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Puking Myself Clean

After realizing with horror that I'd become a full-on opium fiend, I needed a private and cheap way to kick. The infamous "Thai puking rehab" turned out to be my best bet.

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A Wat Tham Krabok resident—having second thoughts? Photo via

By Steven Martin

09/13/12

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“You are going to suffer,” an old monk said to me upon my arrival at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery a couple of hours north of Bangkok, after I’d introduced myself as an opium addict.

Buddhist monasteries have traditionally acted as places of refuge. Wat Tham Krabok is no exception, but this particular wat (Thai for “Buddhist monastery”) goes above and beyond tradition. Here, under the auspices of monks, novices, and nuns in toga-like robes, you will find scores of recovering drug addicts from countries all over the globe, ready to take a particularly unpalatable cure involving five days of induced high-intensity vomiting.

I needed a way to get clean with as little attention and expense as possible, and the monastery on the edge of the jungle seemed the only way out.

The detox facility at Wat Tham Krabok had been founded specifically to treat opium addiction, but that was fifty years earlier, back when the vice was commonplace. Now, except for that one elderly monk, no one at the wat remembered ever having treated an opium habitué. He backed off from his initial pronouncement when he found that I had been heavily into it for only a few months. “We used to get addicts who had been smoking opium daily for ten or twenty years,” the old monk explained. “The local people used to complain that at night they could hear the addicts’ screams all the way into town.”

These were my unusual circumstances when I arrived at Wat Tham Krabok in November of 2007: After helping to report a story for the Asian edition of Time magazine in 2001, about how Chinese-style opium dens had somehow survived the 20th century in isolated, landlocked Laos, I had become a self-taught expert on opium paraphernalia. This in turn inspired curiosity as to how the relics were used, and I began experimenting with the drug—vaporizing opium in the traditional manner with a long bamboo pipe held over a glowing oil lamp while reclining on a woven grass mat. 

But after seven years of curious dabbling I had awoken from my pleasant dream and found myself a voracious opium fiend with a 30-pipe-a-day habit. My costly and time-consuming vice had left my editors bewildered and my bank account empty. I needed a way to get clean with as little attention and expense as possible, and the monastery on the edge of the jungle seemed the only way out. 

There were about fifty drug addicts in treatment at Wat Tham Krabok when I arrived, a handful of them foreigners like myself. The vast majority were Thai men who were there for methamphetamine; the Westerners were a mixed bag, both in gender and the habits which they were trying to kick. Among the Westerners, I was a standout not only for my anachronistic addiction, but for the fact that I was fluent in the local vernacular. Thus, despite having just arrived at the wat, I soon found myself acting as a liaison between the Thai monks and the Western addicts, many of whom had recently arrived in Thailand specifically to take the cure and were very much out of their element. My circumstances gave me some unique insight into the workings of the monastery and its unusual detox technique. 

The daily routine began before long dawn, when the ringing of an old schoolyard bell shattered the morning calm and almost invariably startled me out of some fevered dream. A bed and surroundings to which I have yet to become accustomed usually guarantee that I’ll be visited by nightmares, and coming off opium seemed to push my nocturnal musings to disturbing levels of intensity. Yet awakening to find myself at the wat didn’t exactly bring immediate feelings of reassurance. Here I was starting my first day of treatment, wearing a strange uniform in a strange place, and surrounded by strangers.

The first order of the day was sweeping. Crude bamboo brooms were handed out and dead leaves that had dropped from the wat’s many mango trees were swept into small piles. The task was carried out in the dark, and there was minimal talking among the fifty or so addicts taking part. This daily chore was of the sort that could be termed “mindless,” but it also afforded some time for self-reflection. We swept leaves for about half an hour, and then made offerings of burning incense sticks to a shrine containing the mortal remains of the monastery’s founding abbot. Whispering in the darkness, we all regrouped for morning calisthenics. 

Thai culture is by nature non-confrontational, but I noticed one of the monks carrying a yardstick-length bamboo stick just in case some persuasion was necessary. Still, for a place housing scores of young men coming off meth, the monastery had a surprisingly mellow vibe. The morning routine ended with roll call and a cup of bitter tea that was said to cleanse the blood of toxins. After breakfast, addicts who had already completed their initial five days of detox (which included the all-important vomiting cure) were grouped into working parties and led off to different corners of the monastery. For the newly arrived like myself, the midday hours were free, and this allowed me to get to know some my fellow addicts and the Thai staff.

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