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Jesse Bercowetz Jesse Bercowetz

My Week at the Thailand Rehab With the Famous “Vomit Cure”

In the Thai foothills, amidst temples and giant sculptures of Buddha, monks have been treating hundreds of thousands of addiction cases for 55 years with a secret herbal purgative. An American artist shows and tells us what it looked—and tasted—like.

13 Substance

One of many giant sculptures made by the monks and the clients. Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

One of many giant sculptures the monks and clients make. All photos: Jesse Bercowetz

Arriving at Thailand’s Wat Thamkrabok Monastery and drug detoxification center, I am immediately confronted by an army of matte-black Buddhist sculptures several stories high, aglow with dark and creepy majesty. The figures gaze downward with drowsy pearl-white eyes, as if each icon is experiencing its own opiate-induced nod.

A gaunt nun in white linen welcomes me with an austere suspicion that needs but a fleeting elucidation on my part: I’m an artist from New York City. I’m also in recovery, the survivor of a two-decade battle with alcohol and drugs. Instead of stopping at bars and opium dens on my year-long trip through Southeast Asia, I’m checking out monasteries, spiritual communities and creative recovery methods. I hope to spend a few days at Thamkrabok and, well, volunteer.

Located some 80 miles north of Bangkok, Thamkrabok is renowned for its unique drug detox program that involves drinking a concoction made of over 100 secret herbal ingredients, causing fierce and unbridled vomiting. The herbal saunas, by contrast, are awesome.

Wat Thamkrabok Monastery was founded in 1957 by a Buddhist nun named Luangpaw Yaai and her two nephews, Luangpaw Chamroon and Luangpaw Charoen, both monks. In response to the Thai government’s introduction of a ban on opium possession that left tens of thousands of Thai addicts in the agony of withdrawal, the extraordinarily empowered Luangpor Yaai oversaw the development of the opiate detox program. Attracting other monks called to service, over time the multitasking monastics built temples, large-scale sculptures, houses and the now-legendary detox center, through which hundreds of thousands of people with addiction have passed. The throng eventually came to include some celebrities, such as musicians Pete Doherty, Christy Dignam and Tim Arnold. The rehab earned a global profile; it is still free of charge, although you have to pay for meals and other necessities.

I unload my gear. I am staying in a tiled room in a small building across from the outdoor laboratory, or open-air art studio. I have a mat on the floor for sleeping. Not too rustic for the region, I think to myself, but very bare bones.

Thamkrabok Monk and Detox client building a brick oven. I helped them guys build it. Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

A monk and client building a brick oven, aka “work meditation.”

A Thai monk promptly demonstrates for me the meaning of the program’s Buddhist-inspired “work meditation” by stacking, on the palm of my hands and up both forearms, one brick after another. He points toward a group of shirtless, tattooed monks and scrawny detox clients working intensely in the brutal heat—building an outdoor oven. I donate my token bricks to the effort; the crew is all vibrant eyes and tobacco-stained smiles. In retrospect I see that this was my introduction to the local recovery concept of “permanent creative activity”—brick laying, woodcutting, welding and other useful manual skills of benefit to both the worker and the monastery. The monks have a huge metal-casting foundry where their huge sculptures are made.

On my second day I spend time with Vince Cullen, a charter member of the Buddhist Recovery Network and longtime friend of the monastery. I met Vince while doing Internet research for my trip. As his visit to Thamkrabok coincided with mine, he gave me the grand tour and shared many crazy details of the place’s rich lore.

With some prodding from Vince I agree, on day three, to partake in the actual recovery ritual. This was not part of my original plan: I didn’t want to go through the purging, and I was a little suspicious of the concoction. But in the end I wanted to have the experience.

The ritual starts with a chanting ceremony called Sajja. I attempt to imitate the abbot’s Thai words to the best of my ability. I was advised not to sweat the details too much, but, in short, I am committing to complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol for the rest of my life: no 12 Steps, “one day at a time” or harm reduction, just straight-up renunciation. This ceremony is believed to afford you greater will power, crafting a firm bond with the “Beyond”—what Luangpaw Charoen, the former abbot, called “the whisper of God.”

The piece of paper I was given with mantra written on it (Kahtah) after I did the abstinence vow (Sajja).  I was told to memorize the mantra then eat the paper. Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

I was given this Kahtah with sacred syllables after my abstinence vow.

After the Sajja I receive a thin strip of paper with three sacred syllables written on it. A Buddhist monk conducts the ceremony in Thai, a European monk translates it, and Vince translates the European’s broken English: “This is the Kahtah, your personal mantra. Memorize it, then eat it.” I do as instructed, but not before snapping a photo with my smart phone, afraid my dyslexic-self would do a number on this spiritual ephemera.

