The first time I heard of the Opium Pipe Monastery in Thailand I naively thought it must be something like the opium dens of the movies, full of deranged acolytes seeking some sort of drug induced spirituality. Wrong. In fact, I could not have been any further off base. It turns out the Opium Pipe Monastery is more of a slang name given by the backpacking budget travelers of Bangkok’s often traveled Khao San Road to a Buddhist temple complex that is properly named Wat Thamkrabok . Wat Thamkrabok, located about 100 miles north of Bangkok, got this moniker because of the unique treatment approach offered here specializing in opioid addiction although they also accept those battling problems with other drugs and alcohol.
While in Thailand about seven years ago I had the opportunity to visit Wat Thamkrabok and jumped at the chance. My preconception of a small monastery with a few quiet monks rapidly began to fade as I rode through the gates of this sprawling campus seemingly alive with temple construction projects. This mental picture I had made earlier was completely dispersed when I was boisterously greeted in English by an African-American in the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. This “Black Monk of Thamkrabok”, aka Gordon Baltimore of Harlem, a disillusioned and drug addicted veteran of the Vietnam War who found himself broke down and stranded at the entrance of the monastery over thirty years ago and never left, has become the official greeter to those seeking treatment.
The Black Monk explained to me that the drug treatment program had begun in response to the high number of addicts within the Hmong tribesman that had requested sanctuary at Thamkrabok after fleeing Vietnam during the war. The treatment has been formalized into a 30 day program that includes a ten day detoxification program that could be described as no less than a thorough purification. As those in Europe, Australia, and even America became aware of the draconian treatment method and high success rate of the monks of Thamkrabok, more and more outsiders began to find the monastery seeking treatment. Those that have taken advantage of the treatment here include Asian politicians, American lawyers and stock brokers, senior Islamic religious figures, and famous rock stars.
I found a dated and in my opinion exaggerated account of the treatment explained in a UK Guardian article about Pete Doherty, a famed British rocker and infamous heroin addict.
He then got a place at the world's toughest clinic, the Thamkrabok monastery in Thailand, with the help of the actress June Brown, alias Dot Cotton in EastEnders, whose godson, Tim, has been hooked on crack. There he faced a pitiless regime, including beatings with a bamboo cane and being forced to drink a black concoction of vile herbs that made him vomit throughout the day to rid his body of impurities. Gordon Baltimore, a former US Marine who runs the remote 784-acre centre, told one newspaper: 'For 30 days the patient is nothing but a robot. We push the button to decide when he eats and when he sleeps. Once someone starts his programme, the only way he can quit is when he's dead. The method of punishment is the bamboo stick.' Hardened heroin, opium and crack addicts can be heard wailing in pain at the clinic. They are made to sing the Thai national anthem every day, and tapes of chanting by Buddhist monks are piped through to their cells every night. They endure a diet of rice and water. Once a patient has overcome his addiction, he must sign a vow never to take drugs again. Doherty bolted before dawn on Day Three of his 10-day detox treatment and returned home…Notice in the story it suggests that Mr. Baltimore runs the place, I think the writer here is just a little confused because Gordon is about the only one of the monks who associates freely with guests and speaks fluent English. Also, while conditions are rather harsh, the comment about the bamboo stick torture and no escape but death is patently false and even belied in the same story by Doherty’s early departure from treatment. Rest assured though, treatment at Wat Thamkrabok is no cakewalk.
I am getting a little long-winded here though, so I suggest if you would like to learn more about Wat Thamkrabok you should go to their website here.It has some great pictures, really spells out the detoxification process in detail, and even gives instructions and directions for obtaining treatment. The site could be better designed… so make sure you look for the links at the bottom when you are navigating through the site, there are three main sections.