight their drug demons 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. First-timers used to be encouraged to vomit to the accompaniment of drums, but silent sessions are now the norm. The mere sound of retching induces others to follow suit.

Most of the participants are Thais, but a growing proportion of the addicts are middle-class Europeans who have relapsed after gentler treatment at medical clinics back home. The National Health Service has even agreed to fund selected patients to attend the programme. At Thamkrabok there are no chemical crutches, no night nurses, no sleeping-tablets, no guarantees. No Aids tests are required, either. Methadone addicts suffer immensely. Because the synthetic opiate has a longer half-life in the brain, it's more insidious than heroin, with which it is often combined. Nathalie, a 22-year-old from Sheffield who has been an addict since the age of 16, told me how she thrashed sleeplessly night after night, fighting off the sensation of worms writhing in her bone marrow. Wandering off the premises is forbidden, as the highway to Bangkok is just 10 minutes walk away and illicit drug offers are plentiful, even before you reach the nearest village.

One strapping Australian hooked on methadone once remained awake for 48 days straight, according to Phra Hans. Rhythmic sweeping helped soothe his jangled nerves, and now a "broom meditation" is incorporated in the programme. If addicts are able to stand upright, they must rise at daybreak to sweep in unison.

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 hilltribes 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 in his third day of rehab. "You could tell they were both on heroin. You could smell it on them. They spoke English and I was tempted to ask them where to score one last time, before I came here to dry out.

"I was a bit shocked when we arrived," he confesses. "I thought it would be some majestic place in the mountains, and 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, because addicts must sever all ties with their drug-taking past. For the moment, the use of personal stereos is controversial. Music helps many people deal with the rigours of rehabilitation, but the more orthodox monks worry that music associated with past drug experience can create "a toxic womb" that keeps reality at bay. Bathing is accomplished with a jug of rainwater and a basic metal bowl.

Feeling rough and seeing double, Austin says that when he was offered a massage on his first day at the monastery, 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, though," he admits, "and by this time, at the rehab place I went to before this one, I was hurting a lot more than I am now. It must be the 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.

It was in the early Sixties that the outreach programme at Wat Thamkrabok took off, when opium addiction was becoming a widespread problem. Wandering hippies who completed the programme spread the word, and foreign addicts began to arrive unannounced. Its popularity peaked in 1997, linked to a boom in methamphetamine addiction. More than 2,000 desperate addicts requested help from the abbot to quit. Numbers have since dropped, but more than 400 people detoxed at the monastery last year, and 125 have passed through since January this year.

Sajta, the sacred vow of abstinence, is as much a key as the medicine, Phra Hans explains. If addicts treat it frivolously and go back on their promise, 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.

Unlike a classic 12-step programme, in which addicts place responsibility for their lives in a greater power, 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. Addicts are not encouraged to consider themselves victims, but must will themselves to be stronger than the substances they crave.

Phra Hans likens the detox programme at Thamkrabok to the epic journey of the hero. On his quest, a hero must seek out an alien place and humbly accept the help of strangers in order to return home transformed.

Well, if nothing else, Thamkrabok is quintessentially alien. Rather than meditate in quiet repose, the recovering addict monks are kept busy realising the abbot's eccentric visions. They have built a 100-ton 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. Towering statues of Buddha, elephant-headed sculptures, and outsize busts of the abbot's spectacle-wearing aunt are scattered about the grounds. The bodies of the abbot's deceased siblings are now at rest inside hefty coffins here, and are embalmed in homemade fluid, which the monks are required to change regularly.

If Austin and his four British roommates can endure the hardships of this brutal purge, and journey with their Thai colleagues through all the paranoia and the pain, their task is indeed heroic.

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