Getting Clean @ The Hey

Posted on October 29, 2013


Thamkrabok Monastery is a unique institution run by a unique order of Buddhist monks and nuns. You will not find anything like it elsewhere in Thailand or the rest of the world. However, you must be aware and understand that Thamkrabok Monastery does not offer miracle cures.


Buddhist Approach to Addiction

Thamkrabok is a Buddhist temple in Thailand that offers a unique approach to addiction. The temple was founded in 1956 and began treating addicts in 1959. In the last decade, increasing numbers of westerners have sought help there. The in-patient treatment is offered for free, and it is possible to stay a minimum of 7 days to a maximum of 1 month. It is believed that over 100,000 people have undergone the addiction treatment at Thamkrabok to date. The name of the temple means Bamboo Cave in the Thai Language.

Admission to Thamkrabok Temple

The program is open to anyone who can make their own way to Thailand. During the admission process, the patient is required to hand over their passport as well as all their money. These valuables will then be put in a safe until the end of the treatment. Vouchers are issued and these can be used to buy things in the temple shop or restaurant. Communication with the outside world is restricted during the duration of the program. Mobile phones and computers are not allowed inside the treatment area.

The treatment at Thamkrabok is offered for free but it is usual for those attending to make a donation at the end of their stay. Once an individual has entered the program, they will be required to wear a red uniform and follow the rules of the temple. Although there is no attempt to convert attendees to Buddhism, a level of respect is still expected.

The Thamkrabok Sajja

The sajja is an important element of the treatment program at Thamkrabok. This is a vow to abstain from drugs or alcohol for life. It is taken in front of a senior monk on the first day of treatment. If the sajja is broken, it cannot be renewed. Those who return to addiction after attending Thamkrabok are not allowed to return. The monks claim that keeping the sajja will ensure that good things will happen in the future for those who have taken it. In Thailand, the vow is considered a serious commitment and many believe that breaking it leads to much suffering.

The fact that Thamkrabok does not offer second chances has been viewed positively and negatively by some in the recovery community. Many claim that it is a refreshing change from the revolving door policies of a lot of treatment facilities. If the addict knows that they can keep getting more chances, they might decide to make the most of the offer. There are some who worry that by not offering a second chance the temple is abandoning those who have failed.

Induced Vomiting to Treat Addiction

Induced vomiting has been used in the west to treat addicts as part of aversion therapy. At Thamkrabok, the goal is not aversion therapy but instead to speed along the detoxification process. There is also the claim that vomiting helps break down the addict’s defenses so that they are more willing to change.

Those undergoing treatment at the temple are expected to attend a vomiting ceremony for the first five evenings of their stay. The monks provide the herbal tonic that works as an emetic to induce vomiting. There is a lot of secrecy surrounding the exact ingredients of the medicine, but it is said to contain over a hundred different herbs. The mixture was discovered by one of the founders of the temple and all the ingredients are to be found in the nearby hills. Once the tonic is consumed, the patient is required to drink large amounts of water in order to speed along the vomiting process.

During the ceremony, the addicts kneel in front of a gutter as the monks walk around offering encouragement and assistance. There is a festive atmosphere with patients who have already completed the treatment singing inspiring temple songs. The ceremony lasts for about twenty minutes, and those who have taken the medicine will usually stop feeling the effects within an hour.

Meditation and Mantras

Meditation is taught at the temple in the hope that the addict will continue to practice the technique once they get home. Meditation is good for combating stress and so it can be extremely useful during the early months of recovery and beyond. High levels of concentration developed by practicing the technique can allow the individual to gain greater insights into their life and their problems.

As well as meditation classes, the patient is given a special mantra. This is written on rice paper and only the individual receiving it is allowed to know the exact words. Once they have memorized the mantra they are expected to swallow the paper as a symbolic gesture. These words can then be recited during times of high stress as a means to calm down the mind.

The Effectiveness of the Treatment Offered by Thamkrabok Temple

Finding exact figures for the success rate of Thamkrabok is difficult because of a lack of follow up documentation. There have been claims of high success rates but these figures are not yet been supported by enough evidence. In Thailand, there is not the expectation of rigorous scientific research to support claims for addiction treatment.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from ex-patients who claim to have benefited greatly from the temple. Some of these individuals have managed to stay free of drugs and alcohol for 20 years plus. Ex-patients tend to be passionate about the effectiveness of the temple, but more scientific evidence is required to add weight to this. At the moment, there are quantitative studies into the effectiveness of the temple.

Criticisms of Thamkrabok

A number of criticisms have been leveled against the Thamkrabok addiction treatment program. The main concern is the secrecy surrounding the ingredients of the vomiting medicine. In Thailand, it is enough that something appears to be working without the requirement to explain exactly why it is working. In a lot of other countries, there are legalities that would prevent the use of secret herbs in addiction treatment. It is unlikely that a similar facility would be allowed to operate in most western countries.

There have been some concerns expressed about the lack of aftercare provided to ex-patients of the temple. Staying sober in a Thai temple offers some protection against temptation, but this will disappear once the individual has returned home. These criticisms do have some merit, and the monks encourage patients to develop support networks as soon as they return to their home countries. This may involve joining a meditation group or even attending a 12 step fellowship.

The living conditions at the temple have been described as Spartan. The accommodation is simple, and there is not much entertainment provided to keep guests occupied. Some have gone as far as to describe Thamkrabok as the harshest treatment facility in the world. These criticisms seem less justified when it is remembered that this is a free treatment offered by monks who have decided to live a simple life. In fact, many of these monks are ex-addicts themselves.

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