A Toast to the Black Monk of Thamkrabok

By Dirk Hanson 04/25/11

For over 30 years, a charismatic Vietnam vet and mercenary named Gordon Baltimore helped hardcore addicts recover with a controversial regimen at a Thai monastery. A former heroin addict, he died last week at the age of 60.

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Gordon Baltimore: Felonious Monk.
Photo via bangkokpost

The treatments at Thamkrabok in Thailand have always been hardcore—days of purgatives and projectile vomiting and herbal saunas—a controversial form of rapid detox that is free to all comers, but certainly not for everyone. For decades, addicts from East and West have been trekking to the “Opium Pipe Monastery” to take the austere treatment. Once they arrived, they were often surprised to meet up with a big-boned, gregarious English speaker—an African American monk named Gordon Baltimore, better known as Phra Gordon, the “Black Monk of Thamkrabok.” Born in Harlem, Baltimore served in Vietnam, got addicted to heroin, and spent a decade working as a mercenary soldier throughout the world. After a near-death experience fighting in Namibia, Gordon found himself on the doorstep of the Thamkrabok monastery in Saraburi, Thailand, fixing a flat tire on his vehicle. He joined the temple on impulse, got clean, and stayed at the monastery for the next three decades, helping clients battle their addictions. “I’m not crazy,” Phra Gordon once said in an interview. “After Harlem and the life of a mercenary, this was the last stop for me.”

Phra Gordon died last week at the age of 60. The Fix asked someone who knew Gordon well—Paul Garrigan, author of Dead Drunk: Saving Myself From Alcoholism in a Thai Monastery —to expand a bit on this extraordinary former mercenary with the American accent. Phra Gordon worked the sauna area, Garrigan said. “Phra Gordon would use special plants and herbs to mix with the steam as these are believed to bring additional benefits. He was a permanent fixture at the sauna area and I don't know if he ever took a day off. He was always in a good mood. It was like he had found his place in life and felt no need to do anything else. Phra Gordon could make anyone laugh; even those of us still in the early stages of withdrawals. He was a big man with a lot of heart, and when I heard his past history of a soldier of fortune turned monk it was hard not to feel a little in awe of him.”

As for the treatment itself, Garrigan said: “The vomiting is part of the detox process and the aim is to speed things along.  I believe that there is more to it than just this though. It makes an addict teachable because it is hard to remain arrogant and in denial when you are vomiting into a gutter surrounded by a group of monks.” And Phra Gordon was there to make you smile at yourself. "After the war and all that, I got a feeling of peace," he said. Gordon Baltimore had found a home at last.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]