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Kicking the Habit on Mount Purgatory
By Jason Gagliardi | Photos by Stephen Shaver*

Somewhere around the fifth or sixth projectile heave, I say a silent 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 eruption.
     “God help me,” gags Jean-Pierre, the Frenchman, clutching himself. Angry red track marks, some clearly recent, run along the worn-out veins on his arms. “I feel like I’m dying,’’ he moans.

*All photos taken at Thamkrabok Monastery, May 11, 2004.
     “Drink, drink,” urged the monk, holding a ladle to his lips. “Drink as much as you can. Come on now.’’ Coughing and spluttering, Jean-Pierre forces down the liquid, which scarcely has a pause to settle before departing violently — the way it came.
     This is Thamkrabok monastery, perhaps the world’s weirdest drug rehabilitation center: a quiet corner of Thailand where bodies are cleansed and spirits soothed through violent bouts of upchucking and gentle Buddhist ministrations. Five minutes earlier, we had each downed a glass of a vile brown concoction — “bouillon de ashtray,’’ as one of the monks 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 drinking a dozen shots of tequila in a row and you still don’t come close. When the first gut-wrenching spasm hits, I lean over the trough
built for this purpose and blow ballistic chunks. For the three foreigners and nine Thais situated in front of the trough — all manner of uppers and downers still in their systems — the effects are even more severe.
     “It is a very powerful substance,” Phra Hans, a serene Swiss monk, had explained earlier in the day. Phra Hans arrived at the temple four years ago while on a spiritual quest that had him studying parapsychology in the United States and living with shamans in the Amazon jungle.
     The recipe, comprising 108 herbs, barks, roots, leaves, and other arcane ingredients, is as closely guarded as the Coca-Cola formula and is known to only a handful of senior monks, including the monastery’s founder and abbot, Luangpaw Charoen Panchand. “It withdraws the poisons from the body,” says Phra Hans, who was never an addict himself.
“Detoxification means two things: to withdraw poisons from one’s body,
and also to withdraw
one’s soul from the ghetto of darkness.”
     Though the vomiting ritual garners the most attention, it’s only a part of the cure. Every new arrival at Thamkrabok begins by taking a “satja,” a sacred vow, to renounce drugs.
     “Detoxification means two things,” says Phra Hans. “To withdraw poisons from one’s body, and also to withdraw one’s soul from the ghetto of darkness. We differ from many Western treatments, in that we don’t encourage people to sit in a circle and talk about terrible things from their past. We believe one must be totally responsible for one’s actions and their consequences, and one must nourish the soul with what is good and full of light in thoughts, speech, and bodily actions. We try to address the reasons people take drugs in the first place — boredom, depression, existential longing.”
     Physical detoxification is only a start. “The client must confront himself in order to reorganize his life,” says Phra Hans. “Satja is the first basic tool, and it is very powerful.”
     “We also give them a mantra, sacred syllables called a kahtah, which they can make a part of themselves—a vow to depend only on themselves and holy things. When you speak it, good things grow like a tree. You speak it when you’re craving or tempted. And the third tool is meditation, to clear the mind and put a 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 is in touch with 60, half of whom are still clean.
     The daily routine at Thamkrabok is regimented, imposing order on lives where chaos previously reigned. The day is regulated by bells. The first rings at 5 a.m., waking the patients; they sweep until 6, when they’re free to read, wander the small compound (it’s unfenced, but they’re forbidden to leave) or meditate until breakfast at 9. Coupons are used for food; cash is not allowed. There is a mandatory
herbal steam bath at 2, followed by meditation, then satja for new arrivals, and more sweeping. At 5, the addicts kneel alongside the trough for projectile purging. After that, evening chanting with the 100 or so monks who live at the temple is optional. Throughout the day, patients sip a highly diluted tea version of the vomiting potion, to cleanse the liver and kidneys.
     Addicts stay for at least seven days and as long as a month. They pay only for food. Some, however, find they prefer the cloister to the outside world and stay on.
     Phra Jan, 43, is a Czech by birth who once held a senior-level position in the Luxembourg trade office. “Little did anyone know, until the end, that for years I was smoking heroin in my office every single day,’’ he says. “I had tried every clinic and cure. 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. People aren’t so gloomy.”
     There are no miracle cures to be found at Thamkrabok, he adds. “You don’t take the medicine and go home healed. That’s a fantasy. The main work is on the mind.’’
     Thamkrabok, 81 miles (130 kilometers) north of Bangkok in the Saraburi province, literally means “cave of those with something to say” (or “cave of the teaching”). It was nothing more than a series of guano-daubed chambers in the surrounding limestone karsts when it was settled in 1956 by Luangpaw Charoen, who had been wandering the forests on a pilgrimage. He was joined by his older brother, Luangpaw Chamroon, and a venerated aunt, Luangpaw Yai, who was held in such high esteem that she bore the title of senior monk. Yai was the abbot until her death in 1970, and she is still cherished as a figure of almost supernatural holiness.
     It was a family of accomplished herbalists: They developed their potion after a visit by a desperate opium addict, who told them he would stay until he died or was cured. Word quickly spread. In 1959, responding to a request from the government, which was concerned about the growing drug problem, the center was set up on army land near the caves. Many of the first patients were Hmong refugees from Laos who had fought for the US in the CIA’s “secret war’’ during the Vietnam conflict.
     In 1975, Luangpaw Chamroon won the Ramon Magsaysay peace award, Asia’s Nobel Prize, for his work fighting drug addiction, and the program began to receive publicity overseas. Chamroon died in 1999, but Charoen, 75, remains in sound health.
     According to Phra Hans, more than 100,000 patients have sought treatment at the monastery. “At one point,
we’d have 10 or 15 Westerners and as many as 200 Thais.’’ One can only wonder at the thought of vomiting sessions on such a grand scale.
     Almost two years ago, the Thaksin Shinawatra government declared a war on drugs, which saw more than 2,000 alleged dealers gunned down by masked men in what were widely believed to be extrajudicial executions. “Since then, many Thai addicts are scared to come,” says Phra Hans.
     A sweet-faced Thai girl sits near me at the trough; she’s trying to kick an addiction to Thailand’s scourge, the candy-colored meth tablets known as yaba (“crazy medicine”). “I’m scared,’’ she says over and over, like a mantra.
     She’s the last to finish vomiting. After 20 minutes, she still struggles to finish the bucket of water. Every last drop must be swallowed and regurgitated, even if it requires
fingers down the throat, to make sure all the medicine is removed from the stomach. Pain and diarrhea will otherwise ensue.
     When it’s over, I take a walk with Jean-Pierre and some of the other patients. We stroll up to a platform where a dizzying trio of towers stands, ringed by enormous seated Buddhas and two unfinished standing Buddhas at least 20 meters high. They were built after one of Luangpaw Charoen’s visions — the sprawling grounds are dotted with weird and wonderful constructions in varying states of completion, all based on the holy man’s dreams.
     As we arrive, the heavens open. It‘s a true tropical rain, big bullet drops. We are quickly soaked.
     “This feels good,” says Jean-Pierre as we walk back. It does. It feels like hope.  
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