Wat Thamkrabok thailand's extreme buddhist drug rehab

Generally speaking, the quality of addiction treatment has been steadily rising as the world comes to better understand the challenges of addiction. Yet this trend towards extravagance is by no means universal. One Thailand’s Buddhist drug rehab is standing out by sticking to tradition – a tradition that is as intriguing as it is uncompromising. Its no-nonsense approach, where everything old is indeed new again, attracts a steady stream of addicts searching desperately for a path to sobriety… however uncomfortable it might be.


The Methods of Wat Thamkrabok

North and slightly east of Bangkok, just past the frequently visited historical region of Ayutthaya, is the province of Saraburi. The province contains a rather special Wat (temple) known as Thamkrabok – run by Buddhist monks and nuns, yet famous (or infamous) as an alternative drug rehab centre (also known as “extreme rehab” and “vomit rehab”). Visitors are often struck by the cultural and religious beauty of the setting, yet this beauty hides a severe tradition of purification rituals that are increasingly at odds with commonly accepted forms of treatment.
Nevertheless, people suffering from substance addiction come from far and wide to put themselves through an austere programme of ‘cold turkey’ body purification in order to break the spell of addiction. Spartan living conditions, a total (but temporary) block on all movement and communication with the outside world, and an especially unpleasant herbal potion – about which more will be said later – are all par for the course.
Wat Thamkrabok monastery has been treating addicts for more than half a century, and prior experience has led the institution to develop strict rules for entry. Reading materials are allowed, as is a disposable camera; but all communication devices and outside clothes must be surrendered upon entry – and consumable items are forbidden unless they remain in their original packaging.

Living Conditions

Participants in the programme are issued a sleeping mat and blanket, and not allowed to leave their room for the first five days. The room is shared with up to thirty other addicts in the same programme, and no communication with the outside world is permitted during this period. The purpose is to cleanse the body of chemicals and toxins before the secondary treatment begins.
As might be expected from a Buddhist rehab temple where monks and nuns are in charge, meals are unspectacular and prepared in the local style. The food (and any extra beverages) are the only part of the programme that needs to be paid for; the entirety of the stay and treatment is otherwise free, although donations to the monastery are welcome.
Modern comforts at this Wat Thamkrabok monastery are few and far between, and people entering addiction treatment are encouraged to bring their own long socks (as a guard against mosquitoes) and an extra blanket or sheet for a better sleeping experience.

What to Expect from Wat ThamKrabok

Ten days after arrival, participants are expected to begin performing regular housekeeping duties around the monastery. These activities help to ensure that each person gets some exercise on a daily basis. Moreover, the monastery organizes late afternoon meditation sessions, to clear the mind. The monks and nuns begin their daily chanting rituals at 6:30pm, and guests are welcome to witness the ceremony.
Other regular activities include an herbal steam bath, to relax the body. Black herbal pills are also given as medicine, which can also help relax participants for improved sleep. So far, so good. But there is one little detail that we’ve been saving until now: The daily medicine.
Thailand monastery rehab aka Wat Tham Krabok

How Thailand’s Buddhist Drug Rehab “Cures” Addiction

There’s no getting around it: Thailand monastery rehab’s reputation, and the reason that perhaps 100,000 people worldwide have come here for addiction treatment, revolves around their secret formula for purging the body of its toxins.

Physical Detoxification - Vomit-Inducing Solution

Drink the mystery concoction together with a few bowls of tea-infused water, stick your finger down your throat, and vomit. This is the daily afternoon routine at Wat Thamkarbok monastery rehab, yet it isn’t as simple as it sounds. The mixture is so potent that it causes continuous vomiting for extended periods, as if to wake the body up from the nightmare of addiction.
This “vomit rehab” has a special outdoor drain for the purpose, and participants in the programme make full use of it. This type of ‘herbal detox’ is not entirely unique – other cultures have embraced similar methods to create a profound effect on the body, as with ayahuasca – though it presents a stark contrast from best addiction treatment practices according to Western medical standards.

Spiritual Purification - Taking a Vow

Other elements of this Buddhist rehab in Thailand likewise reflect its origins in tradition. Participants must take a Sajja (sacred vow), which aims to re-connect addicts with the force of their own willpower. To this end, a Katah (sacred word) is assigned to each participant – to focus the mind on, to meditate on, and to use for inspiration during difficult moments.
These central pillars of purification, and the regaining of one’s willpower, are combined alongside a daily routine of simple living and service work. Such an approach is informed by a distinctly Buddhist worldview, and while it is certainly not for everybody, many former addicts have credited Wat Thamkrabok with helping to turn their lives around.
Thailand's Buddhist rehab where monks and nuns are in charge

Pros & Cons of wat thamkrabok

Many people addicted to drugs or alcohol have lost a large part of their savings as a direct or indirect result of their addiction, and are scarcely able to pay for traditional high-quality treatment. The Thailand rehab monastery of Thamkrabok offers free treatment as well as accommodation (although food has to be paid for) – and this single fact alone makes it worth serious consideration for those who have few other options.
It is worth mentioning again that, as the monastery lives on alms, donations are encouraged.
The monastery’s unorthodox approach to treatment may also be appealing to some who have tried and failed with other attempts at rehab. While bare rooms, plain food, and continuous vomiting are not everybody’s cup of tea (so to speak), the truth is that people really are different, and certain treatment styles may resonate more with some people than with others.