By now it’s clear to me that I’ll be sticking around for my shot at the horrid elixir and public barfing. As a guest, I am not expected to drink and purge over the concrete drains of the detox compound, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence that the occasional tourist can peer through. Instead of this fishbowl environment, I get to do the cleansing ritual with the monks after their evening chanting. (Some monks do it as often as every day. I asked if a daily upchuck could have negative physical effects, or even be addictive, but the monks said that they experience it as cleansing and a genial social activity.) Tonight we will down the herbal purgative at a makeshift bar under the carport of a senior monk’s home.

The “bartender” that poured me a shot of the elixir at the open air “lounge” and vomitorium. He has the bottle in his hand. Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

The monk prepares to pour my shot of the herbal purgative.

The “bar tending” monk pours me a shot of the mulchy brown liquid. Abandoning my reportorial task, I chug-a-lug without even stopping to question, smell or taste. (This scenario is second nature to me as I’ve been an active alcoholic most of my life.) I’m not about to jeopardize my six years of sobriety, but I have little doubt that I am about to get a harsh reminder of what alcohol poisoning felt like.

I take a seat with the monks, who are watching the 1987 super-hero film Masters of the Universe on a flat screen mounted under the stars.

Exactly 20 minutes later I feel, uh, woozy.

Behind the open-air “lounge” is the vomitorium: a concrete trough and galvanized buckets of water. I drink my prescribed whole bucketful, and chase it with two more. A European monk demonstrates the gag process, expertly sticking four fingers, thumb and a little bit more down his throat. Behold the purge! I can hear through the thin wall the sound of someone cooking, an oddly calming sizzle noise that punctuates the violent retching of the Bihkku.

When my turn comes, there’s no holding back—that one little shot and the three buckets of water gush out of me like a New York City fire hydrant on an August day. It lasts about an hour and a few shades of green.

Cooking the 100 plus ingredients. This is the area and the pot that they cook the ingredients in to make the elixir. Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

The big pot holding the secret 100-plus-ingredient elixir as it cooks.

After pulling myself together—and catching the end of the swashbuckling movie—I receive a few pats on the back from my robed cronies and head down the mist-drawn road, winding through a canyon of howling dogs. Back to my mat.

The Thamkrabok philosophy is that its famed detoxification is only 5% of the recovery process; the other 95% is up to you, the addict, who must find new life goals that will keep you motivated to stay clean and sober. The rehab encourages you to seek out a recovery community back home. But you get no second chances. If you break the Sajja—and relapse—you forfeit your opportunity of returning to the monastery for another detox. This may be one reason that an astonishing 40% of the clients stay on to become monks or nuns.

There are other options for graduates of the detox program, mostly created over the past decade by Vince Cullen. “Before 2004, there was nothing,” he tells me. “This was always a big concern for me. I didn’t feel comfortable helping people get treatment at Thamkrabok without follow-up, like a long-term sober support group.” In 2004 he started a peer-led on-line program Friends of Thamkrabok Forum; in 2009, the Fifth Precept Sangha to teach “mindfulness for recovery”; and, in 2011, the first Hungry Ghost Recovery Retreat for deeper study and practice of  mindfulness (these retreats have also been held in the UK). Former detox client and Thamkrabok monk Julien Gryp directs the New Life Foundation, an after-care center in Northern Thailand founded in 2010 by a Belgian businessman, investor and aficionado of mindfulness; it offers three-month stays to two or three clients from the monastery each month.

Winking goodbye? Photo: Jesse Bercowetz

My sendoff from the great Buddha, complete with a sublime wink!

During my week-long stay, the monastery even hosts a huge festival with movies, carnival games and a Kathoey (transgender women) beauty pageant to raise funds. On the night before my departure, I sit on a bench at the foot of a giant sculpture of the Buddha. Next to me a couple of monks are busy scratching off Thailand’s version of Powerball tickets. For a moment, I ponder the seemingly infinite number of ways humans devise to get out of our selves.

Undoubtedly the creativity and physical labor involved in making sculptures are, as I know well from my own artwork, powerful forms of meditation, and homeopathic detoxification methods can pave the way for sober living. Yet I’m still not convinced of the staying power of such a vow as “never again.” As I look up at the pearl-white eyes of the gigantic ebony Buddha, this time I see a wink rather than a nod.

Jesse Bercowetz is an artist who lives in New York City. His work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and PS 1/MoMA and has been reviewed in The New York Times and ArtForum. He recently returned from Southeast Asia on a research grant from the Jerome Foundation.