Even if ultimately effective, however, few will enjoy the experience. Very strict rules, a lack of creature comforts, and generally mediocre living conditions make for a less-than-ideal stay. Moreover, as we discuss below, professionals in the field of addiction treatment fear that treatment of the kind given at this Buddhist rehab in Thailand may merely treat the face of addiction itself, rather than the underlying causes which created it in the first place. Such treatments are considered incomplete according to a modern understanding of addiction, as they open the door to an increased likelihood of relapse.

A side-by-side comparison of Buddhist rehab vs private rehab in Thailand can be illustrative of the different choices that these two disparate approaches represent.

 Buddhist RehabPrivate Rehab
AccommodationBare, minimalist, crowded roomsSingle and multiple occupancy rooms (possibly in a dorm)
Length of stayMinimum 7 daysMinimum 30 days
CostFree (plus food and donation)From $6,000 to $60,000 – depending on quality, location, and length of stay
Treatment modelIntensive purification techniques based on a Buddhist understanding of imbalanceCBT, 12-step programme, Therapeutic Community (TC) model, medical attention, and holistic therapy
Rules Austere; not based on the social / emotional needs of the participantsAllows personal freedom as long as it does not interfere with the likelihood of successful treatment
Peer supportFellow addicts provide moral support by cheering and singing spiritual songs during detoxificationGroup therapy, including AA / NA meetings
Supervisors The programme is administered by the monk and ex-addict assistantsTrained, certified and experienced addiction counsellors
SettingTraditional Buddhist templeIsolated locations, often with a natural backdrop
Detox processTime and emeticsCareful monitoring by certified professionals, over time

Traditional vs buddhist approaches to addiction

The most accepted model of addiction says that addiction is a disease. People suffering from addiction essentially have their brain processes hijacked and rerouted, making it very difficult for them to take back control from their addictive behaviour.
By contrast, Buddhism asserts that each of us is ultimately in control over our actions; what is needed is the determination to face your suffering and work through it. This belief within Buddhism is meant to apply generally, and was not specially developed to address the issue of addiction.
Wat Thamkrabok monastery in Saraburi

Is thailand's Buddhist Drug Rehab right for you?

Treatment at this monastery rehab in Thailand may be a viable option for people who:
  • Are comfortable with basic accommodation and amenities
  • Do not have a complex dual diagnosis which requires a multidisciplinary approach
  • Have no health complications that may require medical support
  • Have an addiction to opioids and stimulant drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamine
  • Tried and failed to get clean at several traditional rehab clinics (Wat Thamkrabok might be worth a shot)
  • Can’t afford treatment in a traditional residential setting, although here you will only get detox alone and no psychological therapy
  • Are ready and willing to change – the treatment only works if you are serious. The vow taken at Wat Thamkrabok is considered unbreakable; there are no ‘second chances’ given in case of failure

Final Thoughts on Buddhist Drug rehab

Although other elements exist, this Buddhist drug rehab in Thailand essentially offers a physical detox without directly addressing the underlying causes of addiction. The monastery’s approach to detox may work in some cases, if the participants bring sufficient determination and commitment to get clean. But it nevertheless fails to neutralise the psychological dependency that is at the heart of addiction. Even a successful detox may be vulnerable to relapse without follow-up therapy or peer support.

Despite these caveats, many who came to the extreme rehab for treatment insist that it saved them. The spiritual dimension added by the monastery’s Buddhist approach may have benefits akin to the ‘belief in a higher power’ that is a central pillar of the traditional approach taken by AA.

It is worth adding that this detox, though extremely uncomfortable, may be effective for those with an addiction to stimulant drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, or amphetamine. Coming off of these types of drugs only requires stabilisation – meaning that the emphasis should be on getting lots of sleep and regaining one’s appetite. Detox from central nervous system depressants such as alcohol, opioids (heroin or morphine), and Benzodiazepines (e.g. Valium, Temazepam) is not recommended with this method. Attempting the Wat Thamkrabok method in such cases could be very dangerous and even life-threatening, as detox from these substances require substitute drugs, which then need to be tapered off rather than forcing the addicted person to go cold turkey.
Cameron Brown
  1. “Classifying Drugs by Their Effect on the Central Nervous System.” Australian Government: Department of Health, www1.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/health-publicat.htm.
  2. “General Information about Wat Thamkrabok.” Wholehearted Living, hungryghostretreats.org/thamkrabok-assistance-and-recovery-advice/wat-thamkrabok-general-information/.
  3. “Wat Thamkrabok.” Official Wat Thamkrabok Homepage, wat-thamkrabok.org/.

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